by Cindy Benson – 2016
In my opinion, teaching a donkey to quietly stand tied is one of the most valuable – and underappreciated – skills you can teach a donkey. It is amazing to me how many things a donkey seems to learn just by being tied to a fence. This crosses over into so many other situations, and in their relationship with their owner, for that matter. I don’t think the benefits of this discipline can be overstated. So, read on, and I’ll tell you why.
In order to tie a donkey you first have to catch him! For some owners it all falls apart right here, so I’ll talk about my views on catching a donkey to begin with. One of the most important aspects of catching a donkey is never letting him learn he has a choice. This begins when the donkey is just a young foal, but a donkey can learn to evade capture at any age so it is important to understand how he views things. I tell my buyers not to attempt to catch a donkey in an area that he can get away from them in. The best place to catch your donkey is in his stall or small barn.
Some tips about putting a halter on:
Stand at your donkey’s left shoulder facing forward. Put your right arm around your donkey’s neck so that you can cuddle him and hold him close. With the halter in your left hand bring it close to the donkey’s head, from under his head rather than from up high or out in front of him. Keeping your right hand along side the donkey’s head and neck take hold of the halter to help buckle it. Move slowly but purposefully. If the donkey backs away from the halter just back up with him, keeping your right arm around him and your body pressed right next to his shoulder. Having your body in contact with him lets him know you are partnering with him, not just “doing something to him”. It is perceived very differently by your donkey. For some people to helps them to think of keeping their thigh pressed up against the donkey’s cross. Haltering in this way is subtle and non-threatening.
I begin trimming hooves when my foals are about a month old, and every four weeks until they are a year old or close to it, so the donkey you purchase from me has had lots of training. To catch a foal I close my group of donkeys in the barn and use the group to push the foal up against. I put my arm around his neck and just hold him. I don’t grab for his head and I am not in a hurry. I always take the lead rope off of the halter when working with a fearful donkey. Think about it. When you raise that halter up and attempt to bring it up his nose, what he sees is something coming right at his eyes with a snake (the lead rope) coming at him as well. If I take the lead rope off I can then slide the halter up the donkey’s nose, working from below his head, with the halter in contact with his head the whole way. I move slowly, steadily, and respectfully. Donkeys are intelligent creatures. The little guy has every right to be fearful about being restrained by his head. So I take my time, with lots of snuggles, and if I do this the halter becomes a non-issue because the rest of the experience is fun. In this way the donkey learns to associate the halter with affection and attention, not forceful restraint. When I tie them for the first few times I have someone help me. My helper’s job is to stand with the foal and just let him know that he is safe, with snuggles and tone of voice, while I work on his hooves. This has worked very well for me over the years.
So, back to catching your more mature donkey. If you walk up to him in the field and attempt to halter him he can back away and run off, thereby learning a really cool thing – he has a choice! Trust me, a donkey that was raised here doesn’t know that yet. If you work in a stall and attempt to halter your donkey and he evades you just let him circle around you and around you. He will get bored, I promise you! Move slowly, quietly, and with purpose. If you reach for your donkey and he moves off, let him run around you some more. No problem. You have all day – and that does need to be your mind set. If you are grumpy and in a hurry your donkey will know that. Sometimes you just bluff! Anyway, eventually you will become more interesting than running around and around a stall. Don’t grab at your donkey; just wait him out. If he pulls away from you, let him, and around he goes again, until he is bored and tired. What the donkey learns is that he can get all worked up about things and make it a big deal, or he can be trusting and accepting, but the outcome will always be the same. Donkeys are smart, and you are partners and friends, but you are in charge – always.
Here’s a real life example. I sold a donkey to a very nice couple who were novices. The gelding had had a very good start with me, but they had trouble with him. This fellow was wise and had them figured out in no time. He came back here to me for boarding for a short time. I worked with him and had no problems. When they came to pick him up he was out in the field with his friends. They expressed concern that they would not be able to catch him; I had not found this to be difficult. They walked up to the field, actually held the halter up for him to see, and then said something like “please be a good boy”. These were kind, well intentioned people who had their feelings hurt because their donkey was at odds with them. As I watched this two things came to mind. One was “ready-set-go!”, and the other was that it was like negotiating with a terrorist, with a predictable outcome. The difference in my experience with this donkey and theirs, in terms of catching him, is that I always caught him in a small space where we both knew he had no choice in the matter. He was a great donkey and I enjoyed him immensely, but he had these folks trained in no time. They were understandably frustrated. Don’t be them – set yourself up for success every time, every time. Don’t take a chance out in the field.
