Since Thistle may not be the only burro we adopt from the BLM, I wanted to document her training journey (or maybe mine). At least I’ll remember what worked (or didn’t).
April 9, 2019…Thistle’s Arrival
Thistle’s first night on the farm. In the past week she was rounded up, vetted, vaccinated, transported to Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma for the adoption event, loaded onto another trailer, and dropped off in Temple, Texas. To say that was stressful is an understatement. So we made sure she had all of the hay she could eat, water she could drink, and left her alone to wind down from the trip.
April 10, 2019…Day 1
Thistle’s been on the farm for 24 hours. I didn’t mess with her much today, but I did sit in the round pen with her, and slowly approached her holding alfalfa out in front of me. She took a few nibbles, and I left her alone afterward.
April 11, 2019…Day 2
I spent a little more time with Thistle this evening, and attempted to approach her several times. She took a few more nibbles of alfalfa from my hand. I took a pool noodle into the round pen with me, and held it in front of her. Thistle reached out very slowly and tentatively bumped the pool noodle with her nose. When she did this, I backed off immediately. After she bumped the pool noodle a few times, I left her to eat the pile of alfalfa I left in the middle of the round pen.
April 12, 2019…Day 3
I reached out to a trainer that specializes in Mustangs that has also trained a few burros. She gave me a few tips that worked very well. I put a section of pool noodle on a piece of PVC pipe, and reached out to rub the noodle over her whole body. She will allow the pool noodle to touch her, because my body is not that close. I would rub her with the noodle a few times, and then retreat to give her a few moments to process that she didn’t die in the encounter. After several noodle rub/retreat moments I got close enough to actually touch her neck and shoulder with my hand. I scratched her for a few moments and then left her to her alfalfa.
April 13, 2019…Day 4
Today we had thunderstorms with high winds and lightning. Apparently our area was under a tornado warning. We spent the morning in the rain gathering horses/ponies (all eleven of them) for the farrier. I made sure Thistle was settled in with plenty of hay and water. I didn’t attempt to touch her, but she did take a few nibbles from the alfalfa I offered and some sweet feed from a scoop.
April 14, 2019… Day 5
Super exciting day! When I entered the round pen, Thistle approached me. I offered Thistle sweet feed from a scoop, and then began the pool noodle rubbing sessions. She allowed me to scratch her shoulders, withers, and neck. She was not a fan of my attempts to touch her face. I’ve also noticed she allows me to touch one side of her body more than the other, and I will need to start working with both sides of the donkey equally. I finally managed to remove her BLM neck tag which was no easy feat considering the way the thing was tied. She also approached Darling Husband as he stood on the outside of the round pen offering an apple treat. Thistle wasn’t comfortable enough to take it from his hand, but it was progress that she at least considered it.
April 15-17, 2019
Not much happened over these days. I was travelling for business, and Darling Husband was in charge of Thistle. He fed her, and she allowed him to give her scratches on these days. She even allowed him to remove her halter. It had begun to rub her nose a little. Thistle still would not allow him to actually touch her face though.
April 18, 2019…I’m counting this as the true Day 6
Today was not the happy home coming I had imagined with Thistle. She approached me when I entered her pen for food, but was very grumpy about me touching her. She at one point walked off, and then kicked a hind foot at me when I stepped toward her. She missed me by about 6 inches because I’m still very careful about working with her, but it was bad behavior all the same. I worked with her on yielding the hind quarters by tapping her gently with the donkey stick until she became annoyed enough to move her rear end away from me.
April 19-20, 2019…Day 7 & 8
Since Thistle was naughty on Thursday and I’m playing catch up on domestic items from travel, I’ve really just been feeding Thistle, offering a few scratches and then leaving her alone. Nothing of note today.
April 21, 2019…Day 9
I feel like we made a break through! I’ve discovered that Thistle likes her spiky little mane rubbed. It seems to soothe her when I run my hand up and down the crest of her neck. She even let me run my hand between her ears and scratch her forehead. Thistle will not allow me to touch her face when reaching directly out to it, but she did let me stand by her shoulder and touch her jaw and forehead. At least it was good to find one spot she enjoyed to be scratched.
May 9, 2019…Days 10- 22
To say I’ve been busy over the past few weeks would be an understatement, and I just haven’t had time to update this training diary like I wanted. Over the past two weeks, we’ve been spending about a half an hour a day with Thistle. Basically we been scratching all over her, and attempting to get her to eat treats from our hand. Sometime around Day 12 or 13 Thistle finally took a treat from my hand, but she was extremely careful not to touch me when she did it. I began attempting to rub down her legs, preparing her for some farrier work. The sooner we can get Thistle’s hooves trimmed the better. Now that she will let you approach her and touch around her face (grudgingly), I will move onto halter work and clicker training. It’s time she learned to lead as well as stand tied.
