Donkey Care Interview with Michelle Aguilera – Stone House Mini Donkeys
Last week, I spoke to Michelle Aguilera who is behind the “Stone House Mini Donkeys” Instagram account. The interview focused on how she became a donkey owner, and insights around donkey care.
A few years ago, Michelle and her husband of 24 years decided to move from Charleston to Oregon with their three kids. The reason behind the move was a desire to spend more time outside. They had family there, and were looking forward to living in a climate they considered more appealing (the “less bugs” thing was a definite bonus).
They now live on a farm 15min away from a very small town. Michelle is a full-time mom, and takes care of their homestead tribe which includes 1 goat, 2 cats, 3 dogs, and 10 donkeys with another 2 on the way!
How donkeys came into her life
Michelle always loved the idea of living on a farm and having equines, but harbours a healthy fear (she used the word “terrified”) of horses.
Then, she discovered mini donkeys at the Oregon State Fair. It was love at first sight. She had no way of knowing what a deep connection she would have with these animals.
It all started with two mini donkeys. They made her want to be outside all the time as she really enjoyed spending time with them and discovering their personalities.
Then, Michelle decided to look into getting a standard donkey, and came across the Bureau of Land Management. They had donkeys coming up for auction at the State Fair, so she took the dive. That brought Willow the wild burro into her life (more about that below).
As the farm has a big barn, Michelle decided to get a few more donkeys. She looked up breeders and also kept an eye on Craig’s List (isn’t that incredible? I never would have thought to do that!).
Eventually, they got a jack (male donkey) – and in spite of all the rumours about jacks being mean and dangerous, theirs is gentle and loving (more about that below too).
That brings us to the current situation: Michelle has a little herd of mostly minis, with baby donkeys due any day (one was even born between when we spoke and when this got published!).
The donkey setup
The farm has a big barn connected to two pastures, and they are building a third so they can better implement rotational grazing by moving the donkeys around to give pastures a break and time to be reseeded. Each pasture has a 3-sided outbuilding – but in Michelle’s experience, the donkeys prefer being outside, even in the snow!
The goat is out with the donkeys, too. In fact, he and the Great Pyrenees dog are best friends. They play together all day and sleep together.
Having had some issues with wild cougars (they lost their second goat to one), now their Great Pyrenees dog lives in one of the pastures and Willow the wild burro is always in the other. Thanks to that, there haven’t even been cougar sightings in the past two years.
They also have two corrals, that they can use for example to keep soon-to-be-mothers or mothers and foals separate from the rest. One is connected to a dry lot made of sand. That gives them the option of moving donkeys who are overfeeding and getting plump to a healthier food-free area during the day, to avoid them overgrazing.
New donkeys are quarantined for two weeks. During that time, the vet comes to check them out, and they get all their vaccines done or updated, as needed. The vet also comes out to check on new-borns, or of course if an animal is ill and needs special care.
In spite of having read and heard about laminitis and other horrible foot infections, they have been lucky. It helps that they are in a dry area, and watch their donkeys’ weight very closely.
The farrier comes every 8-12 weeks, unless he is needed sooner. He’s great and very patient, and adapts to each animal. In some cases, he’ll do two feet, then let the donkey take a break while he takes care of another animal, and he’ll come back to them later. For bonded pairs, he always lets the companion stay nearby to avoid unnecessary stress. two he does 2 feet then rest then two others.
Last fall, they got two new donkeys that were wild but needed urgent intervention as they had slipper feet, so they sedated them for the first farrier’s visit. Given how wild they are, Michelle continues to use that medication, but keeps lowering the dose as the donkeys learn to accept being handled by the farrier.
Food-wise, the donkeys feed off the pasture and don’t need any complements. Michelle never gives them grain because of the weight issue.
One donkey, Pearl, can be huge if you let her – she’s a stocky donkey to begin with, and loves to eat. She therefore gets special treatment and spends summer days (when the pasture is very lush) in a dry lot with her bonded pair.
In winter, the donkeys get a slightly different diet: orchard grass hay because it’s local, mixed with barley or wheat straw so as to mimic the natural rhythm of grazing (and the straw helps with weight because they take their time to eat it and it makes them feel full, but it has almost no nutritional value). This is given to the donkeys twice a day also to mimic grazing, and in separate piles for every bonded pair so no one fights.
The baseline is one flake twice a day per donkey, then sees how they are doing weight wise and adjusts as needed. (Figuring out how much hay to order is one of the most challenging aspects of managing their winter diet, but in case of doubt it’s always better to have a bit more rather than fall short.)
In winter, the donkeys also get shredded beet pulp (2-3x a week during winter, for extra fibre, and as a treat) and orchard grass pellets (to supplement the hay), both from the feed store. These two complements have to be soaked for 20min or so before feeding time, or the donkeys will choke. Whatever they don’t eat you throw away.
