So, with the formal part done I can relax a little and just get to work with the donkeys from yesterday. Beautiful blue sky, sun, 23 degrees, shade of tree, training doesn’t get any more comfortable than this, sorry if you are reading this from a cold wet English November day.
I decide to work with the 3 unhandled donkeys, the dark brown mare, and the two grey mares in the photos. It seems they are most likely to benefit from some pleasant experiences. These donkeys are nervous, very fearful, scared and really have no value in humans, so not much of a starting point. Like all donkeys, these girls are great teachers, they really show the differences between individuals and the importance of listening to their individual needs as you train. Unfortunately it turns out these girls aren’t just unhandled, they have had some unsuccessful attempts at handling, which means that they are going to be harder to work with because they will have learnt how to avoid humans.
Environment is crucial to training and sometimes you find you aren’t in an ideal environment. Because these donkeys have so much fear they are going to run for a long time before they even think about considering any contact, so I start working in a smaller space which gives the donkeys less opportunities to run away. However, working in a pen 8ft x 8ft allows these girls some choice to tell me they don’t want to be near me, but means I am constantly in the kick zone. This is dangerous, there is nowhere to go and if you get it wrong it can be serious. Health and safety tip, don’t try this at home.
For me this serious risk means I have to work respectfully, listen to the animal carefully, and stretch the comfort zones below the need for the animal to kick. To work like this you also have to trust the true nature of equines. I am in a very small area, with an animal that could break my leg at least or kill me at worst. But the true nature of equines means that they are only going to be defensive and I am only going to be kicked if I get it wrong. Bottom line is, if I choose to work with an animal that is fearful then it is my fault if I get kicked, and these girls know how to kick.
These girls, none of whom have names, are great educators, they are all so different. The grey mares want me to work from their rump forwards and the brown mare prefers head back. The younger grey mare needs to be with the other older one. In moments of stress, she reaches under the larger mare as if to suckle, not something you see in donkeys other than in mares and foals, and just me being in the pen is stressful for all of them, so perhaps they are mother and foal. If these donkeys were at the Sanctuary in the UK then there would be time and staff to provide the training. Here the sheer numbers of donkeys and the limited resources mean there is not the time for training, so anything I can do to help start the process might just mean they have better chance of adoption.
Talking with people at this conference, it is clear that in the USA the donkey, is for many people, a source of ridicule and fun. In many states they are just considered vermin, and support for sanctuaries and rescue is very hard to come by. It seems that the beach donkeys in the UK create a much better image of the donkey that stays with us Brits for life.
It’s so hard, I want to help these three donkeys even more, but there is only so much you can do in a day and the fact that they are willing to accept me stroking them on the neck, withers, back, and giving them a scratch, it’s just amazing.
It’s such a short time and in only three or four 15 minute sessions they are showing so much improvement, given how fearful they are, it’s a tremendous testament to the donkeys’ stoic nature and their ability to be in the moment and to learn and to change. Sometimes we humans hang on to our fears and phobias for a lifetime, never ever getting over them, donkeys seldom have a choice but when faced with the situation that these three are today, they adapt, they learn, they grow and they accept much more readily than we humans do.
The dark bay and the larger grey donkey even show signs of starting to want human contact. In the early part of the afternoon they start to step towards me during our scratching sessions, just a head turn to start with and then half a step and then a full step towards me to try to encourage more mutual grooming. These are such tiny communications of the donkeys’ thoughts, but those participants of the symposium who are now watching really see it, they understand what a massive step this is for these donkeys. I decided that they have had enough for today, such huge improvements, to do more would be unjust to their kind and willing natures and maybe I have opened a tiny window of opportunity that when they get where they are going they might just give some other two legs a chance to get in and handle them. It is too easy to do too much and push them too far, so always quit early.
I’m then asked to work with a donkey that was living at a sanctuary, who has been bought for the hoof trimming demonstrations that are going on and yet he is only here to be companion to his friends because he has great difficulty picking up his feet. The difference with this donkey is that unfortunately, he is grossly obese, to give you an idea he represents the worst pictures that The Donkey Sanctuary ever shows on the great damage and welfare issues caused by obesity. Add to that a fear of having his feet touched and it is clear that his experience of human handling has taught him humans are to be avoided.
What a fabulous donkey, he’s got all of the methods of avoidance that he has learnt from humans. He pushes a little bit, he barges a little bit, he tries to pull away a bit, he rears a bit, he rears towards me, he leans on me, rears away from me, backs up and yes of course he kicks, those things are all really quite tiny and because I am only stretching his comfort zones a little bit they are very minimal, and when I don’t react, stay calm and quiet, bless him, his behaviour quickly subsides and looks for a new way to get rid of the retched two legs who clearly isn’t listening to his concerns about having his feet picked up.
I hear everything that he is saying, but if I can help him a bit to understand standing still and picking his feet up is actually an easier route to getting rid of annoying two legs and there is nothing to be feared, then maybe we can enhance his life. Instead of having to be caught and sedated every time for the hoof trimmer. He can just be caught, handled and have his feet trimmed like any normal donkey is capable of doing.
I am able to demonstrate to the participants how we can break down the behaviour using a shaping plan, to lots of small, safe lessons at home and because he is such a kind willing donkey I am able to show them what’s possible if you understand the science of behaviour and its practical application. Within 25 minutes of small short lessons, interspersed with me talking to the audience, answering questions, he learns to stand and accept having all four feet picked up. He is not completely convinced that it is a good idea, but I am able to show those small signs that donkeys give that allow everyone to understand this and hopefully take the lessons home to work with their donkeys or the donkeys that they care for in their rescue centres and charities.
As always it is the donkeys that are the true stars, they are the ones that deal with fears and phobias, the ones that have to figure out what we want and they make the best teachers. I could talk all day about behaviour but a 25 minute session watching a donkey overcome years of fears and phobias truly can’t be argued with, and yet again it is the donkey that I am working with that ultimately will hopefully help hundreds of other donkeys because now their owners understand them a little better and have a great deal more respect of the difficulties that the donkeys face.
My work here is nearly done and tomorrow I will tell you what I have learnt and the people I have met and what a tremendous few days this has been for The Donkey Sanctuary.