By Meredith Hodges
You have, thus far, begun to teach your donkey several things: how to begin to execute the turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches, how to walk forward in a round pen from the lunge whip without a saddle or harness (then with the saddle and harness), on the drivelines, and while being ridden. He has also begun to learn how to “trot on” from the lunge whip while tacked up, and how to walk and trot on the lead with an assistant aiding from behind. Do not be alarmed if your donkey’s movements are not perfect. Each time you work with him, he will get better at each of these things, especially if, at the start of each lesson, you review before adding anything new.
At the next lesson, if he is large enough, he will learn to trot with a rider onboard. If he is too small to ride, skip this lesson under saddle and do it with the drivelines. As always, begin with a complete review. After he has done his turns on the forehand and haunches, walked both on the lunge and with the drivelines, done right and left turns both on the drivelines and with a rider, and trotted with tack, he is ready to trot with a rider. Before you begin, here is a little exercise you can use to help your donkey stay light in the bridle. When you have mounted, take a treat in your right hand and your right rein in your left hand, and ask him to bring his head around to your knee and take the treat from your hand. Then take the treat in your left hand and the left rein in your right hand, and ask him to bend his head around to your opposite knee and take the treat from your hand. (Don’t pull—just vibrate the rein as his head comes around, and don’t try to hold him there. He will be very light in the bridle later on, once his neck muscles are stretched and flexible.) Now you will school the trot: Do it just as you did the walk. First ask your donkey to walk while your assistant, with the lunge whip, acts as a backup. You will give the command to walk, squeeze and release your legs and use your riding crop, if necessary.
Your assistant will come into play only if your donkey does not respond to your cues first. When he is in a good free walk on a loose rein, give the command to “trot.” Use your voice, then your legs and then go to your crop, if necessary. If this doesn’t work, your assistant can step in behind and encourage him with the lunge whip with one smart strike to the gaskin above the hocks, while shuffling his or her feet to create some noise. This should work, but you, as the rider, must sit absolutely still, maintain a very loose rein and allow the donkey to comply on his own. (Do not keep thumping his sides with your legs, nor keep hitting with the crop.) If all this fails to make him move on, just stop, pet him (no treat this time) and wait until he sighs or resumes chewing, then start over again. He is just trying to figure out what you are asking. This is not disobedience. It is important to note that you should not move from one attempt to the next without letting him chew. This is the way your donkey tells you that he is relaxed and ready to listen. If he just won’t do it, then go back to the lunging and have him trot without the rider once more, then try again at the next lesson. Each donkey is a different individual and will learn at his own pace.
As a trainer, I do not ask for perfection on the movements previously described, just cooperation and a reasonable effort. Repetition, over time, will take care of the rest. It is more important that you and your donkey have fun together and learn together in a way that is pleasing to you both. Your donkey may get bored with the round pen if you are there often. Varying the routine and place of training can alleviate this. He should be doing well with the walk at this point and be ready to move into an open arena for further lessons.
Set four cones in the four corners of your arena, with ample space for him to walk around the outside of them. Then set two cones in the center of the arena, creating a gate through which the two of you will pass. This will outline an hourglass pattern for you and your donkey to follow, as he perfects the verbal commands to “walk on,” “haw,” “gee” and “whoa.” “Trot” will come later.
First, lead your donkey (fully tacked up with either saddle and bridle or harness) around the perimeter and let him inspect the new area in which you will work. Remember to use your showmanship techniques. Then find a spot in the arena and review the turns on the forehand and haunches. Next, attach your drivelines and, with the assistant leading him, ground-drive him through the hourglass pattern. As you drive him, talk constantly, telling him what he is doing: “Walk on, walk on, good boy, walk on, haw, haw, haw, walk on, walk on, haw, haw, haw, walk on, walk on, good boy, walk on, gee, gee, walk on, walk on, walk on, haw, haw, haw,” etc. This is how you will reinforce the meaning of the verbal commands to your donkey for a good, solid foundation, and you will not have to repeat yourself as often later on. First, loop the pattern one way, then cross a nice straight diagonal and loop the other way. Have your assistant try to do as little as possible and let you actually drive him from behind. As you make each turn, give the command, pull/release the rein VERY lightly, and tap him VERY lightly with your driving whip on the opposite side, whether he needs it or not.
