Some of the donkeys at the donkey assisted therapy centres and at Slade House Farm are trained to draw carts.
Long reining and driving are great activities to provide enrichment for the donkeys as well being a very effective way to keep them physically and mentally fit so they can carry out their donkey assisted therapy work better.
We also train donkeys to demonstrate to our supporters the types of work that donkeys have to do internationally; where they often have to pull or carry heavy loads for long hours every day. Donkeys are intelligent and quick to learn so training them is a very rewarding process.
I take great pleasure in being able to pass on my knowledge and experience of harness fitting, long reining and carriage driving to the staff involved with training the donkeys. Last week we spent two enjoyable days refreshing the skills of the donkey assisted therapy teams and initiating some new members of staff.
We started by discussing how to select a suitable donkey for driving and how to begin the training process. It is very important that the harness fits comfortably and the first task was to assemble the harness and learn all the names of the different parts and how they come together to enable the donkey to pull the vehicle smoothly and safely. Weird names but essential functions for rosettes and blinkers, collars and pads, tugs, traces and breeching to name a few!
We then went on to learn how to train the donkey to long rein (when you walk behind the donkey) this teaches him the voice commands to “walk on, go left, go right and stand still” which gives you the communication and control you need once the carriage is attached to the donkey.
The method for holding the reins and using them to indicate direction accompanying the voice commands was simulated in the classroom using a “rein machine” I like to do this so that the common mistakes are not made with the actual donkeys.
Bart and Harry, two lovely donkeys from our donkey assisted therapy centre in Sidmouth were very patient while the harnessing took place and then everyone took a turn at long reining around the arena, practicing the voice commands so that the donkeys stopped and started when asked and moved in and out of cones making smooth changes of direction.
There was a hubbub of background noise as there were a number of visitors spectating this helped us to realise that a very clear voice command was necessary to enable to the donkeys to understand what was required. It was lovely to see their ears flicking back acknowledging what their driver was saying.
On the second day we had a recap session long reining before progressing to harnessing the cart and understanding how it should be fitted so that it does not put pressure on the donkey’s back.
At last they had learnt enough to try driving the donkeys. Bart and Harry had both been driven by their previous owner before they came to The Donkey Sanctuary, but credit should go to Alice who has worked hard training them to be patient and tolerant of having lots of different people harness them up, long rein and drive them.
A great deal had been learnt from the previous day and both drivers and donkeys were confident, we could see the amount of enrichment the donkeys got from working with us and there was a great sense of comradery and a definite team building element for the staff too.
Even if you don’t get as far as learning to long rein or drive, I feel that teaching any donkey some simple voice commands will help them to understand what is required when being led and handled in their day to day activities so do use your voice to ask the donkeys to “walk on” or “stand” and you will find that this extra level of communication will really help you to build a bond with your donkey.
Caron Whaley, Director of Donkey Assisted Therapy, said: "There was probably about a 100 years of driving expertise in the 'training team' so it was a wonderful opportunity to get some expert training and spend a very enjoyable two days working with donkey assisted therapy/farm staff learning a new skill. Thanks to all involved and brilliantly led by Annie and Maxine."