If you are an experienced horse trainer, you may believe you already have what it takes to train a donkey. If you are a very patient, empathetic, intuitive and respectful horse trainer, you may be right. If you are a rigid disciplinarian who trains by rote, you are wrong (and you shouldn’t be training horses either!)
Donkeys and horses are both equines, but donkeys have some very significant behavior traits and tendencies that make training them distinctly different from training horses. In this article, we discuss these differences and provide smart tips and tricks to help you train your donkey. Read on to learn more.
What You'll Learn Today
- Get to Know Your Individual Donkey
- Bonding Is Essential
- Choose Your Donkey’s Companion With Care
- One Size Does Not Fit All When Training Donkeys
- Be Consistent and Logical
- How Do You Discipline A Donkey?
- How Do You Stop Bad Behavior?
- How Do You Get A Donkey To Move?
- How Do You Teach A Donkey To Lead?
- How Do You Train A Donkey To Pull A Cart?
- Why Not Give Treats?
- Healthy Donkeys Behave Best
- Provide A Healthy, Stimulating Environment
- What Can You Teach A Donkey?
- Choose The Right Type Of Donkey For Your Purpose
Get to Know Your Individual Donkey
Good communication and respect are very important aspects of donkey training. You cannot force a donkey to do anything, and if you try to you’ll have nothing but trouble.
If you’re familiar with horse body language, you may think that you can read a donkey; however, this may not be true. Donkeys tend to be more subtle in their communication.
It’s a good idea to spend a lot of time simply observing your donkey. Watch how he interacts with other animals so you’ll be able to read him clearly when you’re working with him.
Bonding Is Essential
Donkeys are herd animals. They bond strongly with their companions, and it is best to have two donkeys to keep each other company. If this is not possible, a donkey will bond with a horse or mule.
Many donkeys will also bond with other sorts of livestock, but you must be careful when introducing them to one another as some donkeys are quite territorial and may injure other types of stock.
Because donkeys need to bond, your donkey will want to bond with you. Bonding is the most important aspect of training. For this reason, you may initially want to keep your donkey separate and spend lots of quiet time with him.
When your donkey learns to like and trust you and thinks you know what you’re doing, you’ll be able to teach him anything.
Just understand that your donkey cannot live without a donkey or other equine companion forever. You may have heard the quote,
“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that a chimpanzee kept in solitude is not a real chimpanzee at all.” — Wolfgang Köhler.
As with chimpanzees, a donkey alone is not truly a donkey. Separating a donkey from a longtime companion can cause a great deal of stress. High stress can result in the development of hyperlipidemia, which is a very serious condition and can kill a donkey.
Choose Your Donkey’s Companion With Care
Donkeys can be quite territorial, and this is especially true of jacks (intact males). For this reason, donkeys sometimes make good guard animals for herds of goats, sheep and other small stock. Donkeys naturally fend off predators such as wolves, coyotes, foxes and roaming dogs.
The territorial nature of donkeys can also cause problems. A donkey may aggress against small stock that enters its area, and this can result in injured or dead goats, sheep and other small animals.
Additionally, a donkey cannot tell the difference between your pet dog and a wolf or your pet cat and a bobcat. For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep your domestic pets away from your donkey.
One Size Does Not Fit All When Training Donkeys
Each donkey is unique. These intelligent animals tend to have very distinct and strong personalities. One size does not fit all when training donkeys.
Donkeys are smart, and they like to learn new things. This is why it’s very important to begin socializing your donkey when it’s very young and make sure that it is handleable in every way.
Donkeys start learning the moment they’re born and continue learning throughout their lives. A donkey that is properly socialized and well handled is unlikely to develop negative behaviors.
Be Consistent and Logical
Be consistent when handling your donkey. Every interaction teaches him or her something, and it is up to you teach the right things in an order that makes sense.
Begin by teaching your donkey to do things that come naturally to him or her such as walking along with you for pleasant, enjoyable experiences such as going to get food.
Always praise your donkey and pet him when he does what you want. When you build a habit of teaching your donkey to do natural, fun things in a positive way, it will be easier to teach unnatural behavior such as picking up his feet for the farrier, pulling a cart, being ridden, etc.
How Do You Discipline A Donkey?
You don’t discipline a donkey. If you try to punish a donkey, he will just get angry with you and will stop cooperating with you. When dealing with a donkey, use a combination of metaphorical sticks and carrots, but don’t use real sticks and carrots.
When your donkey does what you want him to do, praise him, pet him and use his success as a bond building moment. When he tries, but doesn’t succeed, redirect him and try again, or switch to a familiar task and then go back to the new task.
If he exhibits a negative behavior withdraw your support. Tie him up for 10 or 15 minutes and, walk away and then try again. If you are thoroughly bonded with your donkey, losing interaction with you will be enough to make him want to cooperate with you.
The best donkey training uses positive reinforcement, which relies on the concept of reward. To reinforce your donkey’s behavior positively, you give him something he desires when he does what you desire.
While many trainers will use treats, I personally do not feel that this is a good idea. Instead, rest periods, scratching, brushing, petting and happy talk are all good things that you can give your donkey when he does what you want.
Positive reinforcement helps you join up with or bond with your donkey so that he is eager to work with you.
How Do You Stop Bad Behavior?
