Meet Rebekah. She is 26-years-old and has been with The Donkey Sanctuary since March 2018 on work experience.

Rebekah is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and Semantic Pragmatic Language Disorder, and recently took part in a session at our donkey-assisted therapy centre in Sidmouth.

The Donkey Sanctuary has been running these sessions, which facilitate human and animal interaction, for over 40 years.

Rebekah met two donkeys called Nibbler and Harry who have taken part in many sessions with both adults and children with a range of additional needs. Here’s how she got on...

"It is well known that donkeys are gentle and curious, as they take caution when meeting new people in new situations, but they are also patient animals. Donkeys can help by reducing stress and anxiety for people with additional needs by teaching them how to observe and understand the donkey’s needs. Human and animal interaction can be rewarding, as it includes a unique bond through non-verbal communication.

"Reese is an equine supporter, who observes the donkey’s welfare and behaviour and both he and Alice, the session facilitator, work together to support the people involved with the donkeys. During our session, one of the key areas I needed to remember was showing mindfulness, this includes no right or wrong answer. But for me, I believe it is to be observant to both donkey and your surroundings, as any sudden sounds or movement could disturb your bond building. Mindfulness also includes the five senses, sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell, and to describe them in detail.

"We began the session by standing in the field and observing Nibbler’s and Harry’s behaviours. From the distance, I noticed both Nibbler and Harry stood still and staring back with their ears forward. I felt Nibbler and Harry were both curious but unsure about approaching me because I was a stranger. However, this could also mean that they’re both interested and were waiting for me to respond.

"I then started walking towards Nibbler, he didn’t appear anxious and I felt aware of avoiding sudden movements that could frighten both him and Harry. As donkeys have blind spots, instead of being able to see what is in front, Nibbler and Harry can only see both sides, making verbal communication important, and best to approach them from the side and not from behind. This had taught me to be observant of both our behaviours, in terms of presenting a positive body language, and personal space."

"Near the end of our session, I was able to stroke and brush both donkeys. Their fur was soft and Nibbler and Harry were calm and happy with my presence. We both became trusting of each other, and began building a bonding connection. Nibbler allowed me to brush him, whereas Harry expressed his cheeky side by nudging my hand with the brush, and wanted me to brush his back. This helped my confidence and felt at ease with the donkeys. As we were leaving the field, Harry walked closely by my side, still wanting a scratch on his back and taught me that he has enjoyed my company.

"I felt that the session helped me with my autism by learning to trust myself to bond with Nibbler and Harry, as well as trusting them. While we were developing a give and take relationship, Nibbler and Harry helped me to feel calm and able to take my time to interact and bond.

"I have also learned that donkeys are gentle and patient animals, making them the perfect companions for people with additional needs. For both human and donkey, they achieve in helping each other and gain confidence, by taking their time to learn about personal space and building their trust. Another reason is because in order to reduce stress and anxiety, both donkey and human have to display a positive body language to show they’re safe to approach.

"Non-verbal communication has always been presented as a powerful tool. For both donkey and human, they can achieve happiness by learning together about the importance of human and animal interaction."