The Thing About Donkeys

 

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I wrote about mares and the response was so huge that I felt guilty and wrote about geldings. Since then, the requests have been about donkeys, but I’m more thoughtful. Because donkeys require consideration. Because I’m bluntly defensive of donkeys.

The sunflower cart photo is of me and my first rescue, Ernest. Some of us longears had been invited to a draft horse show to do a demo. Just before this photo, we’d been parked at the side of the entry road waiting for the class before us to be called in. Six draft teams passed us at a high trot. Ernest, hip cocked, didn’t look or care. They were just the opening act, as far as he was concerned. We won my all-time favorite ribbon that weekend, says this dressage queen. It was third place in log skidding, among a field of draft horses. Sure, our log was smaller, but an adjusted equivalent weight. He cantered across the finish. Ernest didn’t get a good start with humans (I wrote about him in Stable Relation) and I thought we’d come so far from those untouchable-slipper-feet days when he first arrived.

Truth is that we hadn’t even scratched the surface. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working with many donkeys and mules and find myself constantly humbled by their intellect and self-awareness, which they guard closely. If you meet donkeys that pander to you, don’t feel flattered.

Humans profoundly underestimate donkeys. We go nuts for animals with oversized ears. We squeal and moan and sigh about how cute they are. We tease them with treats and dress them up in hats. They are the butt of ass jokes. Almost everything we do around longears confirms how unintelligent we are. Just for the record, donkeys understand sarcasm and don’t like it.

Donkeys are a constant contradiction; a walking, braying paradox. Part of our misunderstanding comes from an expectation that they will behave like a horse. Donkeys give you a sense of being prehistoric, a quality of timelessness, but at the same time, they’re so clever, so far ahead that the conversation is over before you realize. They never put another’s opinion above their own and while they are kind and peaceful by nature, they are not burdened with a desire to please humans. Horsemanship skills must be better if you want to stay on the good side of a donkey; old-timers say that you should treat a horse the way you have to treat a donkey. Horses will fill in for a human; a trait that donkeys think is a foolish and shallow judgment on the horse’s part.

Donkeys have a reputation for being stubborn, the original calming signal. Donkeys shut down in ways a horse can’t imagine. They require polite conversation. If they believe they have been treated rudely, just like llamas and seals and a few other self-respecting species, they flatly refuse to communicate at such a base level. They are suffragettes, they are civil rights activists. They are peaceniks who believe in a non-violent sit-in to a debate. They will stand patiently as you throw your fit, demand hollow respect with un-natural horsemanship, or sing curse words to the heavens. It’s fine with them if others debase themselves. They are Zen-masters, for crying out loud, they get along with goats! Dang, if you think they’re cute again but that’s because you don’t understand goats.

A donkey might be curious enough to come up and meet you, but trust is another issue entirely. If you manage to win a donkey’s trust, he will carefully consider anything you ask, weight it in his mind. He requires time to reason his way through. He answers when he’s ready but once that decision is made, he will be committed.  His loyalty will not falter. Conversely, if you pick a fight with donkey, they are much stronger than a horse of the same size, but sadly, easy to abuse. They won’t fight back. If you think you’re an affirmative trainer, consider training a donkey your master’s thesis.

Ranchers run a donkey with a herd of cattle because they don’t lose calves that way. Donkeys don’t love calves, but they can’t abide an interloper who threatens the peace. Donkeys will stick up for the weaker ones. They are only marginally okay with your own dogs, but visiting dogs are wolves and will be treated as such.  They tolerate the intolerable mare. Babysit the babies. Donkeys play chess, are always several moves ahead, but don’t bray about winning. Donkeys do not suffer fools or arrogant smarty-pants, but they will stand quietly while small kids poke them in the eye.

Some of you may feel I’m being dismissive of mules. No sir. But the only thing that makes them different is the donkey half, so I’ll continue.

Give up your weather app. If there is a storm coming, you can’t lead him out of the barn but if there is new grass growing an inch or two under the soil, they won’t come in from the pasture. Because they are ruled by common sense, a thing almost too rare to recognize.

Donkeys bond more strongly than horses. Separation is heart-breaking and they feel compassion for herd mates. They can struggle with depression. We tend to think they are even more cute when depressed, you must breathe and look past their ears.

As serious as donkeys are, I’ve never met a more playful species. Get up in the middle of the night; there they are, rearing and dangling from your horse’s neck. I got my donkey an Andalusian yearling as a stall toy. Best. Gift. Ever.

As smart as donkeys are, they appreciate having time to think. This is where the stubborn misunderstanding happens. And may I remind you, you don’t like it when a horse jumps to conclusions and bolts. Donkeys need time to weigh their options and make a choice. If liberty is your thing, well, let’s see who knows the definition of that word better.

You can call them cute. You can trivialize their kind nature and intelligence. It’s easier to dumb a donkey down than to live up to one, but be ambitious. Horses will love you for it. But at the same time, don’t screw up. Donkeys have very long memories. They hold trust sacred. You will not win a fight… but that’s the best lesson anyone can learn.

The donkey creed: Never return aggression and never give in. Donkeys persist, beyond the judgment of others, taking their own best council.

So for now, I’ll seek longear wisdom because they will only settle for the best I have. Because it isn’t about what I can get a donkey to do, but who a donkey can inspire me to be. And if the day comes that someone calls me an ass, I’ll square my shoulders and stand tall. I’ll smile big and proud.

