Magic Mustang Tamer

Exploiting Jealousy as a Donkey Trainer

Equines live in groups in habitats where they forage for distributed food in a vast landscape. They are not like hyenas or vultures needing to fight for a bite of food, so it is quite interesting that they have strong resource gaurding instincts, but they do…. and we can exploit it as trainers.

This technique is very simple. You merely hand food to the friendliest burro in a casual way. The others will be interested. If you don’t have even one that will hand feed, borrow a tamer animal from somewhere or feed another animal of another species through a fence. They hear each other chewing. They smell the luscious food. They want it. They start thinking about how to get it. Suddenly you have a highly motivated animal. Make them take turns, use their names, make it fun for them.

I have worked with this group for at least a month. At first, I merely handed them food and stepped back from them between handing them food. Simply Task One of our protocol. Then I scratch Tasks 2 and 3 from the lists as they require the animal to move their noses out of my personal space. Instead, I simply ask the burro to show me that they are interested in getting food by looking at me or moving their noses toward me. A fearful burro is not likely to invade your personal space until it is extremely tame, so don’t worry about it for a while.

If a burro decides it can’t handle being that close to a human, it’s important to let it walk away. Give them time, but also notice if the problem is that another burro is keeping the shy one away. You have to re-engineer the situation if that is the case. I have five shy burros. There is one very shy burro, Tomatillo, that is not in the group of four because they keep her away. Tomatillo does okay with one other but not all four at the same time. She normally spends her time with two previously-shy burros, Aubergine and Bisbee.

The brown burros, Minny and Abilene, had been passed between two rescues after being rounded up by the Livestock Board. They were probably roped to catch. The pink burros, Cadillac and Carnation, were gathered by the USFS and sold to a woman in Colorado who decided they were too difficult to tame. The four of them are each the type of burro that flies across the paddock when we come in the gate. As a group unit, these burros have done tasks 4, 5, 6, 13, and 14. They are working on Task 9 and beyond this, they will need to be trained individually. But they have a better chance of turning out to be able to be handled and cared for. I’m looking forward to trimming their hooves.

Warning though: This technique is dangerous with horses who are more likely to fight with each other unless you are feeding the group through a fence panel. They won’t attack you normally, but it is quite typical for horses to start fighting with each other. I can’t recommend standing in a group of horses and handing out bites of high-value food. It is very dangerous. I have never seen donkeys break out in a fight with each other more than merely nipping toward another but know your animals (test them behind a panel) before you get in the pen with them.

I hope this post and video helps someone with a super-shy donkey break through the barriers that keep these sweet animals from having a good life. Let me know if you try it.

4 thoughts on “Exploiting Jealousy as a Donkey Trainer

  1. Cindy Nielsen

    Hey there, great advice!!! It’s so funny your timing is right on par with mine in that I just got a friendly burro in for training so a super shy one I already have in the corral would have some competition for assistance. The shy one had already been taking food from me as well as from a little rubber pan but I figured it would help his confidence level to have buddy, and simultaneously have some competition from a young guy who is less likely to be overtly aggressive.
    Another tip I got from NEI inc, something they do often with super shy animals of any species, is to make a habit of dropping small bits of super high value food as you walk by into the enclosure and just keep on walking away. Don’t ask for any behavior, just drop and go. Several times a day at least. Simple Pavlovian or respondent conditioning for the behavior geeks out there. It works great, soon the burro is right there waiting when they hear you coming and soon they are practically trying to take it from your hand, especially if it’s super high value and right before their feeding time so they are maximally hungry. Worked great for my latest petrified burro Skinner.
    Hey I recommended you to anyone looking for where to learn about behavior science and training of burros in a post I’m just finishing up. Hope to get it posted tonight. Thanks for all you do!!!

  2. Ellen

    Thank you for your video. I found it educational and would like to hear more. I may have a shy mule. She is not crazy about being petted or touched. Better now than she was but mostly I just annoy her, I think. My goal is to handle her feet but she is oh so smart and knows when I even think about it. Any suggestions about that? Helpful training tips?

  3. Dr. PBI Post author

    Start with Task 1 and proceed to Task 26. All mules love to be scratched, she just doesn’t trust you yet. Have patience and persistence, you can turn the corner.

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