D O N K E Y   T R A I N I N G   e - C L I N I C
       first touch (2b)

      introduction to donkeys and people ----  communication

        part 1a --   groundwork (1a)                                 part 1b --  groundwork (1b)

        part 2a --   first touch (2a)                                     part 2b --   first touch (2b)

        part 3 --    hand leading

        part 4 --    training attitude                                    part 5 --   leading

        part 6 --   step by step training checklist          part 7 --   lunging


In the photographs you can see how the donkeys' expressions and postures change when I approach using a non-threatening body posture.   They immediately relax and are willing to allow me to walk closer to them. Learning what is and isn't a non-threatening body posture is important.   To some donkeys just having someone walk toward them is enough to spook them. Others will allow you to walk around them as long as you keep some distance. Read your donkey's reaction to your approach.   Look for signals that he is getting anxious.   At the first sign of alarm, BACK OFF.   You can not gentle a frightened donkey.   Fear is like a Fifth of 120 Proof Rum in his system. It fuzzes his mind and robs him of COMMON SENSE.   When training, Fear is the one emotion you can not reason with.   A trainer should always be alert and watching for symptoms of Fear and step back and let the animal calm instead of pushing onward until the animal freaks.

It may take a little longer training by using the old ways but the end result is a happy, content animal that enjoys his relationship with people. Some animals will appear to submit to the dominance of Forceful training but in my opinion they are a ticking timebomb building resentment waiting for an opportunity to retaliate.   That's not an animal I want to trust with my life.

Over the years I have tried different methods and different approaches and through trial and error I have found what works the best for me to partner with a horse, donkey or mule.

I begin with 10 simple steps:

#1 - using non-threatening body posture when I approach and waiting until he overcomes his fear so he doesn't freak and run away.
#2 - he turns his head to watch me when I walk around him.
#3 - using his own curiosity to get him to take a step toward me.
#4 - allowing him to touch me before I touch him.
#5 - rubbing him all over (hand grooming).
#6 - picking up his feet.
#7 - pushing him left and right so he takes a step.
#8 - getting him to follow me (hand leading with my hand under his jaw).
#9 - stopping when I want him to.
#10 - standing quietly.

These 10 steps establish communication and give me an opportunity to learn his individual mannerisms and for him to begin learning my sounds and connecting them with my body postures and what I am asking him to do.

I stay alert so I can pick up when an animal is hesitating when I approach. Flicks of the ears, shifting of the feet, shifting his balance so he is ready to jump if I get too close.   Watch for these things.   If you see them or even suspect them, back off.   This horse, donkey or mule is shouting you are rushing him.   Horses tolerate rushing better than a mule or donkey. Donkey and mules can not be rushed.   You have to allow them time to decide you aren't going to eat them.

I suggest putting an animal you want to gentle and train in an enclosure alone, preferably a pipe corral round pen of about a 30' diameter, but any safely fenced enclosure will do (No Barbed Wire!).   It doesn't have to be round.   Square does work better than rectangular but work with whatever you have.   I recommend putting him in there alone because you want him to want to establish communication with you.   If he has a buddy in there with him that already speaks his language why should he bother learning yours?

I provide him with shade/shelter (a tarp over poles) forage (hay in a hay bag instead of hay fed to him on the ground or in a hay feeder), a salt block, and fresh water.   I have a 2x2x1 galvanized sheep water stock tank that I use in the training pen because each day I can dump it and carry buckets of fresh water to refill it.   I could use the hose but the commotion of dumping the tank and then carrying 4 or 5 buckets of water to refill it gives the donkey something to ponder on.   *I* am giving him fresh water. *I* am giving him hay.   Food = Me.   Usually within 2 days he has made the mental connection that I am the source of his food and water.   It doesn't matter if 10 other donkeys are in paddocks next to him.   HE IS ALONE IN THE PEN.   Donkeys touch each other to share comfort.   He has no one to touch in the training pen.   I think in his mind he thinks he is alone.   This may seem harsh but I need to explain to him by action that he needs me.

Whether it is a BLM, a donkey (any age) who has had no handling, a donkey hand raised, or an animal who isn't fully trained or has developed a quirk, I begin by putting him in the training pen.   The first two days I will observe him to learn his personality and mannerisms.   This also gives me time to look him over carefully at a distance for fresh or old injuries, conformation faults, or odd motions in this way of traveling that could interfere with his training.   He may seriously need his feet trimmed but I leave him alone. He has survived up to this point with his overgrown, ragged, chipped, cracked hooves and now is not the time to traumatize him by cornering him and forcefully holding him to trim his feet.   Lousy feet are a cosmetic and are not life-threatening.   If I see blood pumping from an artery I would dart him with a tranquilizer and put him in the chute for emergency medical care.   To be able to establish communication with this donkey I must do everything I can to avoid frightening him.   If I scare him I am imprinting on his mind that people are bad.   That would only reinforce his notion he should be afraid of people.   That is the opposite of what I want. I want him to think of people as buddies.   Friends.   Not just food givers, but companions.   A two-legged animal he can share fun adventures with.

