Thursday, September 10, 2020

Training Donkeys to Saddle: Speak Less and Say More

Were I to begin my life with equines again, I  might not begin that life with horses. I might use donkeys instead. Donkeys are misunderstood and profoundly underestimated as trail riding partners.

Donkeys do not learn the same way that horses do and they cannot be successfully taught using the same techniques used with horses. Both animals have a fight or flight response to perceived dangers, but while horses tend to flee at all threats unless cornered, a donkey is more likely to freeze and confront the danger.

That is why donkeys are used to protect livestock from coyotes. Most horses simply try to out run predators, but donkeys will often stand and fight. Coyotes are no match for the powerful kicks and bone crushing bites of donkeys who are protecting "their" flock of  goats or sheep.

Donkeys also have a much higher tolerance of pain than do horses. While humane, negative pressure is often at the center of horse training, donkeys can simply ignore that pressure. Donkeys respond wonderfully to rewards.

Clicker training helps donkeys understand what the trainer is asking them to do. Using a clicker to sound off the moment that the donkey responds correctly guides the donkey into the next step of training.

This can lead to having donkeys that are remarkably light to ride. One of my students obtained a young donkey and trained it on her own. She rode bareback and taught the donkey go over jumps. The most amazing part of what she taught her donkey was how it used its "bridle."

There actually was no bridle. The donkey simply opened its mouth and she put a soft rope between its teeth. The rope was not tied in place or connected to the donkey in any way. The donkey held the "rein" in place for the entire ride.

My little brother, Lido, was born with cerebral palsy. This made it difficult for him to mount up by himself. He taught his donkey to stand by a gate as he climbed up and jumped on.
 Mammoth donkeys are large enough to carry adults and large kids. Unfortunately they are very rare. We obtained two Mammoth jennies and we have two males that are a bit smaller. They are becoming a wonderful part of our program and gain more fans each week.

Perhaps because they have less of a flight response to predators, donkeys seem able to form quicker and deeper bonds with humans than do horses. Horses respond to love. Donkeys thrive on love. And I have never met anyone who loved donkeys more than Jenner. In the picture above he is teaching a donkey to walk over a teeter totter. A donkey must have perfect trust in the person that asks them to do such a task in order to be able to walk on such a shifting surface.

Jenner gets wonderful results from the donkeys that he works with because he works so hard to communicate with them. He spends countless hours just being with the donkeys, talking to them, petting them, leading them, and showing them that they can trust him.

There is no substitute for spending time with the equines that one is training. Jenner has learned something important about communication with the donkeys during all of the hours that he spends with them. He has learned that there is a time for "small talk" and a time for "business talk."

When he is not in the saddle Jenner carries on long conversations with the donkeys, but when he is in the saddle and it is time for "business talk" he has learned that the fewer words said the better the response that the donkey gives. While riding, long conversations are replaced with short instructions. "Step".  "Whoa", "Trot", "Canter" are cues that the donkeys can understand and respond to.

But the important part here is that they are so responsive to the one word cues partly because of  all of the long conversations that he has with them when they are spending time together in the pasture. I am not suggesting that the donkeys understand the words that he uses during these conversations. I am emphatically saying that they understand his tone, and that tone conveys love.

And love gets results.

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