I’ve wanted to have long ears in my life for ages. However, donkeys and mules are a lifelong commitment (they can live 4 decades) and require specialized care. You can’t just pop one into your backyard. Happily for me, Jessica Gonzalez lives only 10 minutes up the road from me at my new home in Maine. I’ve known her for years through the R+ community. She has an equine rescue on her property. Mostly, she takes in massive draft horses, but she also has two burros, Sunflower and her daughter Nymph, saved from a hoarding situation in Texas. These two donkeys live a happy life with children (who are trained in the ethos of positive reinforcement) who dote on them. The burros love handling – except for their legs and hooves. The volunteers at the rescue have been slowly getting the donkeys used to picking up their feet and standing for trims, but last year Sunflower required medical care that she didn’t like at all. That was a setback. Sunflower also developed scuzzy legs (pretty much a technical term with us equine people). Fly season made it worse, so Jessica got tiny fly boots for Sunflower, which alleviated some of the stomping, but didn’t get rid of the scuz.
I offered to help with the leg handling and treatments.
I met the donkeys. It was obvious that they enjoyed interacting with me, and that nose kisses, scratches, and simply hanging out, were rewarding to them. That first visit, that’s all I did.
The next time I came around, I stroked their fur, rubbed their ears and ran my hands down their legs. I asked what was acceptable and what wasn’t. There were frequent breaks for nose kisses. After a few minutes of this, both donkeys let me pick up their front legs.
Sunflower (the larger and darker one) even let me hold it up for awhile.
Nymph tried to be cooperative, but she didn’t think that she could balance on 3 legs. So, going forward, I’ll pick up her hooves only a few inches from the ground and set back before she feels unsafe.
Neither liked their hind legs touched, but if I did butt scratches as I worked my hands down their body, they decided that it was okay. Sometimes I had to scratch both donkeys at the same time. I’m working on my stretching, too!
That second visit lasted all of ten minutes. I had picked up all eight little hooves, and as I left the donkeys followed me to the gate, wanting more.
All of this is preface for what I really want to tell you about – what a thoughtful genius Sunflower is!
Jessica decided that it was time to remove the fly boots. These are attached very securely with overlapping flaps of velcro, so to get them off, one has to pull. I knew that would irritate Sunflower’s already irritated legs. I got the first one off of her front left, but the right leg was more sore and Sunflower was wary. Still, she was free to leave me and she didn’t. I knew she wanted those boots off. So I showed her the boot that I removed, I made noise with the velcro, and tossed it on the ground. Sunflower thought about this and reached out and gave me her right leg so that I could take off the boot!
I then attempted to get a hind boot off, but as soon as I tried to pull off the velcro, Sunflower stomped off in a huff. I waited. She came back. I tried again. She swished her tail and trotted away from me. Then she did something very interesting. She lay down.
I walked over and she didn’t budge. A prone equine is vulnerable. They can’t get up quickly. She’d done this on purpose. Hmmm…
She had her hind legs out, almost straight. Hmmm…
Sunflower had positioned herself so that I could remove the fly boots without hurting her scuzzy legs.
When an animal is allowed to think, and trusts that their person will listen to them, their capabilities and true nature are revealed. It’s what happens when you do training with positive reinforcement principles. In fact, I might not call it training at all – it’s communication. At this point I’m not using a clicker. I save that for when I have a behavior that I have clear criteria for and that I’ll eventually put on cue. For handling like this I like to keep it an undemanding dialog and be all about the relationship.
Next up will be cleaning and medicating her legs. I can’t wait to find out how Sunflower wants me to do that. I’m sure she’ll tell me.