Matheran’s graceful horses are struggling with distal limb injuries, tendinitis and bruising after MMRDA replaced its original mud paths with slipper clay paver blocks. mid-day visit the eco-sensitive zone where a community of 2,000 depends on this equestrian ecosystem for survival
mid-day spent a day with Dr Anil Lahane, who found alarming injuries in the legs of most of the horses that he examined at Matheran
- In the same hill station, though, a troubling scenario unfolds today
- Paver blocks threaten to disrupt the delicate balance of Matheran’s groundwater system
- Not just horses, even riders have been injured in falls resulting from the paver blocks
Even if you are not a travel enthusiast, Matheran is a name you’ve surely heard at some point or another. The tourist hotspot is renowned for the fact that there are no motor vehicles allowed within its limits, transport only limited to horseback, carriages and now the e-rickshaws.
In the same hill station, though, a troubling scenario unfolds today. More than half of the horses that have long been the loyal companions of tourists are now bearing the weight of deformities in their legs and backs. These magnificent creatures, known for their grace, are struggling due to the eco-friendly but unforgiving paver blocks that now line their paths, turning their once-surefooted strides into treacherous, uncertain steps.
As one ascends the charming trails of the historic hill station, one can’t help wonder if the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) might have inadvertently introduced a menace.
Continous walking on clay paver blocks is causing deformities, tendinitis (damage to tendons), abrasions, and bruising injuries in the horses. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
In a significant intervention in February this year, the Supreme Court has imposed a hold on the further installation of these paver blocks, casting a shadow of doubt on their suitability in this pristine environment. The apex court has entrusted the Matheran Eco-Sensitive Zone Monitoring Committee with the critical task of compiling a comprehensive report on an e-rickshaw pilot project.
Matheran currently has 460 horses, accompanied by an additional 200 ponies, that navigate through its picturesque landscapes. However, beneath the surface, the strains of a tough existence have begun to show. Earlier this month, mid-day accompanied Dr Anil Lahane, a distinguished equine veterinarian who has earlier worked with the Royal Western Indian Turf Club to Matheran.
Neglected and shuttered, the government veterinary clinic in Matheran fails to offer the essential care that these magnificent creatures deserve
Dr Lahane informs us about the intricate locomotor ballet performed by horses—where tendons, ligaments, joints, muscles, and hooves harmonize to form the very essence of equine grace. The challenging terrain of Matheran, with its steep slopes and serpentine turns, adds to the perils posed by the paver blocks. Continual exposure to these clay paver blocks leads to leg deformities, tendinitis, abrasions, and bruising injuries. These injuries, ranging from minor to life-threatening, have left a stark imprint on these magnificent creatures and their dedicated caretakers.
“In Matheran, I have observed that all 460 horses and an additional 200 ponies struggle with slippery footing on these clay paver blocks, causing excessive strain and resulting in damage to their distal limbs and significant back muscle pain. Horses require a firm foot grip (FFG), which can only be achieved on soft surfaces, reducing locomotor stress by up to 90 per cent,” he tells mid-day.
“Continous walking on clay paver blocks can lead to deformities in all four legs, tendinitis [damage to tendons], abrasions, and bruising injuries if they slip and fall on this hard surface. The severity of injuries depends on the side, manner, and location of the fall, ranging from minor injuries to life-threatening ones. Injuries can occur on both soft and hard surfaces, but treating hard surface injuries can be challenging, sometimes even impossible, especially if they involve head trauma or spinal injuries.”
In several spots, paver blocks have come loose, which further hurt the horses’ hooves, as well as become receptacles for rainwater, increasing the risk of accidents
Asha Kadam, president of the Sthanik Ashwapal Sanghtana concurs with Dr Lahane, saying that accidents involving horses have increased after the paver blocks were installed. “The livelihood of more than 95 per cent of the horse owners is dependent on the horses and so any injury to the horses has a direct impact on the overall income of the family. Horses forms a part of the ethos and heritage of the Matheran culture, but the paver blocks, which are inherently slippery in nature due to the prevalent climate in Matheran, pose a direct threat to this.
For the residents and tourists of Matheran, these paver blocks have unleashed a new menace—waterlogging. The once-charming pathways now give way to rivulets during heavy rain, creating an unexpected hazard. The concern is not just confined to the immediate terrain; it extends deep into the subterranean world. The paver blocks threaten to disrupt the delicate balance of Matheran’s groundwater system.
As the wheels of change turn relentlessly, the livelihoods of 350 ghodawala families and their 250 helpers hang in the balance. The introduction of e-rickshaws looms ominously on the horizon, casting a shadow over the future of these horses, ponies, and mules. The very creatures that have borne the burdens of Matheran for generations now face the threat of obsolescence.
Satish Nayak, Vikas Ranjane and Asha Kadam
“The lives of around 1,500 to 2,000 people, around 600 animals will be severely affected, as tourist and residents might shift to e-rickshaws considering them as a cheaper alternative. In their most trying financial times, ghodawalas spend a significant portion of their earnings—around R11,000 per horse—on fodder and horseshoes. Medical expenses and vaccinations add to this financial burden, sometimes reaching as high as Rs 15,000. The horses, more than just animals, are a lifeline, a source of sustenance, and the heartbeat of Matheran’s economy,” says Vikas Rajane, a horse owner and secretary of the Sthanik Ashwapal Sanghtana.
During our visit, we noted that several of the paver blocks had surrendered to the elements, creating gaps where unsuspecting horses might meet misfortune. Tripping over these gaps has led to injuries ranging from knees and hips to hernias and hydroceles, further deepening the financial woes of the ghodawalas. The plight of the horses has exposed another startling reality—the state of the government veterinary clinic in Matheran. Neglected and shuttered, it fails to offer essential care these magnificent creatures deserve.
Irfan Shaikh, a horse owner whose family has been in the business for over four decades, says, “Most of the time, there are no veterinarians available at the government veterinary clinic, forcing us to seek private veterinarians when our horses fall ill or are involved in accidents. We have written numerous letters to the authorities requesting basic veterinary facilities, but the authorities show little concern for the welfare of these animals.”
The neglect and apathy is particularly hurtful, says former jockey Satish Nayak, because Matheran has produced some of the best jockeys in the state. “This is because we start riding horses on our red mud roads from childhood. The decision to install hard paver blocks is something that requires serious reconsideration because it is detrimental to both the horses and the people who ride them. Not just horses, even riders have been injured in falls resulting from the paver blocks.”
Laxman Shingade, another horse owner, is still recovering from the blow of his horse, Sachin, getting injured last week. “Sachin was walking down a steep slope when he lost his footing on a paver block. He has sustained severe injuries to his front leg. Business has already been scarce, and now I have to bear the medical expenses as well,” says Shingade.
As the sun sets over Matheran’s lush hills, only questions linger in the air. And the loudest one is, why? Why, despite consistent and loud protests by the locals, has there been no definitive move to remove the paver blocks that have clearly done more harm than good? But the biggest question is the one that Shingade asks; one that has still not been answered. “Why were the tried and tested mud roads replaced with paver blocks in the first place?”