So I have these two oversized miniature donkeys named Jack and Jill (named by a child). Spending time with these two is a highlight of my days. Initially, I just sat with them singing, yep, “Jack and Jill went up a hill…” Since their experiences with people had not be that great, they were extremely cautious probably thinking about how badly I sing? As they grew stronger and healthier, it soon became apparent that Jill was the favorite in her previous home. I could touch Jill and brush her and she was just about the sweetest thing imaginable. And then there was Jack…
It was doubtful that Jack was handled much? As he became stronger, he was downright spooky! He didn’t hesitate to back (or side) kick at any danger he perceived/suspected! Brushing him was out of the question! I was lucky if I could touch him! I was more than a little worried being around him; I had SO MUCH to learn!
Over the course of the almost four years I’ve had these two donkeys, people have come into my life to help me help them. These people have appeared when I most needed their help to help my donkeys. And the lessons I’ve learned over these years have been invaluable in understanding not only equine body language but specifically how to train and interact with Jack.
I’ve trained both donkeys much like I train my dogs. I use learning theory which promotes positive reinforcement for complying with my requests. I was once told that I was giving the donkeys the option to comply; my response is that we ALL should have options in life! And I know, there will ALWAYS be something that causes them fear; being able to trust me was my best bet in training the donkeys to understand that I wouldn’t ask them to do more than they could do at any time. That I would keep them safe.
While Jack is still “frisky”, I seriously doubt he would ever intentionally hurt me. I’ve patterned certain behaviors with both donkeys that I have then generalized to other situations. Something as simple as “touch” when holding out my outstretched finger will earn them a reward and is a higher motivation than balking at whatever is being asked. It also conveys they are “safe” so it is okay to “move forwards”. And if they can “touch” with their noses, they can also learn to “touch” with their feet. I’ve used cheap mats to signify exactly where I want their feet to “touch”. This allows it to be their decision where to stand to get that treat. Training Jack to retrieve a ball… Okay, this IS a trick! Like with the dogs, it is good exercise for Jack who thoroughly enjoys this game! Trained through sequencing steps, I want that ball delivered to my outstretched hands. Anything less, now, does not earn that treat! The choice is up to Jack so Jack retrieves that ball to my hands! Did I mention donkeys are incredibly intelligent animals?
Coming when called… this is huge! I am NOT chasing two donkeys in my pasture who obviously can run faster than I can! Both come when I call because again, they are rewarded for this behavior! Walking on lead is also important. While many think the donkeys are “cute”, they outweigh me by more than double my weight! The LAST THING I want is to be taken for a drag! Walking is important but so is stopping. Again, they are reinforced for the word, “whoa”; both know it means to STOP!
Donkeys, in general, are incredibly smart animals. Given respect, they will give respect back. Like all equines, anything done on one side needs to be trained on the other side. This has to do with their eyes being on the sides of their head rather than in front; they see out of each eye differently so everything done needs to be trained twice to assimilate that even though it may look different to them, it really is the same regardless which side/eye they are seeing from. Who knew this? I certainly didn’t when I started learning about equine behavior!
We’ve continued to grow together over these last few years but after that first year, I realized just how far we had come. I decided to write a photo-journal book about our lives together that first year. Self-published, proceeds from the sale of my photo book have been donated to our local donkey rescue to help other donkeys find their forever homes. My book is available through Amazon.com with proceeds being donated to this wonderful organization to help all donkeys find a better life. If you’ve followed my story thus far, I invite you to check out my book! Donkeys are one of the most under-served, often neglected animals; each and every little bit will help that next donkey in more ways than you can imagine! THANK YOU IN ADVANCE!