Donkey Training Part 1

I will be writing several donkey training posts in this blog, as I want to keep everyone updated on our animals’ progress and what we are doing to prepare them for DONKEYTREK 2015.

Charlie I have had since he was two, and he was packing and being ponied all sorts of strange places at a very young age. However, this summer he was put through his first parade as a miner’s donkey! This experience involved lots of other new equines, people in costume, sirens, honking horns, motorcycles, and kids running around! He even got painted by a bunch of middle schoolers. He did great! His biggest challenge was to stay still before the parade started.

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The other new thing Charlie was exposed to this year was the tarp. As funny as it seems, I had never really exposed him to tarps. He was near them when they covered his hay, and he could walk past them if they fluttered, but wearing one and stepping on one is an entirely different matter! Charlie allowed me to wrap him in it, although he was skeptical. I did have to actually manually place his feet on the tarp one by one as he was pretty unsure of stepping on it. Donkeys, unlike horses, freeze if they get frightened. So him freezing at the tarp let me know that he was greatly frightened by me asking him to step on it. This is a task I will continue to ask him to do and reward greatly using treats and verbal praise.

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Darlin has been a bit of an enigma to me. I once read an excellent article in a mule magazine talking about how longears may not act at all like they did at their previous owners’ house as they do when you get them home. In fact, it may seem as if their memories have been erased! Old owner says they can cross water, but now they baulk. Old owner says they are outgoing, and now they are shy. This is a common problem for many buyers of longears. It is because the donkey or mule now has to completely relearn how you want them to do things, as well as get comfortable and trusting in you as the owner and in their environment. For some, this may take years! Darlin is a prime example of this.

At her old home in Montana, where she was born and raised, she was crossing water fearlessly, bridges no problem, a forward (fast) mover, and very outgoing. When I met her at her Utah home, she was shy, reserved, and hard to get moving under saddle at all! When I got her home and took her out on her first trail ride, she fainted (fell full out to the ground) when I tightened her cinch. In a split second she was up again and seemed stunned. On longears we tighten the back cinch more than the front because of the way the saddle must balance. She had stopped breathing out of fear, and the tightening back cinch was the last straw! This of course frightened and startled me. So I took things slower, much slower. That was a valuable learning experience for me.

After the fainting incident, I would bring her to the trail head, unload her, and give her more time to look at her surroundings. I would give her treats when she stood patiently, and during the saddling process, which was done notch by notch, with lots of praise.

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Crossing water and bridges was very frightening also for Darlin, even though she had done it plenty in Montana. New home, new owner, the donkey becomes “new” to everything! It took many tries and lots of praise before Darlin would cross water with me aboard! here she is “checking in” with me to see if everything is all right before I asked her to cross a small stream.

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Next, we took Darlin “out on the town”. She got to be hand walked through the small town of Dolores. She experienced being tied to strange signs, meeting her reflection in a window, traffic cones, children (which she had never seen and therefore were frightening), and lots of traffic. She did really well!

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The one thing that Darlin really remembers well and enjoys doing is games with the tarp! Boy did she glow and show off when I brought it out!

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She wasn’t a big fan of plastic bags, and would run from them. With encouragement and praise and treat training, she finally allowed me to touch her all over her body with the bag and finally…..

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Raymond, who we have had the shortest amount of time, has already come a long way! He was hard to approach or halter and hard to pick up his feet. He was uncomfortable being touched on his face as well. He didn’t lead very well. In the short time we have had him, he now halters anywhere, picks up his feet for trimming, wears a pack saddle and panniers, goes into and out of the trailer, and has been walked in downtown Cortez!

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It helps the unsure donkey greatly if he or she has a leader donkey who is predictable in new situations. As prey animals, donkeys feed off of each others’ emotions and responses. They had to for many years in order to survive attacks from predators in the wild. Bringing Charlie, our “lead” donkey along with the two less trained pack donkeys helps them feel secure and calm. Being a grounded and calm handler is important to their feeling safe in new and potentially frightening situations. It is up to us to prepare them for any and all new stimuli that they might encounter on DONKEYTREK2015!

Stay tuned for updates!

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