When I arrived at Dante’s pen this morning there was something wrong, fortunately not with Dante but rather with me. One of the biggest influences on equine behaviour is the mood and mindset of the person working with the animal. That is why it is so important to check yourself before you begin working. Sometimes the speed of life catches up with me, emails, work deadlines, training, etc, etc and you end up being distracted and “in your head” this is no good for the animal, the donkey has no concept that you are thinking about the work you haven’t done or what the boss said this morning, they are just reading your body language and trust what they read, tension, distraction and rushing are bad things to show to the animal you are working with especially if they have a behavioural problem like Dante’s.
So I have to take some time to ground myself, let go of all the pressures in my head, return to the moment and become much more mindful. I stop to take in the beautiful scene of donkeys and mules once neglected and mistreated now relaxed and safe at El Refugio. I feel the warmth of the early morning sun on my skin and all of a sudden those emails don’t seem so important. That done, I am ready to start work. We start right back at the start of the shaping plan, today is a new day and a lot can have happened since yesterday.
Walking up to the pen, good, no grumpy face, hands on the gate, no grumpy face, scratches, no grumpy face. This is just lovely, a calm relaxed Dante. Three seconds later a few half hearted nip attempts but nothing really. We work back up to the head collar, with no problem, still lots of scratches and rewards for calm relaxed behaviour.
When I reach the gate he pulls a few faces but relaxes and I open the gate, he is still calm and relaxed so I go in and what follows is just lovely - 20 minutes of scratches, we do a little moving over, backing up and then he lets me spend 10 minutes grooming him and we even give him a fresh clear new fly mask. All the small steps from yesterday have paid off and he is relaxed while I groom him. So much so I decide to take his head collar off before I leave the pen this morning.
Jill asks how do you know when to take that next step, like taking the collar off? The answer is you have to feel the time is right, you have to read the donkey and then quietly take the step. As I lower the head collar he calmly wanders off the other side of the paddock. This is just what you want, he has had enough of me, I have filled his need for human attention and he is looking for something else to do.
We give him the rest of his hay and he stays calm. This is a real feeling of helping him cope with life, it is amazing to feel the sensation of reaching across the divide of species and trying to reach out and understand and be understood. While he is eating his hay, I feel it is time for me to go into his paddock to clean up and muck out his stable. Because of the safety risk to staff it has not been possible to maintain the usual high standards, and it feels as though giving him a cleaner place to live is a little repayment for the learning he has been giving me.
Being in with him with no head collar is more of a worry in case he decides to try and lunge at me. But I needn’t worry. We shape the behaviour of me stepping out in to his paddock, he takes no notice so I get on with it, when he does walk towards me I take a deep breath and try to relax, he wanders off to another pile of hay and I realize that really I am not that important. Just as I like it, he is coping and dealing with all the changes. After the paddock I start on the stable - it is here I make a mistake.
I forget to go out and let him know it is me in there, and when he hears me, he comes into the stable to see what’s going on. Luckily Jill warns me he is coming so I am ready but trapped in the stable with Dante and no head collar. And now he decides now is the time to test the boundaries, this is normal. Each situation is different and he needs to know how I behave in every situation we encounter together. He pushes into me and throws a couple of bites in my direction. I stand my ground and Jill brings me his head collar. This change of environment and situation has him unsettled and his old behaviour reappears.
I lead him out in to the paddock and to his hay and he wanders off only to come back at me with his head up and ears back. I stand my ground again and give him my best Paddington Bear hard stare, it’s about as fierce as I get when I am training!
He wanders off and comes back harder. This continues for 3 or 4 minutes it is the hardest bit of our work so far, and is a result of me stretching his comfort zones too far in an attempt to provide him with a clean fresh paddock and bed.
Once he decides that I am not going to turn and run or reward him with scratches, he decides to wander off and get some more fresh hay that Felipe has brought for him. I can get back to cleaning out his stable and he only once wanders up to the stable, pokes his head around the open space where the door should be, but there isn’t one. He appears to think “Oh it’s only you”, then relaxes back to eating. For me this is brilliant, he has worked through his frustration and returned to calm very quickly, a real break through and a lovely feeling to leave him with a clean fresh stable and water trough.
We spend the rest of the day working with the Spanish team on understanding behaviour, as a platform to working with Dante when I am gone and a couple of other challenging residents. After some theory we head down to the donkeys and start working, not with Dante, but with Mari a little Shetland pony who has some catching problem and a fear of people. I had done a couple of sessions with her yesterday and she is responding really well. So I show the staff the practical application of the theory and Mari stands totally still for me to walk up to her and give her a great big lovely scratch, bless her.