He has been in the training pen for 2 days.   During that time I have entered his territory several times singing in a full but not loud voice a cheerful song (Zippidy Do Da is my favorite because I know most of the words).   I ignore him and go about the business of taking down the hay bag, removing it from the pen and bringing it back refilled and hanging it up.   I use a canvas hay bag for safety. I have carried a dozen or so buckets of water to refill his water tank.   A) He can have shown me he is a back pocket donkey that follows me so close I have the imprint of his nose on my tush.   B) He can have flew around the pen at a blind gallop desperately seeking an avenue of escape whenever I enter the pen.   C) a combination of A and B.   Of the three B is the easiest to train because he is the most honest.   He is afraid of me.   I am not scaring him; he is scaring himself.   My approach will be to let him become accustomed to me so he can see for himself I am not going to hurt him.   There is no need for him to be scared.   A is the trickiest to train.   The donkey appears to be friendly but what will he do when I make a request?   Comply?   Fight?   Harbor a grudge?   C is always a challenge because I don't know yet what his trigger point is.

To prepare for making the first touch I will take a folding chair into the pen and sit down, not in the center but 10 feet or so from the side so my presence blocks that side of the pen.   I will sit there singing and ignoring him for 10 minutes then stand up, fold up my chair and leave.   In an hour I will return but this time with three plastic buckets with the handles removed.   I will set up my chair then position the buckets half way across the pen, turning them upside down and putting an apple under each one.   I will sit in my chair for 10 minutes.   If the donkey finds the apples, fine. If he doesn't, fine.   After 10 minutes I fold up my chair and leave, leaving the buckets (handles removed).   I will wait a little longer this time about an hour and half.   I know donkeys don't wear wristwatches but they have an uncanny sense of time passage.   He will be watching for me when I return this time.   I will set up my chair and put apples under the buckets again. By now he has figured out there is something sweet and juicy under the buckets.   After 10 minutes I leave.   This time I return before the hour is up and when I go in I move the buckets closer to where I set my chair and I put the apples on an old dirty T-Shirt I've worn.   When he tips over the first bucket and finds the apple sitting on a white, smelly, donkey-eating rag he is probably going to spook.   That's okay.   I would rather he spook while he is 10 feet away from me instead of when I am standing near him.   If he wants the apple he has to overcome his fear of my scent and the sight of the white rag.   Each time I only stay for 10 minutes then I leave and when I return I move the buckets closer until they are 8-10 feet away from my chair. Usually by the end of the first day and 10-12 visits the donkey is not hesitating to walk up within a few feet of where I am sitting to tip over the buckets and get the apples.   Occasionally I will come across a donkey or mule that is so traumatized by prior handling that it takes two or even three days for him to become accustomed to my presence.

The next set of visits I still bring apples to put under the buckets but I don't bring my chair.   Instead of sitting down I walk around in the pen. The donkey may spook, or he may not.   When I see him turning his head to watch me I know it is time to move on to the next step.   I want him to take a single step toward me.   He knows I bring apples.   I want him to ask me for one.   From a distance of no closer than 10 feet I hold out my hand, directed at his shoulder, and wiggle my fingers.   If he turns away or hesitates, after I mentally count to 3 I lower my hand to my side and turn and walk away from him.   I walk around the pen ignoring him, then try again.   All I want is one step toward me.   If he complies with my request for movement, I lay an apple on the ground and roll it towards him, not to him, but toward him.   The first time I roll the apple he is probably going to spook, but again, that's okay.   He is far enough away that I am out of harm's way.   I will stay in the pen for 10 minutes at a time, leave and return in 15 to 20 minutes. These early visits are the only time I use food and I never hand it to them.   Instead I put it on the ground.

Once he turns his head to watch me, and complies with my request for him to take a step toward me, then it is time to move on to letting him touch me. To do this I stand absolutely still and let him slink up and sniff.   This is the most dangerous moment for me in all of his training.   He may sniff and leave or he may sniff, spook, decide to take a bite out of me or kick me. Be very alert and ready to move so you are never cornered.   Always make sure you have a direction you can go to step away from him.

