Francis started attending our sanctuary in Leeds regularly when he was four years-old for donkey-assisted therapy. Francis has complex physical disabilities, and the sessions helped with his core body strength.

Originally, our programme only catered for children with additional needs, but over the years, the demand for a programme that could help adults and children with a wide range of emotional, psychological and cognitive needs became apparent to us. Consequently, we’ve developed a new programme for vulnerable children and adults - focusing on developing key life skills such as self-esteem, managing emotions and empathy.

Eighteen years later, twenty-two-year-old Francis has returned to the Leeds sanctuary, and thanks to the evolution of the programme, he is able to benefit from interactions with the donkeys on a completely new level.

Francis was initially unaware of what the new programme involved, and how it could help him. After a discussion with the team, Francis felt that he needed to work on his self-esteem, confidence and managing emotions, and the sessions began.

It is important to us that the donkeys also benefit from these interactive sessions, and we always watch their behaviour to help us understand how the donkey may be feeling. We allow the donkeys to choose whether they interact or not, and give them the freedom to exhibit their natural behaviour. When Francis was introduced to the donkeys, it was Irish born donkey Harbin who came forward. Harbin chose Francis, so the pair were matched up for each session thereafter.

The calm, non-judgmental, atmosphere at the centre helped Francis begin to open up about how he was feeling - through working with Harbin he was able to understand how the donkey’s behaviour and reactions related to his own.

Francis and Harbin during a donkey-assisted therapy session
Francis and Harbin with a donkey sanctuary staff member
Francis with donkey Harbin rolling in the background

Harbin expressed himself to Francis in a very vocal way. Cathryn Dixon, centre manager said: “When discussing the noises donkeys make, Harbin brayed right on cue and walked forward to Francis, which really struck a chord with him.”

Through various activities, the bond of trust and confidence naturally developed between the pair of them.  

During the eight-week programme - which is designed around a variety of life skills with each session building on from the last - staff observed a change in Francis, which seemed to encourage Harbin to get that bit closer to him each time.

While Francis was attending the sanctuary, he was also completing and handing in his final papers at Leeds University for his politics based degree (which he has now passed with First Class Honours!). The looming deadlines meant Francis was finding it difficult to control his emotions around working on his final university pieces. The mindfulness techniques and improved life skills he learnt when interacting with Harbin were great tools for Francis to apply away from the sanctuary to help with these ‘life’ pressures.

After completing his series of donkey facilitated learning sessions, Francis talked about his experience:

“It has helped to remind me not to panic or worry, due to the peacefulness of the donkeys, and worked wonders for my mental health - especially with the stresses of student life.

“Harbin has helped me to become aware of my emotions, and taught me that everything is relative and doesn’t have to be so fast paced. I would recommend donkey facilitated learning to as many people who can access it as possible.”


A designated member of staff monitors the donkeys participating in the programme constantly, as the donkeys’ wellbeing is highly important to us. Sami Hanlon, the equine coach who monitored Harbin, talks about how Harbin reacted during these sessions: “We found that he was very intrigued by Francis, at first standing away a little. When Francis began to speak about his feelings and his emotions changed, Harbin came closer, each time engaging with him, and then moving away when he was ready to.

“When Harbin and Francis were together, Harbin appeared relaxed. He seemed to join in with the mindfulness part of the sessions at the beginning, then becoming more animated as we went on. Francis would mention Harbin braying, and how it made him jump each time but would then laugh, and then right on cue, Harbin would let out a massive bray. This happened on numerous occasions, but I haven’t heard him bray quite as much with anyone else as he does when he is in Francis’s company!

“They appeared to have a true connection, and I’d go as far as saying even ‘banter’ between each other! It was wonderful to witness, and we’re so glad that we’ve been able to provide the opportunity for such a mutually beneficial experience to occur”.

Harbin was originally rescued from Ireland in December 2014, when he was abandoned along with seven other donkeys. He came over to the UK in 2014, and identified as an ideal donkey to join the team at the sanctuary in Leeds in 2015. He was friendly, inquisitive, and grooms thought he would benefit from taking part in the interaction sessions.

When Harbin is on the stable yard, he is usually found not far from Harrington’s side. Harrington is one of the other seven donkeys Harbin was rescued with, and although not officially a bonded pair, they appear to be quite close – often stood eating together, or snuggled in the straw snoozing together.

When not with Harrington, Harbin likes to follow staff and volunteers around seeking their attention – although his grooms are convinced that he is secretly trying to get anyone to feed him his tea early, as he does love his food!

Did you know you can adopt Harbin?

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