On March 11, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked the Tohoku region of Japan. The earthquake and resulting tsunami killed more than 14,000 people, but humans weren’t the only ones affected by this disaster. Animals, including horses, have been struggling to survive after losing or becoming separated from their owners.
Local equestrians and rescue teams from around the world have been doing their best to help horses affected by the disaster. The Japan Equestrian Federation (JEF) and National Riding Club Association of Japan led a cooperative effort with local riding clubs to collect feed and fuel (for trucks and heaters) for horse facilities in need, since there were shortages of electricity and fuel in those initial weeks.
JEF cancelled all equestrian events through the end of March in the areas reliant on damaged eastern power plants, to avoid using power and fuel while both were still in short supply. Until April 10, organizers were asked to hold competitions at their discretion, but they have slowly resumed.
At The Epicenter
The Tohoku region, where the earthquake’s epicenter was located, is known to be one of the most agricultural areas in Japan. As is the case elsewhere in the world, most of the plowing is done by machinery, but there are still some farms that have horses, and a rich history of people living with horses remains.
There are also many historical festivals—to thank the horses, keep the culture alive, and live the history where the horses were once used both for work and war. There are also horses that are considered a “god’s blessing,” which live at shrines. Much of this historical culture was affected by the March 11 tragedy.
Iwate, one of the affected prefectures, is home to a public horse park, and also Tono Umanosato, one of the few facilities in Japan that breeds horses specifically for sport/leisure riding. (Most riding horses in Japan are Thoroughbreds.) It also is one of the few facilities on the main island that has a large pasture where horses are brought to graze during the summertime. The farm sustained minimal damage from the earthquake.
Each year, the facility hosts an auction of Japanese-bred horses, from yearlings to 4-year-olds, most bred at the facility. A recent successful horse is Harry Bay, a Selle Francais (Flo dela Gervaise—Artichaut) show jumper ridden by Daisuke Fukushima. The pair won the 2009 Roeser (Luxembourg) CSI** 1.30m class, a great achievement for a domestically bred horse.
In Sendai, the capital of Miyagi prefecture, Riding Club Sendai Kaigan-Koen suffered extensive damage. The stable, located near the seaside, was one of 29 around Japan that belong to the Riding Club Crane group. It housed 55 horses at the time the tsunami hit—seven died in the disaster and 11 are still missing. (Fortunately, all of the human staff, as well as the clients who were on-site, were safe.) Staff members scrambled to rescue the 36 horses out of 55 that survived (final reported number as of April 9), evacuating them to another riding facility in the Sendai area to check their health and provide feed right after the disaster. Riding Club Crane has said that they will care for these horses for the rest of their lives.
At Natori Jobaen Bell Seaside Farm, located in Natori, the whole stable was swept away and 39 horses and three dogs lost their lives. One staff member is still missing, but the two horses that survived helped the rest of the team to keep their spirits up. They are now looking towards the future and have started to look for a new location away from the ocean to start a stable once again.
Ongoing Concerns In Fukushima
It’s not just the areas damaged by the earthquake and tsunami that are having an extremely tough time since March 11, however. Horses in Fukushima have been drastically affected by the ongoing nuclear plant disaster. Soma is the home of Soma Nomaoi, a traditional festival that has been held for more than a millennium. The event includes a parade in samurai armor and an armored horse race. It also includes a cultural ritual where horses are chased into the shrine’s property, and the first horse caught becomes the horse that is dedicated to the god. The annual event occurs every July 23 -25.
The horses that participate in this event come from cities around Soma, and there have been over 1,000 horses participating at one time, of which approximately 400 were kept in Soma. About two-thirds of these horses were kept near the seaside, so most were swept away in the tsunami. Most of the remaining horses were within the evacuation zone around the nuclear power plant, so many owners had to leave their horses to starve, or let them out of their stalls to be free.
Veterinarian Shinobu Murata was one of the first to enter the disaster areas with her search and rescue dog. She has been treating injured horses, arranging horse transport and bringing in supplies. As she moved to the Soma area, she was awestruck.
“An earthquake and tsunami are natural disasters, so we can at least feel that it could not have been avoided. But the animals left to roam around or starve should not have been in that position. This is a disaster created by humans. The owners did not leave them because they wanted to; it was unavoidable. After all, they could not have taken them to the temporary housing. ” At the time, she went into Soma with a trailer full of human supplies and came back out with the horses.
Another group working in Soma is the Retired Horse Association. They are a non-profit group that fosters and provides retirement homes for horses, and set up a website to collect information on horses and owners so they could figure out the best way to assist them. They have helped rescue horses, provided feed and medical assistance, helped to find new owners for homeless horses, and acted as a bridge to temporary stabling. The group also coordinated with local government officials.
The horses rescued by the RHA are currently housed at a stable in an area that was not badly damaged. Going forward, the plan is to help people who need to sell their horses find a buyer, continue feed and medical assistance, provide financial aid for transportation, find areas for temporary housing when and if the evacuation zone becomes larger, and create a sanctuary for those horses that have nowhere else to go.
“Japan is experiencing extremely tough times. It is right that help goes to people, considering the damages. Horses must be taken care of by people who love them,” said Megumi Kato of the RHA. “The Japanese are trying hard, but it is inevitable that people come first. To all that love horses and other animals, we need you. Please help us.”
Japan is a small country, where horsekeeping is very expensive. But it does not matter where people are from; horse lovers are horse lovers. This is going to be an ongoing struggle. Help is needed, for the people who lost horses and facilities, or for the horses that survive and are suffering.