Last but not least, when treats are required, Michelle uses apples and carrots – but not too often.
Go-to Resources on Donkey Care
A go-to resource is the website of the Donkey Sanctuary in the UK. They can answer just about everything.
The donkeys & donkey training
Michelle keeps her donkeys as pets. They are all halter trained, can walk on the lead, and can load in trailer. Beyond that, they sometimes take them on walks around the property, which can lead to new training requirements, like their bridge which the donkeys had to get comfortable crossing.
Beyond that, Michelle’s goal is to make her donkeys’ life the best possible. They bring her so much joy, that it’s her way of giving back to them.
Each have personalities and quirks, so here are two of their stories and some of their particular characteristics:
Willow the wild burro was captured when she was about one year old in Arizona. By the time Michelle bought her at the Oregon State Fair auction, she had been in four holding facilities in three different states!
At first, when Michelle went into the pasture, Willow would come running at her with her ears back (a sign of aggressive behavior), so by instinct, Michelle threw her arms up. That stopped the wild burro in her tracks. She’d run away a bit, then come back at Michelle. This would happen a few times, and then Michelle would call it a day.
After two months or so, Michelle started spending more time in the pasture, doing both real chores and made-up ones. The whole time, she would chat away, and Willow would often come to her – as if she was curious and wanted to trust her, but just didn’t know how. After almost 6 months, she let Michelle pet her. The touch made her quiver, but it was a big step in the right direction.
It took Michelle almost 18 months to slowly go from having a scared, wild, donkey who would “go bananas” and charge her to having Willow trust her and love to cuddle – but today, her connection with the wild burro is unique, and she considers Willow as her favorite donkey.
When they decided to get a jack, they built a new pasture for him that’s connected to the other pasture – so they could keep him separate if his temperament rose to the rumours of jacks being mean and bullies.
When they brought him home, he tried to bite, so it didn’t bode so well. They put him in a stall, learning from Willow and hoping that having him in a smaller space would allow Michelle to connect with him. The next day, he had a nasal discharge and a terrible cough. The vet diagnosed a respiratory infection, probably from the way they had him in the trailer (his head was tied too tight, and caused a very limited range of motion).
They stalled him for a week while he got better, and he pretty much instantly trusted Michelle because he was scared and sick. It’s as though he knew he needed her help. She spent a good amount of time just sitting in there, both because she was worried about him and because she knew it was a good opportunity to gain his trust. He’d come over and hold his head in her lap, as if he just felt ill and wanted help.
Now, he lives with all the other donkeys, and he is the sweetest boy!
Bubbles – hates to be brushed.
Clover – isn’t very interested in being halter trained or going on walks, so Michelle mostly lets her be.
Pearl – has a definite tendency to over-eat.
Note: Most of Michelle’s donkeys are in bonded pairs, which means the two companions are inseparable, or stressed and miserable if separated. Willow is “unbonded” but has an entertaining to watch love/hate relationship with Winchester.
Favorite Donkey Memories so far
Without a doubt, Michelle’s favourite anecdotes so far revolve around the moments leading up to her building trust and connecting with her donkeys; taking pride in how far they have come and the soul connection she has with Willow in particular.
Things she wishes she had known sooner
Before she embarked on her donkey adventure, Michelle was not sure what to expect, but she thought of donkeys as “pasture ornaments” – to have and look at. Now she realizes how much time they need from you, because they are herd animals that crave companionship and affection.
When Michelle got Willow, no one told her to start by having her in a small enclosure to facilitate the trust-building process. If she had to do it again, that’s one of the few things she would do differently.
Advice to donkey aficionados or anyone thinking of getting a donkey
Donkeys are relatively easy to keep, but they are herd animals and need a friend – that doesn’t mean you or a goat, but one of their own.
Especially when it comes to mini donkeys, you always need to be managing their weight as having extra pounds on them will have detrimental effects on their health.
Donkeys are constantly assessing the situation. So, give them time. Whether you’re just visiting a farm with a donkey (or more), don’t run up to them to pet them or cuddle them. Respect their space, and meet them halfway.
First and foremost, be patient with them. Respect their timetable, and go at their pace.
A humongous thank you to Michelle for taking the time to share!
For more beautiful photos of adorable donkeys, follow Michelle on Instagram.
This Donkey Interview Series is a new project, stemming from the scarcity of information around donkey care available online (or anywhere else unless you get lucky). I will be talking to donkey owners, trainers, vets, or anyone else willing to be interviewed and with experience with donkeys that they are willing to share.
If you have any specific questions, don’t hesitate to reach out and I’ll do my best to get them answered.
If you own donkeys or have someone to recommend, please let me know in the comments or by emailing info[at]casabeatrix.pt.