When we listen to everyone but the donkey

Field geologist and college professor Margaret Winslow tried to do all the right things after answering a for-sale ad for a donkey. She read the books and the magazines and found a donkey trainer. It took years of near-fruitless efforts and a couple of horrific experiences before Winslow figured out how to listen to Caleb, the large white donkey — and herself.

smart-ass-bordered_09211139The journey she describes in Smart Ass: How a Donkey Challenged Me to Accept His True Nature & Rediscover My Own (New World Library, 2018) is both engaging and frustrating. Overall, it underscores what I know about presence and connection with animals. However, there are a few points at which I wondered what on earth the author was thinking.

This is where I admit up front that while I work with equines as an animal communicator and animal Reiki practitioner, I’m not a rider or owner. My only donkey experience is with two at Summit Equestrian Center: Rosie (former resident), a mini donkey who is probably part border collie; and Diego, a quiet soul who came from southern Arizona by way of the Bureau of Land Management.

I appreciate Winslow’s love, humor, and persistence and can identify with so many of her ups and downs. We don’t know what we don’t know about the particularities of donkey training or whatever else. Animals are our teachers, but like the best teachers, they’re learning too.

Winslow’s near-constant frustration at work is often weighing on her as she arrives at Caleb’s barn and begins grooming him. He feels it and mirrors it, though it takes a while for her to understand this. I, too, have to consistently practice being fully present with whatever animal I’m working with in the moment. This is especially true with horses and donkeys.

Early in the book, Winslow asks herself: “When had I become such a conciliatory, conflict-averse wimp of a college professor who shrank from controversy?” Sadly, the behavior she tolerates from Caleb’s trainers is the best example.

The husband and wife, with their adult daughter, are the only donkey trainers within a day’s drive. They may legitimately know their stuff, and glimmers of insight and kindheartedness surface. But when they drink on the job and ridicule clients, it’s hard to imagine a better choice couldn’t have been made. Winslow just keeps going back for more.

She does eventually board Caleb closer to home, where working with the stable owner yields slightly better results. Lessons with a specialized trainer fail when the trainer beats Caleb. To her credit, Winslow grabs the stick away and yells at the trainer to stop.

The donkey trainers come back into play when, after a horrible injury, Winslow is ready to have them sell him. Or to board him there permanently — even though she believes the daughter capable of shooting Caleb in anger or having him put down without telling her.

At this point, Caleb could have been shuttled from one ill-prepared owner to another or consigned to a kill pen. The story could have ended with Winslow investing tons of money, time, and energy only to miss an authentic connection with Caleb.

Fortunately, Caleb’s truth-to-power influence sneaks up on Winslow during a tiresome faculty meeting. She surprises herself by speaking up for the students and the love of learning, even though she recognizes the consequences may be negative.

Then, in the donkey trainer’s ring, she looks the perpetually angry daughter in the eye and says, “No.”

That day, Winslow and Caleb ride not into the sunset but into a new understanding. The human realizes the power of her heretofore negative expectations of the donkey’s behavior, and the donkey recognizes that the human trusts him and has his back.

Here Winslow wisely relates the story of Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22:21-38), who spoke to her owner. It wasn’t just because the donkey was being mistreated by him, but because she could see and hear the angel and he could not.

It’s worth our time and effort to listen to the donkey. We might learn something about ourselves, too.

Donkeys carry with care

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Diego, adopted a year ago from the Bureau of Land Management, gets ready for some Reiki at Summit Equestrian Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

Picture it: You’re a young girl dealing with an unplanned pregnancy — one with major implications for the larger world — and a new husband who wasn’t quite on board at first. The kid’s coming any day now, but guess what? You’ve got to schlep to another city because some dude in power decided to take a census. Some help with these burdens sure would be nice.

Though the Gospels do not specify how the two got to Bethlehem, the image of Mary riding a donkey with Joseph walking alongside is part of Christmas culture. One can only hope it happened that way. It would have been a long, hard walk for a pregnant woman, maybe impossible if she went into labor en route. But even if Mary and Joseph didn’t have their own donkey for this trip, it’s not hard to imagine that one might have turned up on the road to Bethlehem and, having considered the matter carefully, volunteered for the job.

Donkeys have traditionally been beasts of burden, but they have a strong sense of self-preservation. I’ve learned they carry a lot more than us and our stuff … but they’re selective about what they take on, and when.

Diego, who is pictured above, came to Summit Equestrian Center last year from southwestern Arizona via the Bureau of Land Management. This previously wild burro was understandably overwhelmed when he arrived. The first time I offered to share Reiki — a non-invasive stress relief modality — with him, he declined and walked away. I told him that was completely OK, he was in a safe place, and I was not there to force anything on him. Central to the practice of animal Reiki is that participation is always up to the animal.

In the weeks that followed, he did agree to share Reiki for short intervals, each time moving a little closer to where I stood just outside his enclosure in the barn. One day, he gently bumped noses with me. Soon he decided he liked not only Reiki but head rubs.

Diego has his own sense of where he belongs and the proper way to relate to others. Throughout last winter, he stayed in the barn, often accompanied by Lakota, the mustang with whom he’d traveled from the BLM center. He watched with concern as Mildred the goat settled her arthritic limbs into a pile of hay, and she calmly returned his soft gaze.

Another day, Josie, Summit’s resident pig — who at the time was going through what I can only describe as porcine adolescence — approached the pen. Diego leaned down so that they were nose to snout. Josie, who perhaps had counted on being ignored by the equine newcomers, squealed insolently and trotted off. A confused Diego drew back.

“Don’t take it personally, Diego,” I told him. “You should hear some of the things she’s said to me.”

Spring flowers bloomed, and Diego still resisted going outside. Summit’s director, Allison Wheaton, read up on donkey training, gathered some ideas, and decided she needed more treats and more patience. On the next try, Diego walked right out and joined the others as if that was his intention all along. A natural introvert, he’s found his niche — often a donkey-sized space in the trees — but he joins the herd around the hay each day. When he wants Reiki, he makes himself available when I’m on my rounds.

As Allison pointed out, Diego challenged us to get beyond what we thought should happen and when, and instead to tap into our creativity and patience. That freed us to think in new ways and Diego to offer more of his authentic, kind self. From someone captured from the wild and moved from one holding area to another before being adopted, that is a precious gift indeed.

Rosie, a miniature donkey who was formerly part of the Summit herd, also had strong opinions about what should happen when. If breakfast was late, everyone heard about it, and she didn’t like it when the pony she habitually hung out with wasn’t close by. Once, when I arrived and went to check in with the sheep, ducks, and chickens first, Rosie hee-hawed from the pasture fence.

“I’ll get there,” I assured her. “You’re important, too.” She looked back at me, ears swiveling, and quieted down. She still wanted to be first, mind you, but she appreciated the acknowledgment. Rosie has since found a new family and is happily keeping her humans, horses, and cows in line.

A friend has a donkey she says is like a giant cleansing stone, soaking up her worries and processing them like a string of rosary, mandala, or misbaha beads. It’s a relationship of trust and mutual care. If a donkey shares your burdens, you can be sure that donkey finds them (and you) worth his or her while.

Today’s donkeys may not carry material possessions and riders like they did when Mary needed help on her journey. But if we treat them right, and let them lead us into new ways of thinking and being, we may find support beyond our wildest human expectations.