Edgar Rice Burro is about twenty this year. He continues to be our moral compass, helping visiting equines feel at home, leveling all our varied temperaments. He still stages breakouts for his friends if he’s in the mood. Edgar supervises the farrier at close quarters and when he sees the others are okay, solemnly offers a hoof. Edgar has retired from actively training humans. Maybe he finally trusts me on my own or maybe he’s so deep in my brain that I can’t tell his thoughts from mine. I am certain of this; donkeys will always hold us to their standard.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

46 thoughts on “The Thing About Donkeys”

  1. Love love the pictures and this article opened my eyes, annihilated the donkey stereotype I was too familiar with and ignited my curiosity about the breed as well as my desire to befriend one of the long-eared ilk. Most of all though, you’ve confirmed that I have a very long way to go before I’m good enough for a donkey. Indeed, when I started this equine journey I had no idea how humbling it would be.

  2. One of the best articles I have ever read about donkeys. I raised donkeys for years and wrote about them in a variety of publications. Also gave a booklet to buyers or prospective buyers, so they would have some idea of what to expect if they acquired donkey. Donkeys are simply the best!

  3. This was such a wonderful treat this morning. I was enthralled by the slide show, and surprised by how much the donkeys, dirt, fence, sheds/barns, landscape evoked the memory and image of my dad’s place, where I learned to love a donkey. Thank you.

  4. Hi Anna,

    I remember a poem that you wrote in 2017(ish) entitled “Textures” which speaks of the extraordinary wisdom and intelligence of a working, discarded (and rescued) donkey. It left such an impression on me that I have seen donkeys differently since,… a kind of heartfelt admiration. Your description of the ways of donkeys in this writing serves to further that admiration. Thank-you

      • I remember that poem too – have almost no actual donkey experience – obviously my life is lacking a lot! But anyone who spends real-time around any equine species has to be aware you never, never, never know all there is to know about them. Sounds like thats true in spades with donkeys. Wasnt the little old donkey who was responsible for that poem named Lilith?

  5. I loved reading about the donkeys and the pictures are lovely. I have met a few and they always seem to have a sense of humor about people. There were a lot of side eye looks as though they were sharing an inside joke. I’m more familiar with mules, and that mule on the far left in the picture of four equines together is absolutely gorgeous!

  6. The other day, a young cowboy came to retrieve a stray bull in our pasture. I commented that I was sorry to hear that the herd of feral donkeys had been rounded up and sold for roping practice, as it was a cruel practice. He said donkeys are tough, as my three stood behind me, sizing him up. I disagreed, and adding that they are smarter than tough, but roping won’t show that. Is there anything that might be said to get a cowboy to not think of donkeys as expendable?

    • Donkeys are peaceful. Cowboys must use an electric cattle prod to make them run. I’ve worked with ex-rope donkeys, destroyed both physically and mentally. No, I don’t think there is much to say to someone that ignorant. Sorry.

  7. You know those long ears have got me by the short hairs. I am indentured and fortunate to keep my horses on a property with a young mule, an elder donkey, and a middle-aged mini donkey, who also just happens to be the very best animal. She can’t help it, she just is. They are the most proofing philosophers I know. Gorgeous article and I only wish I had the ability to bray myself in gratitude.

  8. Ummmm…. autocorrect changed profound to proofing and I can’t seem to find a way to edit on my phone, but! It kinda still works, doesn’t it?

  9. I have 2 mini donkeys. I had no idea what I was getting into when I got my first one. She was only 3 months old and not yet weaned. I have her half-brother now too. They are just AMAZING animals. You can look in their eyes and see the intelligence. Mine make me smile every, single day. You article was so fun to read because I understood everything you were saying based upon my own experience. Thank you for another work of art with your words.

  10. Through an amazing set of coincidences last summer, donkeys have entered my life in a variety of important ways, including being asked to endorse Smart Ass, by Margaret Winslow. Your piece has satisfied my hunger to understand these wonders more. At least for a time. I sent the link for your blog to Margaret Winslow as I expect she’ll love it, too.

  11. Great read, thank you. I have a couple of donkeys, and a mule along with my horses. Donkeys (and mules) are very special beings indeed

  12. I have a mini donkey, Winston, sometimes I would give most anything to know what’s going on behind that level, speculative stare he has. He can be stand offish with people but when my 2-1/2 yr old grandson comes to ‘feed dat dunkey’, Winston walks right up to him and gently teases the treat from his fist. He makes me smile when he bellers for his dinner and he seems to know when I need a hug and he’s very good at giving them. He loves one mare but seems to know the other doesn’t care for him so he avoids her. Best of all, he’s good for at least one smile a day.

  13. Thanks so very much for putting this so eloquently.I have shared it,as I know but could never explain in so many words. Donkeys are my friends and I hope they always see me as theirs.They tolerated& taught me much.

  14. We have a herd of 45 donkeys here at The Sanctuary at Red Bell Run. They are the most amazing animals ever and I am constantly in awe of their sense of self, donkey-sense and consistent nature.

  15. What a great read 🙂 I share my home with 3 BLM burros, an amazing large standard rescue, 2 mammoth donkeys, and a mule. The Ladies inspire me and make me smile every day. Thank you for giving longears their due!

  16. Anna Blake you’ve done it again. You’ve found the path to the center of me. I can’t find enough ways to say I Love this. You captured me at “Donkeys have a reputation for being stubborn, the original calming signal”. I ❤️ that. I can relate. Feeling my ears for length right now … just checking. I can’t believe how I can relate to your descriptions. I always wanted to find my real relatives and I think I may have …

  17. I had to check my calendar.

    Yup, it’s been almost five years since I’ve been owned by a donkey. And Pistol Pete is calling from over The Bridge, honking “What’s yer hold up? Get the lead outta yer ass and be enlighten again!”

    The search has begun. I’ve already measured off available barn space for a stall.

    Thanking you, more than you know.

  18. I lament that I don’t know donkeys or mules at all, although there is a cattle farmer down the road who has one in his herd, and no-one else around appreciates why it is there. Llamas will do a similar job, I’m told. Beautiful post Anna.

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