When he is executing the pattern without any deviations, you can eliminate the assistant and ask your donkey to respond to your cues alone. Use your verbal commands, reins and whip to help keep him straight. If he tries to deviate from the pattern, either stop him and resume, or just pull the rein in the direction he is to travel and help him get back on track with the driving whip. Use your whip lightly, but definitely on one side or the other to “push” him in the right direction. Use your whip directly over the croup for forward. Do NOT let him circle and come back to the track. He needs to learn to go in the direction in which you are pulling, and if you allow him to go in the opposite direction and circle back, you will find that he will be doing it a lot more than you would like. It’s better to stop a bad habit before it has a chance to become habit at all. To prevent a memorized response, stop him and ask him to back at different points on the pattern every so often to vary the pattern. Donkeys have terrific memories and if you stop him in the same place all the time that is where he will ALWAYS stop, no matter what you are trying to do. Do this pattern this way for a couple of sessions, and when he is going easily you can add circles at the cones to create a more interesting workout.
When he is steering well, it is once again time for your assistant to aid you in getting your donkey to go straight along the rail of the arena. Have your assistant walk along the rail, between it and the donkey, with the lead line held loosely in her hand, allowing you to drive the donkey from behind. If you tryto do this without the assistant, you will find that your donkey remembers the hourglass pattern and will try to go to the middle. He needs assistance in learning this deviation from what he has previously learned. When you change direction, keep your assistant between the wall and the donkey to help maintain his straightness. After about two times around in each direction, he should “get it,” and you can drive him without the assistant. Each time you change direction, do a straight crossing on the diagonal. (Short diagonals and half-turns will be taught later in this series.) Donkeys like to bend in half far too much, so you want to discourage this in the beginning and opt for straightness.
The next step for the larger donkey is to be ridden at the walk through the hourglass pattern, both with the assistant and without, as outlined in the ground driving lesson. Do this exactly as you did before and don’t forget to repeat, repeat and repeat your verbal commands! Vary the stop and reward him with treats every time you stop to reinforce the good behavior. Be very exact and consistent with your rein and leg cues and don’t use your crop unless absolutely necessary. Rein cues should be only vibrations of the rein, legs should stay quiet while the donkey is in motion and should come into play only to urge him forward when he stops, and to support his body and keep it upright in conjunction with your rein cues through the corners.
The leg to the inside of the arc should remain at the girth and serve as a support post while the leg to the outside of the arc is at the back cinch and drives him forward into impulsion. The inside rein tells him what direction to turn while the outside rein stays steady in a straight position so he does not turn too abruptly. If you persist with continuous motion in your legs and hands, you will dull your donkey’s response and you will find that he begins to ignore you. If he does begin to make a mistake, just stop, wait until he has sighed or is chewing, then resume. Again, do not let him veer off and circle back. If he does run off to the right, for instance, you must turn him back to the left to bring him back, since that is the rein he pulled away from you. Conversely, if he runs off to the left, you would bring him back with the right rein, but you NEVER circle and come back in the direction HE has chosen. If you can manage it, it is best to just stop, regroup and go on, but sometimes they do take you well out of the desired pattern.
During the next lesson, you can add the perimeter of the arena, just as you did on the drivelines. Have your assistant lead your donkey twice around both directions and across a straight diagonal to change direction. Then you can ride solo. The same rules apply here as they did when learning the pattern. Keep him straight, repeat commands, back up verbal commands with consistent rein and leg cues and if he pulls out to the left, bring him back with the left rein. If he starts to trot, pull straight back and give the command to “whoa.” If· he still won’t stop, keep him straight and stop him at the fence. DO NOT TURN HIM! If you start this, it will become a practically impossible habit to break.
As you have probably noticed, donkeys think a little differently than do horses and mules, and must be approached accordingly for the best and most non-resistant response, but there is no reason that you cannot accomplish this with a little patience and understanding. While you may have to teach, “Walk here, walk there, walk this way and that,” and it seems that you are progressing at a snail’s pace, remember that it takes less time for your donkey to really process what you are teaching him. So, in essence, he is learning more quickly than a mule or horse, he doesn’t need as much repetition and the training time is about the same, and, in some cases, shorter! So stop worrying and have a good time.
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com, MEREDITH HODGES PUBLIC FIGURE Facebook page, or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Pinterest, Instagram, MeWe, YouTube and Twitter.
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