May 13, 2019…Days 23-27
I’ve been playing with touching Thistle’s legs, and walking all of the way around her instead of just approaching the shoulder and touching what I can reach. On May 12, 2019 I decided to attempt to halter Thistle for the first time since removing the halter. She begrudgingly allowed it, and then attempted to run from me. When she realized running away was futile, she did what donkeys do best. She planted her feet and refused to move at all. I planned on trying to clicker train her, because that is what the Donkey Whisperer and the book I purchased recommended. Thistle really hasn’t shown any interest in any single type of treat, though. So, I looked up ways to train a donkey without the clicker. Using the suggestions of a so called “Donkey Expert” aka rancher that trains pack donkeys I found on YouTube, I attempted the good ole pressure release process I would normally use on horses.
I walked out of her pen feeling like an utter failure, because I only managed go get her to take a few forward steps (Forward if you consider moving 6 inches from your starting point forward in a thirty minute period). I was tired, and not in the best place mentally for these games, so I removed the halter, patted her, and trudged back to the house for more research. Turns out, I accomplished about as much as could be expected during a first halter session (at least according to Donkey Expert). Tonight time got away from me, so I just loved on her and played with her. Thistle didn’t seem to hold any grudges about the previous night’s attempts at leading. We’ll try again tomorrow.
May 14, 2019…Day 28
Tonight was amazing! I decided to give halter training another try. At first Thistle walked away from me when she saw the halter. I gave her a moment, and then approached her. Placing the lead rope over her neck, I created a loop to steady her while I attempted to pull the halter over her nose. Thistle ran ignoring the lead rope pressure and escaped me. We did this two more times, and I was beginning to think I traumatized her two nights before during our first halter training session. Finally on the fourth time, she allowed me to halter her, and started stepping forward immediately after I had the halter secure. I decided to use this to my advantage and walk with her beside her head. She suddenly veered away from me, and I had to step back, place pressure on the lead, and direct her momentum in a circle rather than straight away from me. At this point Thistle realized that she must stop and/or face me to get pressure release. When she faced me, I released all tension in the lead and counted to five (apparently donkeys need five seconds to process what they have learned according to Donkey Expert). After five seconds, I started with light pressure gradually increasing until she picked up a hoof, then I immediately released and counted to five again.
I won’t bore you with every single pressure release, but suffice to say, Thistle walked the length of her enclosure both ways using this pressure, step, release, five second process. A few times she gave me three consecutive steps with light pressure. While this might not seem much to anyone that has never trained a horse or donkey, this was a HUGE breakthrough. Thistle even seemed to enjoy herself and was completely relaxed through the process. I gave her lots of scratches and encouragement afterwards and walked away feeling like we were both winners. A few more nights of this, and then we’ll go back to attempting to touch/pick up her hooves in preparation for future farrier visits. Maybe by the end of May, Thistle will be able to join a pony in the smaller paddocks so she can graze and enjoy being a donkey again.
There were alot of nights this month Thistle just got fed and a few scratches. We turned her loose with one of our BLM Mustangs, Battle in mid May. She proved in May that we were capable of catching her with a grain scoop if necessary. I felt like she needed more socialization and stimulus than 30 minutes of daily training. Turning her loose with Battle has been a good thing. They are sort of friends in the way that people who really don’t like each other will tolerate each other when no one else is available to interact with. She also pays attention to our interactions with Battle, and I think that has helped her to feel better about humans in general. She’s also joined Battle in the round pen for some desensitization sessions with Darling Husband. Despite not working with her consistently, Thistle surprised us both by remembering her halter sessions and giving to pressure. She almost leads now.
Thistle will get much more structured training over this next month. While her hooves aren’t in critical condition, she definitely needs some farrier attention, and I’m hoping a month of formal training sessions will get her to a point that she will allow us to handle her feet.
July 1, 2019
Thistle’s had 90 days to settle into life on the farm. She’s also starting to show interest in humans and interact with us. Like, she’ll follow my truck up the fence line when I pull up the drive way. I focused on some leading lessons tonight. We’re making progress. She’ll take eight steps at a time before pausing instead of two. She still won’t lead with me directly beside her, but she is yielding to very soft pressure. I also played an impromptu game with her. After some round pen work, I left the gate open and exited into the pasture. As I was returning to the gate, I noticed Thistle was following me better than she ever does when haltered. I decided to test her out and starting jogging away from her.
Thistle perked up her ears, trotted, then flattened them to her head and came galloping at me with a few bucks thrown in. I’ve watched videos of donkey attacks on YouTube, and the look on her face caused me to quickly rethink my actions. I stopped and turned to face her at which point she perked her ears forward and stopped about three feet away from me. She let me approach her and give her a few scratches, so I decided maybe our game was harmless. I trotted away from her, and ears flattened, she came charging after me again. When I stopped, she stopped. We repeated the game several time last night. I think she seemed to enjoy herself, and I’m thinking of ways to turn this game into Thistle leading better…