Volunteer Ross Hill gives a personal account of how donkeys improve human health and happiness, and unveils her ‘Donkey Five Ways to Wellbeing’.

I was asked to put something together on the impact of spending time with donkeys on human wellbeing, particularly as the subject of wellbeing is a specialism of my day job.

Anyway, today I was driving the familiar route down the M5 to Sidmouth for my first stint of volunteering of the new year when I had a brainwave. Why not combine the two? I have been working in wellbeing for the past five years and have been promoting Five Ways to Wellbeing in my presentations to hundreds of staff over the years – in fact my volunteering forms part of my Five Ways and I am a proud promoter of The Donkey Sanctuary.

The concept of wellbeing comprises two main elements: feeling good and functioning well. Feelings of happiness, contentment, enjoyment, curiosity and engagement are characteristic of someone who has a positive experience of their life. Equally important for wellbeing is our functioning in the world. Experiencing positive relationships, having some control over one’s life and having a sense of purpose are all important attributes of wellbeing. When considering these elements, the New Economics Foundation created The Five Ways to Wellbeing.

So here are my Donkey Five Ways to Wellbeing!

1. Connect

Whether you are a visitor, volunteer or member of staff, connecting is the lifeblood of the sanctuary. While humans can and do treat donkeys atrociously, on the whole donkeys like humans and they love interacting with us, whether it is them teasing us or us providing our favourite donkeys with grooming and petting services. As a volunteer I deal with the public a lot and I am struck by how many visitors say how restful, peaceful or therapeutic they view their connection with the donkeys.

2. Keep learning

Whether picking up random snippets of knowledge (eg how long a donkey lives, what donkeys eat, where donkeys come from etc) or attending formal training in donkey care and behaviour, one is constantly learning new things with donkeys. To quote a colleague, ‘we can never know everything and life is a learning journey’, and here at the sanctuary the donkeys are our tutors. They teach us patience, love, peace and how to be mindful – which brings me onto…

3. Take notice

Whether watching the donkeys in the field or being presented with a bum to scratch, donkeys are experts in encouraging us to practice mindfulness. The ability to shut out the hubbub of the modern world and concentrate on one thing is a skill we all have to relearn. When we are around donkeys, whether staff or public, we somehow find it easier to switch off the world and just concentrate on the big brown eyes, the velvety muzzle or the patiently waiting bum. Even when no donkey presents itself for attention, leaning on a fence watching them snoozing, enjoying a roll or playing ‘capture the collar’ are mindful activities, and we indulge ourselves in their relaxing activities.

4. Give

Without donations the sanctuary wouldn’t survive, but it’s not just money we talk about when referring to giving. I am often asked why I volunteer and the answer is always complicated. I started, like many, as an adopter. Then I progressed to a visitor and began making regular treks down the M5. I made a point of learning as much as possible about the sanctuary and its founder, Dr Svendsen, and the more I learned about the local and international work the more I wanted to help and be a more productive member of the organization. So I registered as a volunteer and this is my little bit of giving. As visitors, not only do you give money, whether as donations or in the shop or restaurant, but you give that rare commodity – love. The donkeys benefit from your attention, the stroking and scratching, and in their own equine way they give so much back to us humans.

5. Being active

Well, that’s a given. At Slade House Farm in Sidmouth alone there are about 45 acres of fields, paddocks, barns and formal walking routes. Whether we are pushing Nana in her wheelchair, roaming about alone or watching the kids run about, we are all enjoying exercise and fresh air without realising it. You can drift from Shelter 1 (visiting Walter, Timothy, Hannah and Cocoa) through 2, 3 and 4 (saying hello to Zena and Ashley on the way), then 5 and 6 where Millie the Mule hangs out, and then you notice you have been walking for maybe an hour; just strolling along pausing to talk to the donkeys as you go. For a roaming ‘troubleshooter’ volunteer, which is my remit, I can cover five or ten miles easily in a day, talking to the public, showing them around and walking the site.

So, weighing up the time I have spent at The Donkey Sanctuary – from doing the visitor thing to laying out candles for Candlelight; from guiding visitors to their adoption donkeys (or the restaurant, or the toilets!) to helping at events – I think I, like all of you, have been experiencing the Donkey Five Ways to Wellbeing.