Can A Mini Donkey Be Trained Using Treats – Kinda maybe.
Our mini donkeys are far from perfect.
In fact, the number of preferred behaviors we and they agree on is actually pretty small. But we have made progress.
We have experience training both Mini donkeys and horses. It’s important to understand a few key things and differences…
With our horses, we knew that certain behaviors could be counted on and repeated as needed.
For instance, calling horses into the barn at night.
A whistle, a holler or even the squeak of a gate would make our horses stop grazing and focus their attention on the source of the noise. By following the noise – and the carrot or apple slice that came with the noise, horses quickly learned that heading to the barn resulted in some sort of treat.
We saved a lot of boot leather not having to walk big pastures chasing horses to their stalls.
We trained horses using pressure / release. In essence, they felt some kind of pressure to do something, like lifting a foot.
Once they responded, the pressure was gone and a few friendly words or pats were delivered. Rarely, depending on the horse, we would provide a carrot or apple to sort of ‘prove’ that we had their best interests in mind.
Young horses seemed to respond fairly easily to both pressure and treats.
To be clear, we are not credentialed to offer any kind of horse or mini donkey training advice. The methods we use are ours, on our farm, with our animals and our personalities.
We got used to having horses repeat their behavior.
They were consistent.
They came when called.
They stopped with ‘whoa’.
They moved forward with a ‘snick’.
They backed up with ‘back’. A bit like a dog after it’s trained to ‘sit’.
It does it every time. Treats were not a regular part of the training program.
TRAINING THE DONKEYS
Then came the unhandled mini donkeys.
First, it’s important to understand that we rescued two 15 year old mini donkeys that had never been handled in any controlled way.
The older ladies that had them were overly kind. They did nothing that they considered distressing to the donkeys – things like:
- Wearing a halter
- Being tied
- Lifting feet
- Being brushed
- Coming when called
The list goes on. The ladies provided great feed, a little shelter and a no-pressure one-acre field.
When the donkeys arrived here, they spent much of their time in a stall with their heads pointed in the corner with their weaponized end facing the ‘enemy’.
When unbroken horses ‘hid in the corner’ we got real cautious. Clearly, they were afraid / uncomfortable and lining up their weapons for use if necessary. A kick from a horse can maim and even kill.
To get them to ‘turn to’ we tapped them on the butt with the end of a buggy whip (not the whip itself, the wand). Enough irritating taps on the butt always got their attention (pressure).
At the first sign of giving-in we stopped the tapping (release). Repeating the process several times always got the horse to turn toward us because it was more comfortable than the tapping.
We tried the same technique with the donkeys. It was a disaster. These little critters kicked at the buggy whip wand…and kicked…and kicked. There was no give up.
They simply would not respond to pressure / release. Their behavior was especially thorny. Every close contact interaction with them required constant attention because of the potential of getting kicked. For what it’s worth, they never tried to bite.
TRAINING MINI DONKEY’S WITH CARROTS
We learned that one of the things that got their attention was an old fashioned carrot. They would take them off the ground.
Eventually, they got closer and closer – and then would take them from our hand. As they took them from our hand, we started to pat their foreheads. They hated it – but their greed for the carrots overrode the head rubs and we started making a little progress.
It was during this period that we figured out their problem.
They were afraid.
Remember that they were never handled – except by the farrier and the Vet who tranquilized them for foot care.
According to the ladies, they couldn’t stand to watch foot trimming because it was so traumatic for the donkeys.
The fact is, it WAS traumatic for the donkeys and they never forgot. With a farrier and Vet on a time schedule, the technique used was whatever worked – tranquilizer; throw and hog tie; hang a foot from the rafter, etc.
Any future handling dredged up the foot care trauma and put them on edge. We’ve actually had them startle at the sound of a coat zipper.
We’re not taking a shot at farriers and Vets here, they had to do what they had to do to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time – with nobody hurt.
GAINING THE MINI DONKEY’S TRUST
We used carrots and home-baked cookies (there’s another article here for the cookies) because it helped the donkeys see that every human touch didn’t result in fearful trauma.
Let us put on a halter. Get a cookie.
Stand tied without having a fit. Get a cookie.
Get brushed. Get a cookie.
I had done a bit of Team Roping in the past.
At the beginning of this donkey adventure the only way I could get them ‘caught’ was to drive them into a 60′ round pen and then throw a lasso.
I’d let them run at the end of the lasso until they finally tired out and would let me hand over hand to get close enough to hand grab a cotton rope around their necks.
Eventually, that led to a halter. Once they stood still, they got a cookie.
I don’t completely agree that the treats created a cause and effect.
In the world of horses, training or altering behavior using treats borders on controversial. In our experience working with horse trainers, there seems to be almost 50/50 pro and con.
Many horse trainers don’t buy that a horse treat as a motivator will do anything except make the horse a hog for treats.
We’ve seen those horses. They tend to get pushy for the treats and make themselves into a nuisance at best or a bulldozer at worst.
Our mini donkeys do not ‘work’ for treats. In other words, I’m sure we cannot get the donkeys too, for instance, pull a cart for the sake of getting a treat. But they will go directly to their stall every night and wait at the stall door for the cookie.
Is that behavior modification? I don’t think so. To us, it seems more like ‘location’ awareness. If they’re in that location, they get a treat. But, they didn’t GO to that location to get a treat. Offering them a treat to come in from their pasture elicits a big yawn from them.
When it’s time to come in at night, I try to get their attention when they’re at the far end of their pasture by shaking a plastic drink bottle about a third full of gravel.
They respond to the noise and generally begin a slow mosey to the barn.
Holding up a ZipLock bag of treats gets no notice.
Another difference between our donkeys and our horses is building the mysterious, but real ‘connection’ or ‘bond’. I’ve heard that only horses and dogs communicate with humans with their eyes.
Many horse owners manage to partner so closely with their horse that they almost instinctively know what each other is going to do just by looking at each other.
I’m sure you’ve seen horses at shows ‘at liberty’ where the horse is loose and performing complex tasks without a word from the trainer.
I’m almost as sure that it would be a rare mini donkey that performs the same way.
Our mini donkeys have come a long way in our relationship but they are still aloof and somewhat indifferent. Their silent communication with each other is far more obvious than any message they send us. We suppose that is to be expected given they’ve had 15 years together versus our 30 months.
We know now that donkeys are not easily trained. They are ‘as stubborn as a donkey’ and no amount of force will convince them otherwise. Clearly, having their feet force trimmed earlier in their lives was not forgotten.
As I re-read this, I sense that it sounds pretty negative.
For the sake of clarity, that is not the case. Our little donkeys are a great addition to our barn. They’re fluffy and short and fat with Baby Yoda eyes and more fun to watch than horses.
Using treats allowed us to flatten the fear curve fairly quickly. We felt it important to have them understand that every contact with a human doesn’t end up badly.
It’s essential to remember that we aren’t trying to train these donkeys to do anything except be gentle, healthy pets.
Some ask ‘…do you give your horses treats?…’. Not routinely. Just because of their size and potential for danger we work with horses to gain their respect in other ways.
We’re at the top of the horse herd.
The donkeys on the other hand, have not and will not develop the kind of human / animal bond possible with a horse.
IF YOU’RE CONSIDERING A MINI DONKEY
Go for it if you have the room, access to decent hay, shelter from the cold, snow, wind and rain.
The odds are you’ll never face the same challenges we have because of the unusual circumstances that dropped these donkeys in our laps.
They’re funny, non-destructive (except some kinds of wood), low-maintenance, healthy and very easy keepers.
Everyone who has ever visited our farm smiles at them.