Horses will teach you to be confident and assertive, to take charge of a situation, to control your energy and become a trusted leader your horse will want to follow. I’ve written about that here. A donkey will teach you to wait. And wait. And wait some more.
Horses and donkeys are similar in many ways; they’re both equines, after all. But in my experience, training donkeys takes a different set of skills than training horses. Whereas a horse’s tendency is often to panic and flee, a donkey will plant its feet and refuse to move. I’ve had horses completely melt down or explode, but donkeys are a little more thoughtful. It’s almost easier to deal with a horse that is visibly upset, because at least it’s willing to move and you can re-direct its energy into something productive. A horse will show you how it’s feeling, and that’s wonderful because then you can change your behavior to comfort and reassure it. A donkey won’t make it so easy for you.
I never, ever want to put my horses into a state of panic, but I’ve had situations (mostly with rescue horses) where normal stuff like trailer loading or putting them into a stall causes them to come apart. I always try to keep it calm and peaceful, but despite my best efforts, some horses don’t yet know how to be anything other than reactive.
A perfect example is a mini horse named Oreo that I fostered. If I got him anywhere near an open trailer, he would rear up, once to the point that he flipped over backward. He learned very quickly that trailers are nothing to be afraid of, and his reactivity didn’t last long because I went slowly in teaching him and allowed him to discover it for himself without a lot of pressure. But the one time he flipped over was the first time I tried to load him, and I couldn’t have predicted that he would have such a strong reaction. Sometimes despite our best efforts at keeping horses calm, they flip out.
Donkeys don’t really do that. (If they do, it’s a bad sign. You’ve really pushed them too far.) Where horses can be very demonstrative of their fear, donkeys tend to shut down and internalize it. (Some horses do too, but that’s a whole other post.) A donkey’s typical reaction to not wanting to do something is to plant his feet and refuse to move. That’s where they get the reputation for being stubborn.
It can be very frustrating to have an animal that flat refuses to move at all and shows no emotion or evidence that he’s even considering cooperating with you. Donkeys freeze. You can pull and push and yell and wave whips and ropes and do all of the things that incite a reaction in horses, and a donkey will stand there and stare at you. The more frustrated and upset you get, the quieter they get. You end up feeling like an idiot, usually because you kind of are. The donkey is telling you that there’s a better way of going about things, if you would just calm down.
Anna Blake gives a great example of this behavior in humans. Have you ever been in a room with someone who was acting very obnoxiously and embarrassing himself? Maybe a loud, out of control drunk person, an angry man berating his wife in public, or a woman screaming at her kids in the grocery store? You look away because it’s uncomfortable to watch. This is exactly what horses do, in subtle ways. We call it “calming signals,” and it’s a horse asking us to chill the hell out.
A lot of people used to talk about a horse licking and chewing as a sign that he was starting to think about whatever you were trying to teach him. Turns out that’s garbage. The horse is actually having a nervous system response where he’s been so terrified that he stopped producing saliva and he’s licking and chewing because the scary thing is over and he’s able to salivate again. It really means that you just scared the crap out of your horse and he’s asking you to stop. Donkeys have calming signals as well, and they’re more subtle than horses.
Calming signals for donkeys include planting their feet, refusing to look at you and eventually lowering their head, closing their eyes or even yawning. I have seen my donkey do all of these things, and I’ve tried to take a step back when I see them. I understand now that he’s trying to tell me in the only way he knows how that I’m stressing him out. He’s asking me to stop, or slow down.
Less is more with donkeys, and here’s a great example of why I feel that way. A couple of days ago I asked my donkey to step up on a wooden pedestal. I want him to get used to walking over different things and ultimately be willing to follow me anywhere, to trust me (so that in the future we can avoid the trailer and barn debacle we went through in moving him here). He stepped up on the pedestal with no problem. Then, because I’m a goal-oriented human, once wasn’t good enough and I asked him to do it again.
He refused. I’ve learned enough about him to know that he needs time to think about things, so I waited and waited and then asked again. I still got a refusal. I noticed he lowered his head and yawned and so I sat down on the pedestal and started rubbing his ears. He put his head in my lap and I gave him a nice long ear rub and then we quit for the day.
A lot of people would say that I did the totally wrong thing, that I rewarded him for not stepping up, and that I let him “win.” In the past I would have kept badgering him and asking him to step up, and I wouldn’t have recognized the lowered head and the yawning for what they were. He had already done what I asked; why should he have to do it again? What would that accomplish? It reminds me of the story of Mary and Martha in the Bible. Martha was all pissed off because Mary was spending time with Jesus instead of helping her with the housework. Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen “the better way.”
My donkey was asking me to choose the better way. He was asking me to have a relationship with him, to give him some love and forget about my goals. What we often fail to recognize as humans is that once we have the relationship, the particulars of stepping onto a pedestal, wearing a pack, getting into a trailer, or crossing a stream will fall into place on their own. We have a much higher chance of success if we look carefully at the signals our equines are giving us and respect them. That’s how we build trust.
A donkey will teach you patience if you’re willing to learn.