If he sniffs and stays that is my signal he wants to donkey-talk.   Donkeys talk by touching each other.   Very slowly so it doesn't startle him I will shift my weight so my hip bumps him.   If I feel his body tense I will stop touching him.   If he bumps me back then it means he wants to start a conversation.   I will inch my fingers over to where I can rub on his shoulder.   If he tenses, I stop.   If he leans into my hand I continue rubbing him.   At any time if I feel him tense I stop.   I will begin slowly moving my hand farther up his shoulders, then farther along his back.   This first touching session should be very brief.   If he allows me to rub him on the front of his neck and on his shoulder, that is enough for this time.   I will leave and return and wait to see where he wants to start this next lesson.   Sometimes it is all the way back to step 1, but if that is what he wants, it is okay with me.   Once each step is firmly imprinted in his mind then he will ask for me to begin farther along, say at step 4 or 5.   If at any time he displays anxiety, I go back to whichever step he was comfortable with and slowly work toward the next step.

I watch his body language and he will let me know if I am going too fast for him.   If he shifts his weight or seems uncomfortable with where I am touching, then he is asking me to back up and go slower.   This is a partnership I am trying to build with him.   There is give and take on both sides.   Once he allows me to rub him all over, including his legs, then it is time to rub on the heel of his hoof. At any time he can step away from me so this makes him more confident.   I am not restraining him or forcing him to let me touch him.   He thinks it is his idea.   To pick up his foot the first time I will grasp it around the pastern and nudge him on the shoulder with my hip.   I do not pick it up off of the ground.   Only hold onto it for a count of 2, then let go.   I continue rubbing his body and if he is relaxed under my touch I grasp his pastern again.   This time he will probably lift his foot for a second then try to shake my hand loose and set the foot down quickly.   The trick is to let go before he tries to shake your hand loose. Remember he is not restrained in any way.   No halter, no rope, and definitely no arm looped over his neck to try to hold him.   It takes practice and patience for him to accept having his feet picked up and held. 
A donkey uses their feet to protect himself.   You are asking him to place his trust in you that you will protect him while he is defenseless.   The body rubbing (hand grooming) is the most important communication you have established with him.   At this point in time all I want is for him to allow me to grasp all four feet without resisting.   Over a period of 2 or 3 days I will move from grasping his pasterns to actually lifting and holding the foot.   Before he can ask me to let go, I will set the foot down gently and praise him.   Make sure he is standing fairly squarely before you ask him to let you lift his foot.   If he is off balance he is going to struggle.   Once all these steps are accomplished I am ready to begin asking him for a more definite movement; this time to take a step forward while I am walking beside him.   I will use my hip to nudge against him and place the palm of my hand under his jaw to guide his head.   One step is all I ask of him and I will say Walk.   Once he willingly follows the guidance of my hand under his jaw then I want to ask him to stop and stand quietly.   I do this by walking forward with him and when I want him to stop I will step to the side so his shoulder bumps into my hip causing him to shift his weight to his hindquarters and say Stop.   This is the first part of him stopping.   If his weight is shifted onto his hindquarters it would be awkward for him to lift a hind foot and bring it forward in a step.

Because donkeys get bored quickly with repetition I try to find ways of making his training sessions interesting and challenging for his mind.   I will litter the training pen with traffic cones and ground poles so while we are walking there is a variety of things to step over and around.

Establishing a routine and sticking with it makes the training go faster. Donkeys do not like working twice on Sunday and nothing on Monday.   It would be better to work with him for 10 minutes every day than to work him for four 30 minutes sessions on Saturday and Sunday and leave him standing in the pasture Monday through Friday.   I leave the donkey in the training pen until he has learned to put on and take off a halter and is leading easily. Depending on the donkey and the amount of time spent with him this could only be 3 days or it could be a week.   I had one donkey that was terrified of people.   He had never been handled and was 6-7 years old.   It only took 6 days for him to be driving and another 2 days for him to be riding nicely. I had another donkey that was a family pet.   It took several sessions over a three week period to reach the point where she was ready to even begin ground driving.   For her entire life she had been the Princess, showered with affection and treats and never had to do anything but what she wanted to do.   Each donkey is an individual.   Some learn faster than others.   Some are more willing to learn.   And on the rare occasion I find one that just doesn't want any part of it.

Whether his personality is outgoing or shy, just about all donkeys can be trained if the trainer is patient.


back to home page                                                                                                                    next: part 3

 © 2001 Vicki Abbott

web design and editing: sabine calkins