Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Big Blanket Debate

To blanket or not to blanket, that is the question.  And oh boy do people have some serious debate over it! It can get overwhelming for new donkey owners.

Do you know what the simple answer is? It depends on your animal and your situation!

Older donkeys, donkeys with fine coats, donkeys who are thin or ill, donkeys who are suddenly thrust into harsh weather after a spell of warm weather, donkeys who do not have adequate shelter, or who refuse to use their shelter during storms....all of these may require a well fitted blanket. 

Donkeys, unlike horses, do not have two layers of fur. Therefore, water simply soaks into their coat after a while and end up on the skin. They do not slick off water well. The worst days I have found in CO are the 40 degree slush/snow mix days.  Donkeys are not built for wet weather, they are desert animals. 

If you live in Florida, you likely would only need a blanket in case of illness or very wet weather. If you live in Canada, you likely will want one just for the extreme cold and snow.

Don't think that any old winter horse or pony or mini blanket will fit a donkey. Donkeys have different proportions than horses and the neck area especially tends to be problematic.  Horse blankets are made with very sloping shoulders, and often end up sliding back on a donkey and getting stuck behind the winter area, causing extreme pain and rubbing over time on the shoulders and back.  I have found Weatherbeetas especially good for my mammoths, but there are  other companies that make smaller, very adjustable blankets that work well for other sizes of donkeys. Donkeys usually need blankets with very little "fill", they need it more for the waterproofing quality of the blanket. But an older, thin, or ill donkey may need a warmer blanket of course.

Another way to help keep your donkey warm is to make sure they can eat many small meals throughout the day and night, the stemmier the hay the better. The digestive process, especially digesting stemmier forage, creates heat in the gut and therefore warms the donkey. Chewing straw on cold nights can help as well. We go out and feed on nasty nights at around 2 am in addition to regular meals. 

Be sure that you have a water tank heater that works when it is very cold out, as drinking water is super important in the cold, and donkeys tend to get discouraged about drinking icy water easily, which can lead to colic. 

Even if you don't believe in blanketing donkeys, having a well fitted blanket  for each animal on hand is really important. You never know when you might need one. We almost never blanket, but today we did as it was 80 yesterday and today it is freezing and snowing sideways. Even though our donkeys have winter coats, that is quite a sharp change in weather! It is simply kind to help them out. I am glad we had our blankets on hand and ready! 

So the moral to this story is: Decide on your own. Be ready and have one. If you feel like they should be blanketed, blanket them. If you think they are doing fine on their own, then don't.  Everyone has different situations and may have different needs.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Dispelling Donkey Myths

I am often confronted with strange and, sadly, common myths that surround donkeys, which can lead to mistreatment or abuse. Donkeys are amazing creatures, full of intelligence and charm, and need to be stripped of these preconceived notions in order for people to treat them properly.

Myth #1: Donkeys are stubborn. Heck, even I like to use the word stubborn when referring to my donkeys. It is funny and sometimes breaks the ice in conversation. As in "I own donkeys, so you can't be more stubborn than they are!" But truly, this is not the case, and I need to cut it out myself! Donkeys are perceived a stubborn by humans who cannot grasp how intelligent they are. Particularly horse people tend to get frustrated easily, since they are very used to how flighty and high energy horses are.

Donkeys and horses evolved in very different types of terrain. Horses evolved out of forests and onto plains where they could run and run in order to escape predators. Hence, their strong flight reflex. Donkeys evolved in arid, desert mountains. If a donkey spooked and ran off like a horse, it would fall and be taken out of the gene pool. Donkeys are much more likely to stop and think, a process often referred to as "baulking". Even the most popular Breyer model of a donkey, Brighty of the Grand Canyon, is sculpted as sitting down in his haunches, refusing to go (or maybe waking up from a  nap?).  I have found that, although some donkeys are higher energy and will run from danger, it is often not to the extent that a horse will, and they usually will stop at a safe distance and look back and decide what to do next.

So, although you can ask your donkey to move forward with a tool like a whip, the moment you overuse it or frighten them with it, they are likely to appear as if they totally are ignoring it. They aren't. They are worried and figuring it out. The bigger you get to try to get them to move at that point, the worse the baulking will get, and the more trust you will lose.

I always say: act like you have 5 minutes, it'll take you all day. Act like you've got all day, it'll take you five minutes.

