Tewsday Herbert is a Relief Groom for The Donkey Sanctuary. She previously worked on the Sanctuary’s Farm, Town Barton where she specialised in mule behaviour. Earlier this year she spent time at our Sanctuary in Italy, Il Rifugio degli Asinelli, with another colleague Abi.
Mules, mountains and memories
Myself and Abi Knight were lucky enough to visit Il Rifugio degli Asinelli in July to help with behaviour training the Sanctuary's mules so they can be easily walked into the recently-built squeeze chute. The squeeze chute is a simple guiding lane which will help the team to comfortably handle their mules in a safe environment and administer vital care and veterinary procedures. As we all know, mules are incredibly intelligent and do not like to put themselves in danger (which is very sensible) so this was a task that required a lot of patience and a good understanding of mule behaviour.
When we arrived we were greeted by Marianna the Italian Farm Supervisor, who welcomed us with a double kiss on the cheek, Italian style. All the staff were so welcoming and willing to learn more about the fantastic mules they had in their care. Mules are incredible, and in my eyes, there is nothing more rewarding and emotional than those moments when you gain their trust. I experienced lots of these moments with the Italian mules.
They were all so curious to see two new faces and we spent the first day just getting to know them a little better. There are some key points to bear in mind when working with a mule for the first time. For example, just because you can get a head collar on, doesn't mean they are happy to feel the pressure on their nose. A few of the mules hadn't had head collars on for years or never, which is a whole different ball game and added a few more steps into the shaping plan to get them used to standing comfortably while pressure is applied to the head when the lead rope is pulled.
I felt a particular connection with one of the mules called Il Demo. He is an older stallion - we don't know his age for certain as he hasn't had his teeth looked at yet. Demo hadn't had much handling but didn't seem to have had too much trauma in his past as he very quickly learned to stand and have a head collar put on with the reward of lots of scratches. However, he was claustrophobic in the chute and, being a stallion, found it difficult to separate him from his herd. Demo required a lot of patience and tested me as a trainer, but in the end we came up with a strategy and shaping plan that worked for him. He was very rewarding to work with. Francesco, one of the Italian grooms, took a shine to him and it was wonderful to see the relationship between man and mule grow.
At the weekend, Abi and I took a break to visit the beautiful, ancient city of Oropa and enjoy some fabulous Italian food. We got a cable car higher up into the stunning mountains and as we walked along one of the footpaths we were thrilled to find......donkeys! There was a mother and her eight-month-old son, they looked in good condition and had a wonderful life up in the mountains with herd of cows, plenty of fresh running water and no flies!
The whole experience was fantastic and I am very privileged to have met some fabulous people and mules. Mule Power!