Horses · Project Pack Donkey

Horse People vs. Donkey People

I think at this point you could call me a donkey or burro enthusiast (burro is the Spanish word and is more commonly used out west; donkey is common on the East Coast). I got into donkeys because I was already into horses, but I’m learning that there is a whole community of donkey fans who got into donkeys without ever being into horses first. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

I got Rusty the Donkey because my daughter wanted one, and I was trying to get her into horses so that we could ride together. I was hoping that a donkey would be a gateway drug. It didn’t work at all, and I am now solely interested in and responsible for the donkey that was supposed to be my daughter’s. Getting a donkey to me seemed like getting a more compact, less expensive version of a horse. I learned that isn’t the case at all, that even though they’re both equines and require similar care, donkeys are very different from horses in some important ways. Without getting too into it, they have different nutritional needs and very different ways of processing new experiences. The donkey for me was kind of an accessory to the horses; the horses were the main attraction.

Who wouldn’t fall in love with this face?

I think that’s because when you are into horses, most of the time it’s because you want to ride them. That’s what most people think horses are for; they’re for riding. The first question people ask about a rescue or a free horse- is it rideable? The implication is, “What’s the point otherwise?” Why take on all the expense if you can’t ride it?

My donkey is too small to ride, so for me he was a bit of a novelty. His job when we lived in Georgia was to guard the cattle pasture. He lived in a pasture with the cows and protected them from coyotes. He was SERIOUS about his job too. He ran off domestic dogs as well as coyotes and he stuck like glue to the calves that were born in the pasture. Nobody was getting to HIS babies. Because he performed this service, I didn’t have to pay any board on him. It was a fantastic arrangement for everyone.

I gave Rusty the additional task of hiking with me and carrying a pack. I had a blast training him and hiking with him, but I feel like a lot of horse people look at me sideways and ask, “Why spend all that time with an animal just to walk with it? Wouldn’t you rather be riding?” I genuinely love hiking with my donkey but always felt that I had to explain or justify that to horse people.

Rusty looking stunning in his pack.

That all changed when I found out about the burro community. Did you know there is a whole community of donkey/burro enthusiasts who were not ever into horses, never rode, and didn’t think of donkeys as some form of Horse Lite? Thanks to social media, I found these people!

You may have heard of pack burro racing out west. It started in Colorado and is now the official summer sport of the state. Colorado has a history of mining towns, booms and busts, and all of that was possible because of the humble burro. Miners would strike gold, then rush down a mountain with their mining gear packed onto their burro to stake their claim in town. Leadville, Colorado, an old mining town, started pack burro races to draw tourists and pay homage to their history. Mimicking the miners of old, runners on foot race with their donkeys on a pre-determined course, like a marathon with four-legged friends. Riding the donkeys is not allowed. Part of the challenge is convincing the notoriously stubborn donks to finish the rugged course through the Rockies. The sport has blossomed in popularity, with races now held in New Mexico, Arizona and California as well.

Image is from the newspaper Vail Daily, no photographer credited. I believe it’s a still from a film called “Haulin’ Ass.”

I’ve been following some of these pack burro folks on social media and most are not horse people. Most of them are outdoor enthusiasts who are interested in trail running, marathons, endurance sports, and spending lots of time in the mountains. The donkeys make all of those things more fun!

Even though I’m on the East Coast (actually 25 miles offshore on an island) and I have no access to any of the sanctioned races, I think it’s fabulous that there are people out there who are into donkeys as adventure buddies. I love riding my horse, but I also love hiking with my donkey, and I love that there are people out there who get me!

It said “No Horses.” Rusty says he isn’t a horse. Don’t worry, we didn’t go!

One of my biggest beefs with many people who own mini horses and donkeys is that they often don’t do anything with them. They sit in a pasture and look cute, but many of them become obese and end up foundering (a horribly painful hoof condition tied to over-eating and too much sugar in equines). All of the minis and donkeys I’ve ever worked with have been SMART and capable of so much more than sitting in a pasture bored to death. Any animal that has a home and is taken care of is lucky, but I feel like many animals are capable of more than they’re given a chance to show.

Teaching donkeys to pack and hike and participate in races is a wonderful way to popularize an often overlooked animal. There are hundreds of burros that were rounded up off the range in the western U.S. that are now sitting in BLM holding pens. Pack burro racing creates a demand for those animals and gets them out of holding and into homes. Burros are easier to care for than horses in many ways, and they cost less to feed, which makes them more accessible to the average person than a horse would be. Most of them are too small to be ridden (or in my opinion should not be ridden by full grown adults), which means a burro owner doesn’t have to pay for riding lessons and deal with the huge learning curve involved in learning to ride.

Trying on his new saddle pad.

People who adopt donkeys get a hardy, sure-footed adventure buddy and the donkeys get a home and a purpose. Everybody wins!

If you want more information on pack burro racing, check out the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation or go to Instagram and search for #packburro #packburroracing or #burrocross. There’s also a fun film on YouTube made by the running shoe company Saloman. They take some elite ultra runners out to a pack burro race. Hilarity ensues.

Update! I looked at the race list for the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation and there’s a race in Tennessee in April. The sport is heading east!

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