Myth#2: Donkeys have super strength. Yes, for their size, donkeys are a bit stronger than horses. No, they cannot carry up to 50% of their weight. And even if they physically CAN, does not mean they should. Donkeys, like horses, have delicate tendons and joints, and overburdening them can cause lasting issues that are quite painful. 25% of the body weight of the donkey (this includes any tack like saddle etc, is the most weight that should be on a  donkey. Make that only 20% if packing, including pack gear. Also, what must be taken into consideration is the conformation of the donkey, their backs, legs, hooves, body condition etc. A well conditioned, well conformed donkey can probably carry a little bit more because they are built well and have good muscling. A long backed, cow hocked donkey with no muscling probably can't carry much at all. So, when evaluating donkeys for riding or packing or driving, do take into consideration both their weight/size and other things like conformation, age, conditioning etc.

Myth #3: Donkeys are herd guardians. Now, here's a sticky ball o' wax. Because as soon as I bring this up, ten people will contact me saying their donkey is the best guardian ever, and just killed a coyote the other day.  Donkeys are prey animals, not predators, which means that they are not hard wired to protect anything in the way, say, a dog is. Donkeys do have a very strong dislike for new, smaller, and carnivorous animals entering their areas, and, if they bond with a herd of sheep, may either alert or defend themselves and the others from an attack. However, this is not "fun" for the donkey, it is extremely stressful. While a livestock guardian dog may really enjoy the responsibilities of looking out for their herd or flock, a donkey is just being a donkey, and being on high alert for predators is extremely stressful to ANY prey animal.  Uneducated donkey owners may think their donkey is really peaceful and happy because donkeys are very stoic, and oftentimes don't show stress as clearly as a horse. But it is there. Also, donkeys often get harmed trying to protect themselves from stray dogs or coyotes or other large predators. Minis never are ok to leave as herd protectors, and even a mammoth can be taken down by a determined dog (two of mine were nearly gutted and killed by an uncontrolled pit bull, and amazingly survived). For every person I hear tell me their donkey is an excellent guardian, I have 5 more showing me photos of noses ripped to shreds, tendons bitten, ears torn off. Also, donkeys are really meant to be with other donkeys, not by themselves with a bunch of cows or sheep. So keeping them alone so that they will bond with another species isn't really in the donkey's best interest. Yes, sometimes it works and things are fine...until they are not.  My first donkey I was given because he was supposed to be guarding a flock of goats, and he picked one up by the neck and swung it around to play with it! The same playful and territorial tendencies that people rely on for their guardian donkey to keep predators away sometimes backfires, and newly born calves or sheep etc may also be put under attack. They are new and small and not part of the herd, in the donkey's mind. I have seen SO many donkeys up for sale because of them not working out as guardian animals having killed many of the livestock they were supposed to protect.  Another reason not to keep donkeys in with a herd of cattle or sheep, depending on the area and type of forage available, is that donkeys are desert dwellers with very thrifty digestive systems. They are not meant to eat lush grass and alfalfa, and will get obese and potentially founder, which is a life threatening condition. It's just not a good idea!! Have a fantastic guardian donkey? Great. I do hope it works out for you both. But I wouldn't do it.

Myth #4: Donkeys don't need the same medical care as horses/never get sick. Donkeys need everything a horse does, health wise! They need to have their hooves trimmed at least every 8 weeks (BY A DONKEY KNOWLEDGEABLE FARRIER--and those are rare) unless they self trim on rocky terrain. They need vaccines in the same dosage as horses, to be dewormed either on rotation or per your vet's guidance on a  fecal exam several times yearly. They need dental floats. Donkeys even have some health conditions that are mostly specific to donkeys that need to be watched out for, and their hooves need to be differently trimmed than a horse's. Remember earlier I said donkeys are stoic? It is VERY important to watch your donkeys' normal behavior so that you can sense when they are "off". They hide illness well, which is why people don't think they ever get sick. By the time they are showing symptoms, many times it has progressed pretty far or the donkey has suffered and passed away. Some of the illnesses that affect donkeys more often than horses are: Hoof issues like white line disease, abscessing, and founder, skin issues like rain rot, especially under thick winter coats (donkeys don't slick off water like a horse does, and it drips straight onto their skin--hence the need for shelter or a rain coat when it is really wet out), and obesity issues (from feeding them like a horse). There are many more. I have seen donkeys choke more often than horses on grain...perhaps that is just my experience though. I always wet any type of grains I give to my donkeys now. Donkeys in general usually do not need grain in their diet, I use it to put supplements in, and therefore they get very little, and only the low sugar, low starch, low energy grain. But back to the topic--donkeys do need medical care, and no, they are not always hardier than horses.

