It is interesting in my travels around the UK that one of the most common things that people want to do when it comes to donkeys is feed them carrots.
It is an interesting concept and whether it is put into the psyche of us humans by the metaphor of the carrot and the stick or the donkeys' willingness to look miserable unless it is being fed, even donkeys that are overweight and need no additional nutrition are often supplied with copious amounts of carrots.
Those people running public farms who have donkeys that have access to the public report the continuous and ongoing problem of stopping members of the public overfeeding donkeys with carrots.
The humble carrot has many nutritional values but our donkeys' ancestors were creatures from the desert who survived very well without the succulent carrot on just high fibre, dry plants and vegetation they could gather during 15-18 kilometres of walking every day. That’s not to say carrots don’t have a good place in our keeping of donkeys and we use them in the following four ways at The Donkey Sanctuary:
- Environment enrichment.
- Concealment of tablets for sick donkeys to encourage them to take their medication.
- Grating carrots onto food to make it more palatable and encourage elderly donkeys to eat.
- Used as rewards in positive reinforcement training.
It is much more advantageous for our donkeys to use carrots in this way than just be given from the hand as a treat. While food itself doesn’t cause donkeys to learn to bite they are smart enough to train humans and if they think nibbling, nudging and biting is what brings their carrot rewards they are very capable of using their new found skills to extract carrots from the unsuspecting or uneducated into donkey behaviour.
The best use of carrots is through environmental enrichments, chopping into small suitable pieces, hiding them in the donkey’s environment or throwing them into pasture where donkeys might have to search for them, given as mental stimulation and activity that is not seen when we just feed carrots from the hand.
Vital safety tip about carrots; when feeding carrots to donkeys they must always be cut long ways not into rounds as this minimises the chance of the donkeys choking on carrots and one should never feed a whole carrot to a donkey.
We found that at The Donkey Sanctuary the use of positive reinforcement, i.e something that the animal will work for; such as scratches or carrots can be very motivating for our donkeys, far from being stubborn they are very willing to learn and capable of achieving all sorts of incredible feats given the right motivation. It is finding that motivation that is the key and donkeys learn quickly when they have a really good reason to learn something and carrots can be a really good reason to learn something if you are a donkey.
As with all food rewards, one has to be very careful about the levels of sugar that we might introduce into the donkey's diet through excessive feeding so therefore we tend to use carrots sparingly as a super value reward which maintains their motivation to work with us when we most commonly reward them with high fibre cubes or chopped chaff products, the addition of super value carrot in the mix keeps the donkeys interested and keen to work.
If you want to learn more about donkey behaviour, their willingness to work and how to use positive reinforcement then we run a series of free behavioural courses into donkey behaviour training and handling.