The Fine Art of Cantankery.

lillith I’ve had a hard time acting my age. That’s not it, exactly. It’s more like I’m straddling the Grand Canyon between my usual teen angst and dealing with the fact I’m supposed to be wearing support hose. It all started with my birthday. Two years ago.

Then recently a donkey came to the rescue that I work with. She was nothing special, really. Her “selling point” was her age, I guess. We joked about needing to carbon date her. We’re guessing upper thirties. At least.

Rule #1: Donkeys hate change.

She came into rescue and landed in a kind geriatric pen with a few other special needs cases. Nobody too active and there was a buffet; piles of hay, lots of fresh water, and feed pans brimming with senior feed. In short, paradise. But she was having none of it. She had more opinion than strength.

There’s an argument that she’d had a long life. On top of that, we’d just gotten a herd of starved yearlings in that needed foster homes, but we give everyone a chance. I offered to foster her at my barn. It’s slower and quieter here, and she was pretty wobbly. For me, there’s no rhyme or reason for when one animal stands out in this world of need, but it might have had something to do with those stupid support hose.

WM Lillith scratchShe had a crusty coat of felted dead hair; a few years’ worth that she hadn’t managed to shed out. And it looked like there might be damage to her hind end, she didn’t walk well. Coming to my farm was not a miracle cure. She still didn’t eat or drink anything. Donkeys are tough, but what if it was too late and her organs were shutting down?

She played with alfalfa but ignored hay. A few times a day, I tried some new mush concoction. Donkeys are notoriously nervous of water containers. If she was drinking, I couldn’t tell, so I tried changing those as well. On the third day, I used an old blue bucket and finally, she drank.

Rule #2: Donkeys please themselves.

In the meantime, I sat on a bucket in her pen, just sharing space. I already knew she wasn’t wild about being caught or led. She came with a warning that she didn’t like her ears being touched. Or apparently anything else for that matter.

Then one day I was on the bucket, cutting up an over-ripe pear to put on her mush, which was already the equine equivalent of a fine french meal. This pear was sticky-sweet and soft, and she walked right up to me. Her sense of smell was perfect. It took a long while, I sat very still, but she took a bite of the pear from my hand. Her face went soft and I could hear it sloshing around in her mouth. I dropped the rest of the pear onto her mush and left the pen. Of course, standing up meant that she backed off from her bowl, but I wanted to be mysterious and exciting.

People get too hung up on rescue animal’s histories. We love a tragic tale so we can feel sympathy and “tsk-tsk” and shake our do-gooder heads. If there’s one thing I know about rescue, it’s that the past doesn’t matter nearly like the present does. Says the woman who wears her teen angst around her ankles like stretched out cotton underwear.

Rule #3: Donkeys can be, well, cantankerous.

She tolerates grooming but just to mid-flank. I still haven’t picked up a foot. Flies were eating her raw and I wanted to get some of that hot pink Swat ointment on her wounds. She gives a decent NO! cue, but I was marginally successful and she was steaming mad about it. Then I gingerly tried fly spray. She darted but then paused. I sprayed again. There were enough flies still there, that I could see them drop off her leg and hit the ground. It’s possible she saw them, too. Now when I walk to her with the fly spray, she stands and waits, as if I’m serving boat drinks at the beach. Clearly no signs of dementia. I started to think she might pull through; I started to think her name might be Lillith.

lillith biteJust on the off-chance that you’re cooing and thinking she is just the sweetest thing… she isn’t. She bites. And kicks. The dead hair is gone, but a hand anywhere near her poll and she tosses her head abruptly. She’s a donkey of strong convictions.

But don’t feel sorry for the goat. On a day that I could catch her, I doddered her out to the greenest grass for a different kind of dental exam. She dropped her head and slowly rubbed her nose back and forth, crushing it and sniffing deeply. She didn’t even try to take a bite. Her lips can scoop up mush, but her front teeth are useless. Know those billboards that show drug addicts with horrible teeth? That’s her. She has greenish-black nubbins of teeth. Meth teeth, so no worries about eating any goats.

Cantankerous defined: 1. bad-tempered, argumentative, uncooperative, quarrelsome, irascible, disagreeable. 2. Difficult to handle.

She was in a separate pen where she could eat in peace, along with Arthur, the goat, who was in detention with a broken leg. They formed a bond of co-dependent aggravation. Eventually Lillith stopped standing outside during thunder storms and went into the shed. Once she crossed that line, she used the shed for shade, too. One day she went to the gate to my family pen and turned her head to stare at me. I pride myself on being bilingual, so I opened the gate for her.

That pen had the Grandfather Horse, Edgar Rice Burro, and the rest of my herd. Five minutes of careful consideration later, she moved through the gate. The mares push her off sometimes, but she kicks back at them. She can get her hind a few inches off the ground these days. Lillith takes long naps in the sun and tries to get someone to do some mutual grooming. The Grandfather Horse, who’s always loved the stiffest curry, finds her an unsatisfactory partner. It’s mutual gumming, to tell the truth.

WM Lillith angelRule #4: Donkeys don’t like change, unless they do.

It’s been four months since Lillith came. She’s sleek, she has lousy ground manners, and she’s in fine voice. Her bray sounds like a combination of a train whistle and a bunch of sixth-grade boys making fart noises. And she isn’t afraid to use it.

Right now we’re debating the last feed of the day. She holds, loudly, that I should feed at sundown. With the season change, I tell her the sun sets earlier; I tell her it was always about the time on the clock. Then she makes it pretty clear what she thinks about clocks.

Measuring time is a peculiarity to our species–clocks and calendars rule humans. I miss my friends who’ve timed-out and retired to warm climates, while I throw hay and think about reinventing myself one more time. I’m stubborn about what I want and I’m at an awkward age.