Myth #5: Donkeys are just pasture ornaments, they aren't good for anything. Oh, SO not true! Even little mini donkeys can be trained to drive fairly easily. We pack, ride, and drive our mammoth donkeys. They are wonderful trail companions, more like a dog than a horse in personality. They bond closely with their handlers and are very trusting once you earn it. They are super intelligent and can keep themselves and you out of harms way. People even show donkeys! Donkey seem to enjoy having a job. I spend much of my week traveling to different donkeys, training them and their owners to do whatever they would like to learn. I have found that people who actually invest time and money into training their donkeys don't rehome them...they keep them! So it has been my mission to educate, train, and help people enjoy getting out and about with their donkeys. An education, even if it is just being easily catchable, leading, tying, picking up feet, and loading in a trailer, is the best thing you can do for your donkey! Even if you can no longer keep that donkey, it'll have a better chance of finding a good, safe home if it has manners and training. Educate your donkeys...if you truly care for them.

I hope this list, although of course not complete, helps someone, somewhere, dispel a myth that could have brought harm to donkeys. What other myths do you hear regularly?

Saturday, November 5, 2016

What Does it Take to Own a Donkey?

Those of us who own and love donkeys, nay, perhaps obsess over donkeys often fall into thinking that EVERYONE should own a donkey! However, I am constantly reminded that no matter how much we think of these wonderful animals, not many people are truly set up or properly equipped to own one. I see it on a  daily basis almost. So, let's chat about it.

What sort of things must one be able to do/possess in order to care for donkeys appropriately? I know we have chatted before about physical objects like good fencing, clean water, appropriate low energy feed, housing etc. But what sorts of people do best owning donkeys?  What attributes are important in a  human caretaker of donkeys?

1. A sense of humor. I can't stress this enough. The ability to laugh at yourself and at your animal's antics is super important. Those of us who work with donkeys daily know that without the unique viewpoint that no matter what we think of ourselves as trainers or caretakers, that the donkeys will always find a way to befuddle, outsmart, and stymie our best tries.....we would be frustrated indeed. People who anger easily and are impatient should probably not own animals in general, but certainly not a donkey!

2. Respect for the animal. Donkeys are abused worldwide, in higher numbers and to a larger degree than any other domestic animal ON EARTH. Let that sink in a bit. Those of us who work in rescue totally understand this concept, and have heard it all: snide remarks about asses from every conceivable angle. Then, you get the cowboys who like to shock you in automotive stores by saying they pushed a donkey off of a cliff last week because you made a  previous comment about how donkeys are naturally protective of themselves and won't go near cliffs. Yes, they dragged the donkey off with a rope and told us about it, after killing it. If you think that donkeys are an object to be laughed at, you certainly shouldn't own one.  A little light humor can do a world of good (notice point number 1), but if you can't help but denigrate the species in order to get attention, then they aren't for you. The most abused animal in the world needs more allies, not people spreading misinformation about how "dumb", "stubborn", or "useless" donkeys are. Nothing could be further from the truth!

3. A sense of patience. A DEEP sense of patience.  Donkeys are deep thinkers and also can sense of a motive from a  mile away.  Training-wise, this means that you need to approach objectives with the least amount of urgency possible.  Once the donkey understands a concept, then it can be expected to be completed at a faster pace. If you don't have a lot of time to be still, to observe, to notice, and to reflect with your donkey, then a horse is a better fit for you. Donkeys are incredibly stoic, and really spending the time to know when your donkey is feeling good or bad can be vital to their health or life in a medical emergency. Many times, by the time a donkey is showing signs of poor health, it is too late. Spend time with your donkey, become friends. Know what is normal behavior for them.

4. An open minded willingness to learn. Those of us who truly love the world of equines also have a lifelong appreciation of learning. No one is ever the "best" horseman out there, just as no one is ever the "best" donkey trainer or caregiver. We can all always improve, and should be actively seeking as much information and ideas as possible in order to make our donkeys' lives better and hone our skills every time we work with our donkeys. The best praise you can get is when your donkey responds how you wish, willingly.

5. Good work ethic. If you don't have the time constantly to muck, to feed at appropriate intervals, to keep water tanks clean and full, to repair fence, to pick out hooves, to groom, to be there for the vet or make appointments regularly with the farrier, then you probably would do better with a goldfish than a donkey. Donkeys require daily care and attention---period. There's no day off. If you want to have days off from caring for your animals, you will need to find a good donkey sitter.

6. Caring. All of these attributes come down to a single word. To CARE. They cannot come second to your social life, your work, or even your health! They must be cared for just like a child---they come first. If you cannot properly care for your donkey, and you care about their well being, consider finding them an acceptable and safe home. Many rescues can help place donkeys into caring homes, even foster homes until an owner can get back on their feet health wise or financially. Be responsible for these wonderful beings who rely on you to care for them. Always.

Like all of my articles, this one is not meant to shame anyone. It is meant to be a mental checklist for those interested in the responsibility of taking on some of these wonderful animals. They are amazing beings who deserve to be treated with care, respect, patience, humor,  and open mindedness. They deserved to be well looked after.