One more thing that is key to my training methods is about energy, and this is as good a time as any to talk about it. I do not train with treats. The reward my donkeys get for behaviors I want is in my voice and my touch. If my donkey does sixteen things I don’t want him to do I won’t say a word, and he does not get “in trouble”, but the minute he gives me even a part of a behavior I want I stop and reward him with lots of snuggles. Sometimes you really have to watch for these opportunities to reward because they can be fleeing, especially with difficult lessons. The way I see it, I reward (add energy) for behaviors I want and do not get involved with behaviors I don’t want. I don’t scold and I don’t beg. I just wait for that glimpse of an opportunity to reward. These opportunities become more and more frequent as the donkey learns what I want, because he gets what he wants, which is love and attention.
Working with a well trained donkey is a different matter. In this case I would get after a donkey for misbehaving if I think it is intentional and that they are choosing to ignore me.
What about tying? Let’s get back to that. Pick a safe place to tie your donkey. Remember that he may jump around. I like to tie to a wood post along a fence line or solid wall, that the donkey cannot become entangled in or pull over. This is very important. If you put your donkey in a situation where he can be hurt it is a breach of trust. He needs to know he can trust you in all situations, even ones he has no basis of experience in, because no matter what you have always kept him safe. Tie him at nose level. This is not a time for him to graze. Tie him with a short enough rope that he cannot reach his knees, because he will be less likely to step over the rope and scare himself. For me that is usually about eight inches. I want him to be able to have his head in a relaxed and comfortable position.
I begin to tie my donkeys to the fence when they are weanlings. By this point they have had their feet trimmed by me several times, and have been tied then, so they do know they will not be hurt when I tie them to the fence. But they may be angry! That’s a fine thing to be at this point. It’s inconvenient to have to just stand there when your friends are out having a good romp. Remember adding energy??? You cannot negotiate with a fence post. It doesn’t care. It doesn’t move. There is no relationship – no one to be angry with or blame. Donkeys do not learn this same lesson if you are on the end of the lead rope, no matter how strong you are or how still you try to be, because they can feel your energy and that little bit of give and take on the rope. With the fence none of that happens.
Here’s an example. I had a young jack once who was a dramatic boy. He was angry when I tied him to that post and walked away! He jumped and he danced and he pitched a fit. He ended up throwing himself on the ground, hanging by his head. I watched all this while just out of his sight. I didn’t get involved and didn’t say a thing. He hung there by his head for a few minutes in spectacular fashion, and then be began to get bored. I could see him kind of raise a bit and look around to see if anyone noticed his plight. Then he got uncomfortable, I am sure, and there are better ways to spend a day. He stood up, shook himself off, and acted like nothing had happened. That was my cue. I went right out and rewarded the heck out of him. I untied him, gave him a little grain, and spent some time bonding with him. It was so interesting to watch his wheels turn! He never did this again, by the way. There were times he got fussy but he never saw the need to take it that far again. Training is fun! It’s a cerebral pursuit, all wrapped up with partnership and respect, not brute force.
There have been times when I have had eight young donkeys all tied to the fence, learning life’s lessons, while I was out doing chores. I drive by frequently to be sure all is well, but I let them work it out in their own time. Some donkeys will be there for a couple of hours, and some donkeys get it right away. How do I know when they are done? When they relax. I watch for that. Some donkeys really have a hard time with this lesson (most don’t) and I may need to get out there quickly and reward them before they have a chance to work themselves up again. Over the course of a week or so, with time on the fence a couple of times a day, these donkeys become accepting, soft, and confident. When I lead them they give to pressure because that is what worked with the fence post. They no longer resist me.
Once the donkey becomes confident and relaxed when tied, I go to the next step. I teach him how to handle having a rope tangled around his legs. This is an especially important lesson to teach donkeys who will be handled by children because at some point that child is likely to have his attention wander and have the donkey step over the rope. To teach this I use a six foot rope. This is short enough to become wrapped around the legs a bit but not long enough to snap the neck of a donkey that might race to the end of it. I tie it at ground level. The donkey will become entangled in it at some point but tied down low like this it won’t wrap around the donkey’s neck and be dangerous. I watch from somewhere close by to be sure the donkey does not become overly stressed and afraid. At first the donkey will struggle against the rope around it’s leg, but eventually, they will stop and think. They will pick up one leg after another and work with the situation until they are untangled. If they are really in a mess they will quietly wait for me to come and rescue them.
It is very rewarding to see a donkey relax and go to sleep when tied to a fence, when that same donkey, just a short time ago, thought this was a big deal. They learn to be compliant. They learn that they can vote all they want but that the outcome is the same. You get what you asked them for, fairly and respectfully. They learn that they can be safe out of their familiar environment and away from their friends, and that it might even be fun.
A working relationship with a donkey is earned and I really appreciate that about them. If I use my intuitive sense they will tell me how they need to learn. Donkeys have a huge inclination to please and they will attempt all sorts of foolish things just because you asked them to, if you have earned their trust to begin with. The fence is a great way to start. If, in living with your donkey, you run into disrespectful behavior or challenges, go back to a tune-up with the fence. It’s like going back to your abc’s.