Newsflash: A donkey is not just a horse with long ears
It seems obvious (that a donkey is not just a horse with long ears)… and yet.
As an avid horse-rider since as far back as I can remember (which means it has been some 30 years, and now I feel like I’m a million years old), my first experience with donkeys dates back to the 90’s (yep, that didn’t help). At the barn where I learnt to ride, they had a big field used for occasional jumping lessons and the annual horseshow. On every other day of the year, it was the turf of three grey donkeys.
They seemed horsey enough.
It took living with Cleopatra, our gorgeous, fluffy, cuddly Miranda donkey, for me to start really understanding how different these two animals are.
Why horses are “easier” to work with
Horses are wired to run from danger, only putting up a fight when there are no other options. They are big, powerful, graceful, and fundamentally nervous. A sudden movement or loud noise will more often than not get their attention and make them jump, swerve, run, or at the very least stop what they are doing.
This can be inconvenient – for example if you’re about to jump over an obstacle and a bright umbrella pops open within your horse’s field of vision, the odds are you will continue on the expected itinerary, flying solo through the air, while your horse plants the brakes or takes a sharp turn away from the commotion.
It can also be an advantage. Imagine that your horse poked his head into the part of the stable that houses the grain because someone forgot to lock up properly. From far away, there is a decent chance that if you yell its name, the horse will jerk its head up and stop munching, at the very least.
Other tidbits about horses that make them relatively easy to train and work with:
- Horses move away from pressure
- They really, really want whatever treat you have in your pocket/hand, and will do whatever they can to get it
- A light slap will get their attention and feed into their learning curve
- Loud noises and big or sudden movements will get their attention, if not make them run in the opposite direction
- Horses are relatively predictable if you are paying attention (well, most of the time)
But… it must be said: horses tend to be much more delicate, too. They can easily hurt themselves or suffer from colic (gastrointestinal issues) which can be fatal.
A few ways in which donkeys are so very different
My starting point when two-year-old Cleo moved in and I wanted to begin lightly training her, was to assume that she would respond the same way to sticks and carrots (literal and figurative, respectively) as 99% of the horses I had come across in my decades of horse-riding.
I was wrong. So wrong.
I am extrapolating to all donkeys based on Cleo (and Ludwig van B, the much older working donkey who was with us from February to November last year before dying of old age), so excuse the gross overgeneralizations and lack of nuance as I share my initial learnings.
Donkeys are stoic if not unflappable, and they think about things. They like treats, but it feels as though they weigh their options before blindly doing whatever it takes to get them. While they are significantly smaller than many of their horse cousins (not sure that’s an accurate depiction of the family tree, but bear with me), that does not make them easier to move should they disagree with you on what should be happening or where they should be going/standing/doing.
They are also sturdy and resistant; as hardy as hardy gets.
Learnings from my early days training my donkey
Let’s be honest: Cleo is training me as much (if not more than) I am training her.
She is smart, proven by her ability to watch me open and close gates and learn to do the same (no joke). She knows when she is doing something wrong – but it seems that she weighs the pros and cons, and sometimes it’s worth chasing the goats for fun even if she isn’t meant to.
I have to be patient, because if I push or pull rather than convince her to work with me, I will lose the battle 95% of the time.
In other words, while being around horses for so many years has made me comfortable around and excited to own donkeys, that’s in many ways where the advantages end.
If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that Portuguese is not the only new language I am learning. So ever so slowly, I am trying to understand how Cleo’s world/brain works. How I can get her to not just like me as a source of brushing and treats, but respect me as someone she wants to work with. Ha.
Next, I’ll be reading a book my father-in-law got me on donkey training, and diving into clicker training. We’re also looking for a new companion for Cleo so that she feels less bored and lonely – though with Ludwig, she was so barnacle-like that it made her difficult if not impossible to train. That’s why I’m hoping to make decent progress before we find her a partner in crime to establish a better baseline of responsiveness. The clock is ticking.
I know it’s not about luck, but I’ll take any amount of the stuff you want to send my way.
Ps. If you have any resources to recommend specifically about donkeys (not horses or equines, though that can be useful too), I am all ears – pun intended.