written by Cindy Benson
I have had the privilege of living with Miniature Donkeys for the past 20 years. I love to watch the language they use with each other. It can be so subtle. Horses in a social situation can be explosive in that they will sometimes squeal, spin and kick with both hind feet, bite, etc to assert their dominance over each other. A donkey in the same situation is likely to hike a hip, lower and shake his head, or maybe make a short squeak. That’s it. They rarely hurt each other physically unless breeding is involved. I use great care when adding a new horse to a pasture with a horse already in it but with the donkeys I can mix and match at will without incident. New friendships are formed quickly and all is well. In training I can use their sensitivity to my advantage.
I show my donkeys extensively and am always on the lookout for new information that will allow me to do a better job of it. Several years ago I had surgery and wasn’t supposed to lift more than six pounds for a couple of months. Since I could not do my chores and had some time on my hands I thought this would be a great opportunity to take some lessons on showing from a local horse trainer. My trainer, Tamara, had not worked with Miniature Donkeys before so we had to adapt a little for them but most of the training techniques were the same although the donkeys learned much faster. I failed “walk” and “whoa” on that first lesson day! I went home both humbled and determined.
Of all that I learned that winter the concept that has been most valuable to me was that of what I think of as the “force field” and where my toes were pointed. Tamara explained that the donkey has a force field and so do I. This is a little like personal space where humans are concerned. Those of you with lots of formal horse training instruction have probably known this basic tenant for a long time but it was brand new to me. If I walk into the force field of my donkey the donkey is to give way to me and move out of my force field. To some degree this is a matter of respect and social hierarchy. This is a horse training concept that works especially well with donkeys because of their subtle social sensitivity. Tamara also taught me that my donkey is to move the direction that my toes are pointing. I love this and it really works! My overall body language is part of why this works of course but thinking of it as toes simplifies things for me. I use this concept in living with my donkeys at home as well as when I am showing in part because it is a way of stating herd dominance and I care about this from the time my donkeys are foals and onward. A relationship based on mutual respect is important to me and if I let my donkeys push me around it isn’t fun and it encourages them to see me as a subordinate member of the herd and that won’t work for me.
When I am training for shows it goes like this. My donkeys know the difference between casual time and training time by where I am standing in relation to them. Usually they are haltered as well but as their training advances I can ask these behaviors of them just by having my hand under their chin. Show position is with me facing forward and standing close to my donkey between his shoulder and jaw. This is the “walk” and “whoa” position and after I practice that a couple of times my donkey understands that we are in training mode. Are you wondering how I failed this part initially? I learned that I should not step forward after verbally asking for “walk” until the donkey begins to step forward. When donkey and handler walk off in synch it is beautiful. When asking for “whoa” it is “whoa one two”. I say the word “whoa”, take one more step to allow the donkey to respond, and the next step we are both planted firmly. If I ask for “whoa” and expect my donkey to freeze frame it does not allow him time to place himself squarely. A well conformed donkey, if given the chance, will stop with balance and his legs set squarely under him. This is attractive and judges like it.
So, in practice, when I ask my donkey to “back” I am at his shoulder close to him and with my toes pointing backward. When my donkey has had a little training the minute I begin to turn from facing forward at his shoulder to facing backward he knows I will ask and will step back with me as I reach my position. It looks like magic and I love it. If I want a forehand turn I will point my toes at his shoulder and walk into his force field. If I want a side pass my toes will point at his barrel, and if I want a haunch turn my toes will point at his hip. I use consistent verbal commands as well. When my donkeys get good at this it appears that they float away from me as if they were reading my mind. This is so pretty and soft and my donkeys are relaxed and confident because they know what they are supposed to be doing. If I want my donkey to “stand” I step away from him and stand at a 45% angle forward of his head facing him. Because I am not close to him he knows I do not want movement, and with experience he knows we are still working. With a really well trained donkey if I move my toe into his force field from this position he knows he is supposed to be moving something and will adjust his feet until I move my foot back into place. This is a great way to get him to set up for the judge subtly. Again, I think it is just like magic and it is really rewarding to have this kind of dialog with my donkey friends. Even at liberty in the field it is nice to be able to move them around from time to time like this for my convenience.
I hope I have presented what I learned in an uncomplicated fashion. I would be happy to answer any questions so please just comment on this blog or send me an e-mail directly and I will get back to you. Happy Trails!