Yesterday I took Rusty the Donkey to the beach for the first time. I should start by saying that when I took my thoroughbred to the beach for the first time, I ended up underwater, soaking wet, and covered in sand. (He was afraid of the water.) This was not like that! Rusty is so mellow; he acted like he had been on the beach a million times, even got his feet wet!
I’ve been working with him on trailer loading by feeding him in the trailer every now and then so that he gets used to being in there. I knew he would hop right in the trailer at the barn, and sure enough, he got in, and off we went. I had a feeling getting in the trailer to go home would be a different story, but more on that later.
I unloaded him at the parking spot and headed out on the hard packed dirt road to the beach. From minute one, he was calm as could be. We’ve hiked together quite a bit, and he normally goes right into work mode. This was the first time I’ve trailered him off for a hike though, and you never know how an animal will react to a new situation.
The beach was busy with all kinds of people hanging out and fishing. This is one of the areas where people can drive out onto the beach, and there were trucks lined up for a few miles. We walked down to the hard sand at the edge of the water because walking in the soft, deep sand is a workout and tires me out. Like I said, my thoroughbred was completely freaked about being near the moving water, but Rusty couldn’t have cared less. He didn’t try to go swimming or anything, but he didn’t have a meltdown when the water touched his legs.
He got a lot of attention and he stood still for kids to come and pet him. I can’t say enough how calm he was. I had one hand on the lead rope and was even able to look at shells and find a piece of sea glass. We went 4 miles total and it was a relaxing, enjoyable time.
And then it was time to get back on the trailer. What works for a donkey is not the same as what works for horses. Most of the trailer loading “tricks” for horses are completely ineffective for donkeys, mostly because a horse will move around and you can use the nervous energy to make the horse go forward into the trailer. A donkey will plant its feet and refuse to move. A donkey will freeze to one spot for HOURS. Literally hours. Ask me how I know! Up until now, every time he got in a trailer, he ended up in a new home in a new state, so I don’t blame him for being concerned.
The only method I find effective for loading Rusty when he doesn’t want to load is to hard tie him so that he is facing the trailer and he can’t back up. He can stand still or he can move forward. He will start by pulling back and then realize that he can relax and stand normally. He just can’t get away from the trailer. I alternate patting him and encouraging him and then walking away and letting him think. Donkeys are thinkers; horses are reactors. I leave him alone and let him process without any pressure.
The thing about this method is that I don’t do anything but let him decide on his own to get in the trailer. I can’t force him in, but I can make it the most attractive option. He is very smart and he realized pretty quickly that standing tied is boring and no fun. There’s food in the trailer. He may as well go eat it.
Eventually the trailer issue will go away on its own. He’ll realize that getting in the trailer means we’re doing something fun or we’re going back home to his barn and his buddies, and it won’t be an issue. I think the mistake a lot of people make is that they have one bad experience where it takes hours to put a horse on the trailer and then they give up and don’t try it again because it’s exhausting and frustrating. I think it’s better to have a few frustrating experiences that are worth it in the end when the horse/donkey/mule realizes the trailer is not a big deal. I want to go places with Rusty and that can’t happen until he’s solid about getting in the trailer. The only way to get him solid in the trailer is by putting him in over and over, even if that means sitting in a beach parking lot for an hour waiting for him to decide to get on.
You just can’t be in a hurry with equines. All sorts of problems happen when we try to rush. If I’m going to take Rusty out, the first few times we go, I need to build in time for trailer loading. It will be less and less every time, but I have to make that initial investment of training time to get the result that I want- a donkey that hops in the trailer with no hesitation.