If your donkey exhibits a negative behavior, try withholding something he wants. For example, some donkeys may kick at the fence or barn door in impatience at feeding time. This is an unwanted behavior because you don’t want your fence damaged or your donkey injured.
For this reason, you would withhold the feed until the animal stops and then quickly give him what he desires while he’s exhibiting a positive behavior (waiting patiently).
You can also look for environmental changes that you can make that will simply make your donkey’s negative behavior unnecessary. For example, separating your donkey from another animal is much easier and far more effective than trying to teach two animals not to fight.
Punishment is ineffective. It may force your donkey to do just the minimum of what you are demanding, but it will not elicit enthusiasm and can actually cause the problem to get worse. Donkeys are very tough and rugged, and they can withstand quite a bit. They are also smart.
A donkey who is beaten or whipped may simply stoically learn to live with it. Simultaneously, a smart donkey may very well figure out exactly why you are being so mean and nasty and may double down on his behavior.
You always want to aim for developing a strong, positive bond with your donkey and eliciting join up with him so that he will want to do as you ask. Your goal is to teach him to strive to please you.
How Do You Get A Donkey To Move?
If your donkey plants his feet and doesn’t want to move, look around to see what might be bothering him. He may have a very good reason for not wanting to move. There may be something dangerous or frightening that is causing him to keep his feet glued to the ground.
Once you’ve eliminated any environmental reasons for him to refuse to move, you may wish to try redirecting him by simply pulling his head to the side and walking in a slightly different direction than the direction you were initially headed.
Sometimes just circling a couple of times will get your donkey moving. Circle around and go back the direction you wanted to go.
How Do You Teach A Donkey To Lead?
As with all equines, it’s best to do halter training very early on when the animal is small and impressionable. An unhandled, very large animal who has never known anything about wearing a halter and being led may be difficult to teach.
You can teach an unhandled donkey to want to follow you by spending a lot of time on bonding. Spend time sitting with your donkey, talking with him and grooming him. When you make friends with him, he will want to follow you.
If you don’t have a halter on him, you’ll want to work on bonding and becoming able to pet and handle him and build trust so that you can get him haltered.
Once you have a halter on him, you can simply take the side of the halter in your hand as he’s walking with you and continue walking. When you turn, speak encouragingly, pull the halter and step into the new direction.
While you’re doing this exercise, don’t hold on too tightly because you don’t want to hurt yourself if he decides to pull away from you. Move gently, be patient and take your time.
Once your donkey has the idea that he should follow you as you walk, you can add a lead rope and continue your exercise.
How Do You Train A Donkey To Pull A Cart?
Begin by thoroughly bonding with and halter training your donkey. Establish a regular routine of feeding, grooming and walks. When you are thoroughly bonded with your donkey, add ground driving (driving without a cart) to your routine.
Once the animal is comfortable with this, add the cart. Always build on what your donkey already knows when teaching a new skill. Layer new challenges onto established accomplishments.
Donkey Driving Training Series
Why Not Give Treats?
Spoiling your donkey or being too demanding can cause behavior problems. Be sure to consistently reward desired behaviors in your donkey and extinguish undesired ones.
This does not mean that you should give your donkey treats for good behavior and punish him for bad behavior. That is a recipe for ruining your donkey.
Instead, speak happily and positively to your donkey and give him pats when he does what you want. When he does not, redirect him. For very negative behaviors, you may wish to ignore him or separate him briefly.
Every situation is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all way of addressing negative behaviors; however, keep in mind that feeding treats by hand will spoil your donkey and predispose him to nipping.
Hitting or yelling will make your donkey angry and cause him to withdraw his cooperation. Both of these are outcomes that you want to avoid.
Healthy Donkeys Behave Best
Establish regular checkups, vaccinations and hoof care for your donkey to keep him healthy and comfortable. Remember that problems may also be caused by illness or pain.
If your donkey develops a habit that you are not able to deal with, the first thing you should do is call your vet and set up an appointment for a complete physical.
Once you’ve ruled out any illness or injury, you can talk with your vet about behavior management techniques that may help to control and correct your donkey’s unwanted behavior.
Provide A Healthy, Stimulating Environment
To keep your donkey content, happy and able to learn easily, you need to be sure that he has plenty of space. An acre per donkey is ideal, but in situations where you do not have this much space you can enhance the space you do have by providing toys and activities and mental stimulation.
For example, donkeys really like large, sturdy play balls.
Donkeys enjoy pulling their hay out of a hay net rather than simply eating it off the ground. Donkeys like to go for walks on days when they not worked, ridden or driven.
Establishing a regular schedule of feeding, grooming and visiting can go far to help keep your donkey happy, ready, willing and able to learn.
What Can You Teach A Donkey?
Donkeys are smart, and they can be taught to do anything a horse can do. They can also learn to do quite a few things that dogs can do. There are really no limits on what you can teach a donkey.
If you’ve got a donkey of the right size, strength and abilities, you can teach it to pull a cart, be ridden, participate in activities such as pole bending, barrel racing and other rodeo events. Don’t underestimate donkeys as a riding and pleasure animal.
Trick Riding With Donkey
Choose The Right Type Of Donkey For Your Purpose
There are many different kinds of donkeys, and as we’ve mentioned each donkey has its own individual personality. Your donkey’s genetics will contribute to his or her behavior.
There are donkey registries and donkey or mule clubs and organizations that you can consult if you’re looking for a donkey that has particular abilities and behaviors.