“Muleteers” and Equines Through History
The muleteer—in Greek, αγωγιάτης (agogiatis) or κυρατζής (kyratzis)—has historically served a vital function in Hydra Island’s transport: of goods, in the old days of large casks of wine (in askia), and of people, such as doctors visiting patients, government officials performing their duties, and so forth. Greek horsemen are skilled professionals, often having learned the trade from their fathers or other family members from a young age.
The drivers use mules and donkeys, as well as horses, in their work, and until the arrival of wagons and trucks in the 1930s, these animals provided the dominant mode of transport for both people and products. In Hydra, because the island is a protected national monument where all but a few essential vehicles (trucks to collect garbage and move extremely heavy loads, an ambulance) are banned, equines remain the main form of land transport even today.
In the past, for his services the muleteer (agogiatis) received a payment, called agoi (αγώϊ), set according to the route (στραθιά—strathia) and sometimes according to the weight of the goods transported. In those years, the agogiatis, usually a farmer himself, could in this way supplement his income from agriculture and earn a relatively good living. However the job of agogiatis is now included in the category of Greek traditional professions that are disappearing, and only intelligent governmental and municipal policies can ensure their survival.
Dramatic statistics show that this profession is under threat not only in Greece but in other Mediterranean countries, where motorized transport had replaced the use of equines across the board. The island of Hydra, however, has stood firm against this trend. By a decision of the municipal council, we have no private cars, lorries, buses, or motorbikes; even bicycles are banned within the town limits. Hydriotes conduct the vast majority of their land transport with mules, horses, and donkeys.
Despite the economic crisis and everyday problems, Hydra’s horsemen still work in a profession with a dignified past and have dreams for a promising future. The island of Hydra provides a unique model of human-animal interaction and sustainable development and serves as an example to the rest of the world.
In recent years Hydra’s local animal lovers’ association, HydraArk (Kivotos tis Ydras) has collaborated with the Municipality of Hydra, the Greek Animal Welfare Fund (GAWF), and Animal Action Greece to organize an annual visit by a team of equine care specialists (an equine vet, farrier, and dentist). On these occasions the island’s equine owners bring their animals to a convenient area for a free-of-charge general welfare examination and any needed treatment, according to veterinarian best practices. The vets also educate the owners in animal welfare and basic health-care procedures and techniques to better care for their animals. (For more info regarding Hydra’s equine welfare, visit http://www.hydraark.com/about-hydras-equines/.)
Hydriotes and muleteers have deep affection for their animals and consider them part of the family. Most of them have learned their trade from their fathers and have grown up among horses, mules, and donkeys as an integral part of their community. One of their major desires is the creation of a sun shelter for working equines in the port.
HydraArk and Animal Action Greece have worked hard on this project and are close to getting it done within the guidelines established by Hydra’s status as a protected architectural monument.Argyris is among the supporters of this initiative and has worked silently for it and more.
Equine owners in Hydra do not abuse, mistreat, or neglect their animals. These beings are not only close to their hearts but represent their livelihoods. They respect and care for them. In emergencies, they help each other and often bring vets from the mainland no matter the cost. In the off-season, they also often leave them to graze in the fields, and if water isn’t naturally available, owners bring it to them. Occasionally you will see that they are loosely tethered at the ankle to prevent their wandering off and getting lost and perhaps stranded.
If you see an animal that you think it is abused or mistreated, by all means, do report it to the police, who alone have responsibility for handling such situations. However, please do not listen blindly to rumors or gossip, spoken or on the Internet, that Hydriotes mistreat their equines. It’s simply not the case. The majority of Hydra’s horse and mule drivers don’t speak good English, and they don’t use the Internet. Because they don’t visit sites like Trip Advisor, they can’t stand up for themselves and oppose false accusations that they abuse their animals.
If you read such untruths on the Internet, please consider the source. So much on the web is a matter of marketing and competition—which translates to money, of course.