Negotiating; Not Fighting.


It was last spring when this ancient donkey came to the farm. In the beginning, we thought she might not make it. Nobody likes change but we couldn’t tell if it was a hunger strike or her organs shutting down.

Then she nibbled and sipped and gave us a chance. She gained weight. Upper-thirties, we’re thinking. She has no teeth; she can’t graze. Her big old ears are mostly deaf and her eyesight is poor. We call her Lilith.

And I’m not saying Lilith’s quirky, but the only friend she’s made is the goat. And that only happened after she managed to kick him in the head.

Some days her walk was almost remotely fluid, all things considered.  But by fall, she took a bad step sometimes, and it developed into a limp. After a few months of actual nutrition, her hooves started changing. I thought I saw a crack, not that she let me near her hooves.

Let’s be clear; she was alive for a reason and it wasn’t being stupid about her feet. That’s how predators kill donkeys out on the prairie; they clamp down a leg and it’s all over.

At the same time, Lilith developed a new habit of coming up to strangers for a scratch. It almost created the illusion that she’d surrendered. I knew better. If my hand snuck a few inches south of her spine, her hind end came my way fast.

Our dance must have been a strange-looking event; Lilith teetering her butt around stiffly, her hind hooves twitching up and down fast enough to send me scurrying out of her way. Is this what all my years of dressage training have come to? A war of wits with a relic of a donkey. Well, yes.

Choosing to not pick a fight is always the right answer. But it doesn’t mean giving in either. I like to call it peaceful persistence.

Our process had to speed up now that she was hurting. I set a date with Roxann, my farrier, and came up with a plan.

I rigged up makeshift stocks by dragging an old gate into the corner of a pen. I secured the front of the gate to the fence panel at a corner using twine. It isn’t that twine works all that well, but it’s a tradition at this point. Sometimes I even think twine’s good luck. The gate was angled wide, with a bowl of feed at the ready.

Then I led her in and slowly lifted the gate, bringing it parallel to the fence panel, but not tight enough to squeeze Lilith. My friend, Nickole, offered her a snack which was apparently an insult. Lilith pulled back, I held onto the lead rope, and began slowly touching her shoulder. She was mad, nipping at me while I sweet-talked her.

Finally, I lifted the first foot. Good girl. For all the thousands of times I’ve cleaned hooves and never seen a rock, this time there is a sharp one wedged deep by her frog, and I went for it. There’s no telling how long it had been there; years maybe.

It probably would have been good to stop right there, but I worried about what I might find in her other front hoof. She was stomping mad when I got to her other side; meaning stomping quick enough that I couldn’t catch her hoof. Now would have been the time to get frustrated or even just more forceful. I went extra slow picking her hoof up, then quickly picked it clean. We let her hind feet wait. She paused to glare at me good and hard before walking away. Never underestimate a donkey’s memory.

The next week, all I saw was her backside. Instead of our usual scratch-fests, she only seemed to remember the atrocity, and spun gingerly around, kicking at me as she left. If her hooves felt better, she didn’t say so. I went to work melting her new grudge, and just when she was almost accepting scratches again, the farrier came.

The same chute set-up, except that I thought she’d had probably stressed her neck pulling back, so this time her head was loose at the front of the chute and I had a rope behind her rump. Roxann began slowly touching her leg, until finally, Lilith released a foot. Nickole, with the feed pan again; this time Lilith ate a few bites. She was so mad it is more like she bit her feed, the way she wanted to bite us.

The trimming took a few minutes but Lilith stood well. It was a long time on one front foot. After a rest and more sweet talk, lifting the second foot seemed much harder. It would have been the time most people would have doubled down to push on through. She’s little and frail; the three of us could have manhandled her easily.

Instead, my farrier started humming softly, and Lilith lost the will to attack her feed pan or any of us. We all praised her, grumpy as she was. When we finished, she limped away–sore and unhappy.

It didn’t help that the weather turned cold. I was back to wondering about her quality of life. Now she seemed all-over uncomfortable: Still sore in front and her hind seemed worse as well. I gave her a couple more weeks. Everything goes slower with elders.

Then I had the rescue’s vet out to check Lilith. She perked right up and walked toward the vet with curiosity. No way was she standing still for that stethoscope, though. I got the halter slowly over her nose before it occurred to her what that might mean. She walked off while I was trying to clasp the buckle. She kept on pushing and I kept on struggling. Think very slow motion bull-dogging, only now I’m fussing trying to get my gloves off, too. Negotiating; not fighting.

Then Lilith stood quietly in the stocks, picked up her feet fairly peacefully, and she still passively tried to bite the vet, as a matter of pride. The vet scratched her kindly. Who doesn’t love an opinionated old donkey?

Lilith’s diagnosis: Not bad for her age; let’s try some Previcox for the pain, and see if she can be more comfortable. Probably a decent diagnosis for me, too.

That’s how negotiation works; you refuse to escalate. In time, everyone gets to have their way. Just not all at once.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro


This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Negotiating; Not Fighting.”

  1. Amazing how Lilith is somewhat like an Important Person In My Life (in behavior, not appearance!). He is so threatened by change that he becomes unpleasant, even though he claims that change with me is a good thing. The last paragraph says it all, and it’s where I’m at. I hope my luck is as good as yours.

  2. “Refuse to escalate…”
    That’s my take away. Not for critters, because I seem to understand this there. I considering this excellent marriage and/or talking politics advice. I don’t understand how I know this to my core with horses, and have such a hard time accessing this incredibly useful knowledge with my own species!

  3. Oh I just loved that! I could close my eyes,and see your every move! ..but then I almost missed my coffee cup,with puckered lips!! Keep writing..I’ll keep
    being inspired…

  4. Thank you, Anna. I love your posts, but this was one I needed to read. So easy to get frustrated & annoyed with the “onery old senior” who won’t allow me to buckle the winter blanket around him … calm, peaceful persistence with a soft humming sound wins over yelling & smacking, every time! Merry Christmas!

