Low Expectations

I had been sitting around mulling over my goals for the animals on the GHLHF, realizing that I spent the better part of the year really only focused on three of the fourteen equine that call this place home. Granted three of the horses really belong to Darling Husband, and I don’t have any immediate plans for Beau Pony so that leaves seven animals that I’ve been neglecting. I don’t think any of them consider the lack of work neglect. They’re more than happy with their gang activities, destroying the occasional fence doing the butt scratch pole dance, and loudly demanding treats any time they see me. I however, feel that given the amount of time, manual labor, and money spent on maintaining the lavish lifestyle of the free loaders, they should at least occasionally do something to make me feel there is some return on investment, even if it is purely emotional.

Ever since our Christmas light trail ride at BLORA last weekend, I realized that Offspring and I may be a bit much to expect Moonshine to haul around a 7 mile trek with a significant portion being uphill next year. She’s a small pony, and Offspring is only going to keep getting larger from here. There is absolutely nothing cuter than a saddle donkey with a small rider, unless it is a team of driving donkeys, and I just so happen to have three candidates for the positions just lounging around the pasture. I’m not too proud to admit that my donkey training skills are essentially non-existent if the past two and a half years is anything to go by. There have been minor successes. I brought home two untouched wild asses, and now with treats in hand you can approach and pet them. If you maneuver them into a small enough enclosure, you can halter them, and they kind of lead. Just don’t expect to get within ten feet of them while holding a rope/halter in an open pasture.

Donkeys are not like horses. They may resemble them slightly, eat the same food, and even cross-breed with horses but the similarities end there. Amy 2.0 posted on her training page, that “Horses are like training dogs, and donkeys are like training cats.” Donkeys are like cats in that I don’t know how to train cats either. Amy 2.0 responded to my comments on her post that I needed lots of treats and low expectations. I’m good with the treats, but apparently I need to go basement level, (maybe even hell) on the expectations. Amy 2.0 included a photo of herself riding one of the donkeys she has in training over obstacles, which was enough to inspire me to action.

So I’m back in the donkey training business again. I’m hoping the second attempt works like Beau Pony’s driving training. There was an epic fail, I lost interest in teaching him to drive for over a year, and then came back with a game plan that was successful in a fairly short amount of time. Beau turned out to be a rock star. I went on to train three other ponies to drive in less than a year after that. Keeping expectations low, I would simply settle for the ability to halter the donkeys in an area larger than our round pen, but even that might be too much to ask in the first month. I’m really flying blind on this whole donkey thing.

Phase one of the donkey training plan is consistent work and ending every day on a positive note. Theoretically, that would be a key for success across all species, but keep in mind I’m dealing with total asses. Every night I’m feeding the donkeys in the round pen, and leaving them there over night. That way they are confined for easy capture the next day. Today was the first day of phase one, and having no expectations I was pleasantly surprised that not only did everyone halter with not much fuss, but they also acted as if they remembered how to lead since this is the first time I’ve attempted to lead them in probably six months or more. Not only was leading successful, I managed to trim Mesquite and Thistle’s hooves without getting kicked. I fed them a thousand treats for even the slightest wink toward the behavior I was trying to encourage and then I turned them loose in the pasture.

There is definitely hope for Mesquite. She has always had a personality that craves human interaction and will actually leave a full feed pan to get scratches. Mesquite didn’t really require halter training, she just kind of naturally follows you with or without the halter until she gets bored or hungry. Thistle has never seemed to like humans at all. Some people would say that is fear, but she doesn’t show any signs of fear, she just wants everything on her terms. Thistle will let you scratch her when she is feeling generous, may even make an “O” face if you hit the right spots. If she’s not in the mood, good luck getting within twenty feet even with treats. Also, if you make Thistle mad by doing something she doesn’t want to do like picking up her foot, then she will try to bolt. If she’s confined or haltered, she’ll stop after the initial show of resistance and stand there giving you a look of pure hatred. She’ll even refuse treats afterwards just like a toddler throwing a tantrum when they don’t get their way.

Thistle’s O face

When I adopted the the first burro, Thistle, I purchased several books about donkeys and training donkeys. I’m not proud of the hours spent watching YouTube videos of supposed donkey whisperers, or just people with successful track records of training hundreds of donkeys. The books and many trainers said that unlike horses, donkeys learn by observing other donkeys. Training is easier if you have a trained donkey the ones in training can watch you work with. They may even mimic the behaviors of trained donkeys. I thought maybe working with Mesquite first in the round pen while Thistle waited in the corral attached to the round pen she might observe behaviors worth imitating, because Mesquite seems to genuinely want to please for scratches and treats. I’m convinced Thistle used the time to identify holes in my training program, because she did the exact opposite of everything Mesquite did.

I was also told that donkeys are food oriented creatures and once you get a wild ass to eat from your hand the training is pretty much over at that point. I call bull$hit. Mesquite may follow that rule, but sometimes she would rather be scratched than eat. Thistle will only take the treat if she thinks she’s stealing. Offering her a treat for a thing well done, may result in her waiting as long as ten minutes before she actually chews it while shooting you a nasty look for your “win” of her accepting the treat. I’m going to do my best to go into every day with a positive outlook, and zero expectations for the donkeys. With any luck I’ll be pleasantly surprised by a miniscule amount of progress over the previous day or at least not a total back slide.

If haltering and leading goes well, I may even introduce some desensitizing objects tomorrow. If not, I’ll settle for the ability to take the halter on and off several times before I run out of treats and turn the donkeys back out in the pasture. Wish me luck!

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