On the high side, I’ve finally found my spirit animal.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, 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 “The Fine Art of Cantankery.”

  1. It’s so wrong that *everything* about Lillith sounds so right, including the pioneer woman name lol. I was going to say that every woman needs an inner Lilith, alas, I fear my own is more outer than inner?. Fab blog, loved it.

  2. I’m glad Lilith landed with you!

    Just for the sake of brushing with a broader stroke, I live with two miniature donkeys who came to us at 6 months of age. They were treated kindly and with great respect from birth. And they break all the stereotypical statements anyone can make about donkeys. They are friendly, loving, have many times handed me the hoof pick to clean their hooves, are favorites of their hoof trimmers and the chiropractor and dentist. They love having their ears rubbed on the insides all the way down as far as my fingers can reach. Their way of operating on a lead line is good but vastly different than horses. They don’t spook when something is new or scary, they simply stop to check it out first. This often gets called being stubborn and if you try to drag them they will dig in their heels. But if you wait with them until they’re ready it all goes very very well. If they trust you they don’t take long to move on toward the scary thing. These two are not afraid of much although I have one big rainbow colored sweater that they find abominable and they move away from me when I have it on. 🙂

    • What nice donkeys! I confess I’m relieved that I’ve had no wardrobe complaints, and I figure Lillith has earned the right to be herself. She gets friendlier every day. Thanks, Billie. Donkeys are the best.

  3. Love, love, love. Your writing enabled me to be in your barnyard with you waiting for Lilith to show you her complexities. Good for her, good for you. Thank you.

  4. how did we not have donkeys on Friendly Grove Road?

    oh right, we had parents then. And the donkey voice was a peacock on your roof!

  5. I must confess. I don’t know Donkeys, or Horses, or Goats, or even Ranches. I grew up a suburban girl: manicured lawns and fake polite manners. I devour your stories and hang on every lovely sentence. I love the imagery and the prose. I love your vision and your view. I came here for the Corgis about a year ago, but have fallen in love with your whole herd. Thank you for this gift.

    • Wow, thank you, Jennifer. Happy to drag you along to the barn. If you like corgis, you are half way to chaos already. Goats are a small step…;) Thanks for much for reading along!

  6. My first time commenting, I love your posts! You bless my socks off!
    And I can so relate.
    Thank you for sharing your brilliant wit and wonderful furbabies.
    God bless you with happy trails and tails and tales! ?

  7. Oh dear – how sadly lacking my life has been – no donkeys to speak of and no goats! You are so blessed – droopy cotton underwear and all!!! Love Lilith’s story.

    • Tehehe. This morning I was trying to get Lillith to turn out, but Arthur stood in front of her and head-butted… it was a mess. You’ve welcome, Maggie. I recommend a helmet.:):)

  8. I am a former almost-horse-person and came to your blog because of your insights into horses and horsemanship. Now, like JenniferG above, I hang on your every word. You have amazings gifts of observation, insight, and (of couse) writing. Please don’t stop. Unless you need to pull up that underwear.

  9. thank you for the donkey tale today. So beautifully written and funny and heartbreaking in the good way. I love my BLM donkeys, Kestrel, Olli, Cinderella and Bunny. () ()

  10. I love donkeys! They are definitely one of the most stubborn animal I’ve ever come across, but they’ve got personality! I’m glad you’ve gotten to known Lillith.

  11. Yes! Lovely, Cantankerous Lillith! We who cannot live with out the hay in our hair, the smell of warm fur and the sound of rusty gates. We hold space in our hearts for these truly amazing creatures!

  12. With every post, you show us that following one’s heart can be enormously fulfilling–and a total blast! Thank you so much. You are a treasure.

  13. Oh Anna – I nearly spat out my coffee AND wet my pants simultaneously reading this. (I have a 6th grade boy, the perfect frame of reference for the fart noises.)
    So totally excellent – thank you for writing.

    • My best wishes for living with a 6th grade boy, and thank you. I’ve had lots of opportunity to try to find the right description for her bray, and I’m confident. (I live for the spit/wet pants response!)

  14. Fantastic! I love your sense of humor! I’m enjoying a donkey over the fence – one that actually likes to be scratched and rubbed! Poor boy – he’s lonely – with only cows for company!

    • Good for you! Donkey friends are the best. Lillith is getting more friendly, too. I think she’ll be at the fence in a while; she’s finding her way back. Thanks for reading, Jeannie.

  15. Lillith is so perfect. To be able to see with true eyes is what you are so good at, Anna- and Lillith too.
    The pic of her in the sunlight is a bit breathtaking and hard not to see the profound imprint she is making with her presence.

    It’s not over till the fat lady brays!
    I think that Lillith made me write that!

  16. A huge little life just about sums it up! our hearts can be broken over and over it seems and filled up over and over too, so no need to no how long because, afterall, it is one huge and little NOW! My heart is dancing with you and unexpected hero…

  17. I have other none donkey friends who can be cantankerous. In fact I might have some of those same traits, especially when waxing not-so-eloquent on certain subjects. Maybe this was the reason that I was accepted by Lillith and even shared a little bit of ear touching with her. All this was because of you…my wonderful Infinity Farm guide. Your blog just motivated me to post Lillith’s picture on Facebook…hope she doesn’t mind.

    • Like cantankerous is a bad thing… yes, she could smell it on you. She blossomed that day, what a treat. Lillith can handle being an internet sensation. Thanks, Chaz.

  18. Love Lillith! Reminds me of Maxine, of greeting card fame.

    And you so nailed one thing: “We love a tragic tale so we can feel sympathy and “tsk-tsk” and shake our do-gooder heads.”


  19. Pingback: There’s No Romance in Rescue – Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog

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