Then it’s time for Lee the farm manager to have a go. This is a really difficult thing to do, not because Lee doesn’t have the skill to do it but because all the staff and me are watching, and who likes to be watched learning something new. Lee does brilliantly, shapes her behaviour and Mari’s ends up standing calmly. Whilst scratching her, we can put a plan in place to help Mari value people and want to be caught.
Next we go to see Cascabel a very large 5 year old mule who hates to be touched and squeals and spins around to kick when you do put your hands on her. I am beginning to think the staff here don’t like me and are trying to save the Sanctuary the cost of my flight home! However, after a few squeals, Cascabel figures out that I have scratches and she softens and we have a lovely few minutes together just connecting. Her behaviour is better than the staff have ever seen her.
Then as if to demonstrate you should never get complacent, I am distracted by a question, reach too far down her hind leg and in a split second she spins around and lets fly with both back feet at my head, but they say if a mule misses it is because they meant to and thankfully today she wanted to miss!
In a way it’s a great demonstration of everything I have been saying to the staff, small steps, stop on a positive, finish early, do not stretch the comfort zones to far, stay in the moment. Luckily, I also say if you make a mistake, and you will no matter how experienced you are, just calmly go back down the shaping plan and find an easier place to work. It does take me another 15 minutes to recover the trust I have just lost, but the true nature of equines allows her to work with me and we finish on a great note, more lovely scratches. Another lesson learned by me.
Then it is Dante’s turn. I continue to shape his behaviour while explaining the causes of his behaviour to the staff and how to work with him. I run through his whole shaping plan in a couple of minutes and go in with him - not a sign of a bite or nib. Sometimes it is really important for people to see what is possible in order to believe that change can happen. However, ultimately it is not about me and what I can do, it is about Dante and the team here at El Refugio, they are the ones who are going to be making a real difference to Dante over the next few months.
So again the brave Lee steps up and stretches her comfort zones. It is never easy in front of other people even if they are friends and colleagues. It is too easy to let worry of what people might think about us affect our interaction with the donkey. I guess there is a life lesson there too, “Live like no one’s watching”. We start all the way back at the beginning with Lee standing outside Dante’s gate, he has previously trained Lee and she knows he can bite so the history between them means they have to start their relationship again.
I am always conscious that it can be hard for other people to take over from me. The pressure they can put on themselves that they must do what Ben did. I reassure everyone that is never the case, we need to find a way that both donkey and human are comfortable to work with. I have just opened the door of possibility and now Lee is free to work in the way she needs, no matter how small the steps to build her confidence and Dante’s too.
Lee works really well with Dante. He is confused at first, he offers his old behaviours, grumpy face and then turn to be scratched. This is normal, even though he has learnt something different with me, the old history means it is natural for him to return to his old behaviour. Often people panic when this happens, but there is no need to worry, it is a natural part of learning and understanding that allows Lee to work quietly through the situation. Then the smart Dante begins to offer new behaviour - standing and being calm without the grumpy face, for a few seconds at first then for longer.
When he does snap at Lee in frustration because her behaviour has changed and she is not as easy to train as she was before, Lee goes with it and continues to work, something that is not easy to do but she does it really well. Great work Lee, well done.
We have a starting point, a direction. We know why he does what he does. We know what he is capable of. We have let Dante know that us two legs can be trained to give attention and scratches without him needing to show his grumpy face, and as he has had his need for contact and scratches filled he has become more relaxed and less interested in people.
I will continue to support the team here and answer their questions and we have a plan for moving forward and keeping his environment enriched and clean and then to introduce him back in to other donkeys.
I have enjoyed every moment of the two and half days, which seem like longer. It is easy to enjoy it looking back, but even the scary moments and the uncertainties make me feel alive somehow connected to life in this computer enhanced virtual world we often inhabit. But I do have to confess to feeling guilty.
You see I turn up in Spain, get to do what I love, work with donkeys, mules and horses and write about it. I just love learning and helping, I am lucky. However, it is Dante who has done all the hard work. He is the one who has changed his behaviour and controlled his desires to bite me. And the team here that now have the long and challenging task of stretching their comfort zones every day to help Dante, they and Dante are the heroes of the piece.
This is not the end of Dante’s story but the beginning of a new journey and I am sure that the fantastic team of staff at El Refugio del Burrito who care for Dante will keep us all updates with his progress.
Thank you to Lee for stretching those comfort zones, I know he is in safe hands and to Jill for her support and filming and photos, and big thank you to the supporters of The Donkeys Sanctuary who make all of this work possible, your donations and support have allowed us to help Dante, Mari and Cascabel , thank you.