PETRA, Jordan — The princess is pleased, the horses are happy and even the tourists have stopped complaining.
Riding horseback through the rocky gorge guarding the ancient Nabatean city of Petra can be an enthralling introduction to Jordan's best-known tourist attraction.
But for years the visitors' pleasure was marred by the pitiful state of their skinny, arthritic, worm-ridden steeds.
Now a veterinary clinic funded by the British-based charity Brooke Hospital for Animals and run by the Agriculture Ministry is setting new health standards for more than 270 rental horses owned by villagers in Wadi Musa, just outside Petra.
"Some tourists refused to ride them because they looked so poor," said Princess Alia, King Hussein's eldest daughter and patron of the clinic, which opened in Petra last month.
"I was always nagging the owners about the horses," she said. "They were a bit hostile at first, but now the attitude is marvelous."
The 32-year-old princess, who manages the Royal Stables near Amman, said the first task was to rid the horses of worms. "They instantly looked better," she said. "They put on weight and their coats became glossier."
Ferrying tourists into Petra down the stony trail of the Siq, a rock fissure three quarters of a mile long with reddish cliffs rearing 300 feet on both sides, is tough on hoofs and joints.
"Mostly we see traumatic injuries due to the rough terrain," veterinarian Bassam Nasir said. "We get hoof infections, colic and seasonal diseases due to summer dust and winter damp.
"Sometimes horses get sores from poor saddles or from the chains across their noses. The owners say they need the chains to control the horses. Before the clinic opened they neglected small injuries, but now they come any time."
The horsemen were pleased with the stone-built clinic, water trough and shelters installed at a cost of about $60,000.
"It's excellent," said Hajj Asri Ahmed al-Hamdi, a wiry old man wearing traditional robe and headdress. "My horse wounded its head somehow and the doctor sees it every day."
Tourism Ministry officials, acting on the clinic's advice, have ordered the retirement of five horses too decrepit to work.
They are also trying to stop high-spirited owners from galloping their mounts recklessly through the narrow Siq, endangering the horses and startling timorous tourists.
An official now lurks on the dusty path to note the number of a speeding equine. Offenders are banned from work for a week.
The main complaint of the owners, many with large families to provide for, concerns the $6 fee the ministry lets them charge for the return trip into Petra.
How long has the fee remained the same? "Since the creation of the world," was Hamdi's somewhat theatrical reply.
"Since 1975. Before that it was half a dinar," said clinic administrator Mohammed Hilalat.
Inyazi Shabaan, director of the local office for tourism and antiquities, put the owners' earnings at about $120 a month--not counting constantly solicited tips.
"They are right to complain," he said. Describing the animal care project as a dream and challenge for horse owners, Shabaan said the next step is to build a water trough inside Petra and plant 200 fast-growing trees to shade man and beast.
"We used to get one or two complaints about the horses from tourists every day," he said. "Now this is very rare."
To cope with the task of re-shoeing each horse every six to eight weeks, the clinic has two full-time Jordanian blacksmiths.