  5. Superb and certainly the truth, Anna. Negotiation is a fine art — especially with animals.
    I love this donkey, Lilith, and I hope she can stay with you for her remaining days.
    Simon the Tennessee Walker has a similar outlook and is also highly opinionated.
    I have a small, feral cat, I mistakenly picked up one day when she emerged from the woodland behind our cinema. I should have walked on; she was a mess, thin, sickly, worms, FIV, all sorts of things. Something in the eye said, “I’m feral, but I’m willing to negotiate — I need help.”
    She’s an indoor cat named Pippa now. It has taken two years to advance to sitting on a knee and she slams onto your lap with the weight of an elephant in horseshoes. But she does it, and — as long as you leave her alone — she may give a slight purr. She always looks mad with full pupils — no change there.

    And then, there’s the negotiation with old Strider — not that old, but a bit cranky. The 17 h.h. Hanoverian was jumped hard for 20 years up and down the Eastern seaboard. Bone spurs, arthritis and concussion injuries prevent riding — Equioxx now for pain, which greatly helps, along with the equipads and wedged shoes (front). He has his life back and I have seen him at a fast canter in the large pasture. However, he had had it with riding and began tipping people off, though never did this to me. So, I negotiated a deal with Strider. You can retire, live a good life with your herd, if you cooperate with grooming and do a little in-hand work in the arena.
    He’s generally very good with all that, except, “leave me alone in my stall.” The OTTB, Jack could be turned on his back in his stall, you can clean him everywhere, touch him anywhere, and he seems to love sharing his stall with you at all times. But Simon and Strider — not likely;
    stay out and keep out. Work must be brief and always with a halter on.

    The negotiation with Strider has its limits too: No more than 10 minutes in the arena, maybe 15 on a good day. He’s chosen to ignore his Parelli training, but he will do an active W & T in the arena, but knows you can’t keep him with him at a fast trot. Once he’s back at the gate, that’s it for the day.

    Captain Jack will negotiate in-hand work for about 20 minutes in the arena, but the round pen…
    He gives me that look that says I am a human feeble brain. He’s seen them all at the racetrack and figure everyone out quickly. He doesn’t like blondes — they were the tough trainers.
    He likes brunettes. He will play and do his trot work if we do it, too. Standing in the middle watching him, that’s fodder for the ‘this is stupid, I won’t do it’ look. I admire the fact that he is educated. Where others say he needs this or that (and the comments always follow), I just let him be, as long as he’s safe and well-humored. Running in circles is no good for anyone.
    I long ago stopped that. Yet, he’ll go in and play with us, trot with us and enjoy the company if he’s off the lead.

    Listening, considering, negotiating — they are all key.

    Thanks for a great article once again. Long Live Lilith.


  6. Hope you realize (and I’m sure you do) what a jewel your farrier is! The whole picture of the treatment & care for this senior (NOT old) donkey warms MY heart! (and brings tears to my eyes)!

    • She is a great farrier all right. We’ve worked together on many rescues over the years and I got to hear her humm more than once. Thanks, Maggie.

  7. Apparently my Ferk is Lilith in dachshund form. At 15, she’s about as opinionated. And as prone to walking away if pushed. Ah! she says, if only I still had teeth, you’d be sorry! Love this one!

  8. Ah the lessons you teach us. Lilith is getting through life the best she can. But now she’s under your careful and loving care. What a gift she has!

  9. Great tale of donkey – good example for us in all human-animal relations AND human-human relations. Thanks for sending.

  10. What stories LIlith would tell if she could. I’m glad she’s got you to watch over her.
    Smoky is my 13 year old dog of indeterminate breed, born in a junk pile, brought home by my spouse at 6 weeks and a trial from the get go. He sleeps a lot now, demands his dinner and occasionally will not grumble about being petted. He’s gotten a bit creaky but a baby aspirin usually helps but the back and forth before he gets it swallowed can take awhile. It would be nice to have that much success with the spouse – the dog is more reasonable.
    Sometimes it can be hard for an animal to accept that the new people are not going to be like the old ones. I have the same difficulty.

  11. I am sure you are reading the NYT series about Sherman the Donkey. Also – with the launching of your new book – will you be in Denver-ish anytime soon to talk about it? Would very much love to meet you!

  12. You gotta love donkeys. I have a mini, Winston. He’ll tolerate a butt rub or neck scratch. If you slowly work your way to rubbing his forehead and ears he’ll practically lay in your lap. Other days he wants no part of you but you can walk up and halter him at any time, no problem. Go figure, he mostly gets haltered when it’s time for the vet, farrier or to work. He’s the best thing in the world to knock one of their high horse! Your farrier seems to operate on the same wave length as my vet – priceless!

    • I have never met a donkey I didn’t like. As for Winston…. do this and tell him it’s from me. There is a very soft bit of skin at the very top of his tail, but the underside. Yes, there. A nice slow rub, from me, with longear love.

  13. Tir Eoin was similar. Good now for trimmer but took months. Lessons all around including how to use a rasp! With my broken right wrist I haven’t been able to care for his hooves as regularly, the last month; neighbors have helped. But a few days ago, he was acting strangely, snorting and kicking out. Then I notice the limp. This Connamera is never lame. He stopped , butt toward me and cocked his left hind ; I could see the stone. So I managed to get his hind hoof up on my knee and picked out that stubborn rock, left handed. He stood completely still. Another lesson in observation.

  14. Ah yes, Prevacox for all. No one teaches patience, the value of persistence, and respect, like an old donkey. You are my hero.


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