Chencho Dema | Punakha

Chimi Om, 47, is a resident of Changyuel village in Punakha. Chimi grows rice and vegetables and looks after horses almost all day long these days. The horses, however, are not hers. She doesn’t own one. She is keeping guard of her fields.

With hundreds of horses straying in the Punakha valley, farmers like Chimi are angry with the highlanders who let their beast of burden roam free, often getting free rides on the fresh and tender spinach gardens. “Sometimes I feel like I am the owner as I have to keep my eyes on the horses,” Chimi says jokingly. But she often confronts the owners and makes them pay. “I fight with the highlanders almost every year, but I make them pay for my loss too.”

Chimi’s neighbor Sonam Choden said she gave up arguing with the Lunaps. “There is no purpose because I cannot continue to fight with them for so long. Tomorrow will be the same as today,” she said.

Many Punakha’s residents share similar events. The free-roaming animals cause traffic jams frequently besides straying into vegetable fields. Stench of fresh horse dung fills the air when the animals move in the herd. Police had recorded hit-and-run accidents involving animals. According to Punakha police, two horses were killed in 2022 and 2021. They said there could have been more as many incidents go unreported because owners sometimes have no idea what happened to their animals.

Two incidents of horses trespassing and damaging residents’ haystacks were reported to police in 2022. Most of the issues are mutually resolved after receiving compensation.

Highland horses in the lowland

Every late autumn or winter, the highlanders of Lunana migrate to Punakha with their horses to avoid the harsh winter. They spend the winter months in the warmer valleys of Punakha and Wangdue where they also let loose their animals to graze freely. Without designated pasturelands, the animals enter the fields causing problems to farmers.

While some residents willingly let the highlanders camp in their fields along with their animals for manure, many are not happy with the intrusion. Each highlander family comes with between seven and nine horses and stays in Punakha for about three months.

According to Lunana Gup Kaka, highlanders migrating to Punakha is an age-old norm.  He said he is aware of the problem. “It is challenging for the highlanders to keep track of the animals since there are too many horses to care for or monitor,” he said.

The gup said that highlanders are asked to take care of the horses every time they move down to Punakha. While there are conflicts, the horses must be brought down to the valley during winter because there is no pasture area available in Lunana for them to graze on.

After Cordyceps collection was legalized in 2004, the number of horses increased as highlanders could afford more horses. A good mule could cost between Nu 100,000 and Nu 150,000.

According to the Lunana Gup, there are about 500 to 600 horses in Punakha. In contrast, the Layaps’ horses are dispersed along the Punakha-Gasa route and some are in Gasa, but it is unknown how many are in Punakha.

Laya Gup Tshewang said there are currently no reports of Layap horses causing issues in Punakha.

A Lunap said that while they acknowledge the problem, not all horses are let loose without care. “Our horses stray into the fields, but we compensate for the damage,” he said.