Making Donkey Dreams Come True

Making Donkey Dreams Come True

Donkey guardians
Cobi and Mark Snelson with their donkeys and Donkey Welfare Adviser

Do you love animals? Are you up for a challenge? Would you enjoy learning amazing things, making a bunch of new friends and having a life-changing adventure? Most of all, do you have a big heart and lots of love to give? A couple of donkeys could be just want you need…

Equines of any size are not really designed to be ‘pets’, but they do make awesome companions”, Meredith Hodges, pioneering equine trainer.

All the way back to her childhood, Cobi loved donkeys. She loved the fluffy way they looked and felt a bit sorry for them. She adopted a donkey called Tufty who lived at Redwings Sanctuary in Norfolk, cherishing the photos and updates they would send her and making the journey to visit him whenever she could.

When Cobi grew up she became a nurse and, in 2003, married Mark, a handsome airline pilot who, as luck would have it, loved donkeys too. They lived in Berkshire and life was good but Cobi knew how much better it would be with donkeys to love and look after. Mark was happy to make room for some long ears and so the big donkey dream took shape.

But looking after donkeys is not quite the same as having a cat, or even a dog. How were they going to make it happen? What did they need to do? Where to start?

Fortunately, they knew about The Donkey Sanctuary. Becoming Donkey Guardians as part of their rehoming scheme would mean getting healthy donkeys and all the training and support they needed, which was crucial as neither of them had any experience with equines.

The Donkey Sanctuary stipulates that anyone wanting to rehome donkeys needs an acre of land (for two donkeys), a hard standing area (to protect the donkeys’ feet), a shelter (donkeys are not waterproof) and robust fencing (donkeys are superb escape artists).

Determined to get their donkeys, Mark and Cobi upped sticks in 2007 and moved to Somerset where they could more easily afford an acre of land. They sorted out the fencing and then laid a hard standing area. This cost more than they were expecting so it was some time before they could continue and build a shelter.

They also began their donkey education with the one-day Introduction to Donkey Care course at The Donkey Sanctuary, run by renowned donkey trainer Ben Hart. The Sanctuary requires all prospective Donkey Guardians to attend and Cobi recommends the training,

“We learned all the basic theory on how to look after donkeys and also gained practical experience with real donkeys. We practiced putting on a halter and a rug, picking out hooves and even mucking out. If you’re thinking about getting donkeys, this course will help you decide and even if you just love donkeys, it’s a really fun day.”

Meanwhile, on a farm in the north of England, a herd of 16 severely neglected donkeys was being rescued by the RSPCA and moved to The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon. Among the herd were two donkeys who had formed a very close bond (as donkeys do). They were given the names Precious and Cudos. Precious was small and very nervous. Cudos was the larger and more confident of the two. The entire herd arrived at the Sanctuary in a terrible state. Precious’s hooves were so overgrown that she couldn’t walk. Cudos had no fur on her back and was covered in lice and mites.

The Donkey Sanctuary is used to dealing with such challenging cases of neglect and their expert vets, farriers and grooms set about their work. They restored Precious, Cudos and many of the other donkeys to full health. Some never recovered.

Back in Somerset, Cobi and Mark had completed their initial training and, after 6 long years, the field was finally ready. There were several people ahead of them on the waiting list and they wondered if they would ever get a call. Finally, one day, the phone rang. It was The Donkey Sanctuary and they had two donkeys.

Through the wind and the rain they caught their first glimpse of Precious and Cudos. They were huddled in a big barn, sheltering from the storm with about 10 other donkeys. Precious was hiding her head nervously under Cudos. It was love at first sight.

After a few more tantalising days of waiting for final vet checks to be done, the magical moment arrived when they saw the lorry bearing the famous Donkey Sanctuary logo heading down the lane towards them. Cobi describes the arrival of Precious and Cudos,

“We offloaded the donkeys and they stepped out. They were so sweet and calm. We put lead ropes onto their head collars. It’s quite a long walk down the footpath and into the paddock. The Donkey Sanctuary advised us not too fuss over them too much at first, to give them time to get used to their new surroundings but strokes and talking to them was OK. We left grooming and hoof picking for the first few days. They seemed to settle in very quickly.”

Donkey Guardians Mark and Cobi with Precious (left) and Cudos
Mark and Cobi with Precious (left) and Cudos

But in the beginning it was not all plain sailing. Cudos was a serial brayer. She would start braying at 5.30am and carry on all day, every day. Cobi remembers it well,

“Cudos brayed when she wanted more grass but we were trying not to give her too much as she was overweight. We were worried that the noise would upset our neighbours as we live in a close-knit village.  A donkey’s bray is loud. It can be heard 3km away. My heart would sink every time she brayed early in the morning. I would get up extra early to try and feed her before she brayed but she would just bray as I walked towards her!”

The Sanctuary advised Mark and Cobi not to go up to Cudos when she was braying, as this can reinforce the behaviour. They thought she was probably still settling in and that it would pass with time. But the braying kept up for a whole year. Mark would phone Cobi from work and ask, How many brays today?”

Cobi went round and spoke to everyone in the village. People were very kind, saying that they loved the noise but she wasn’t convinced, It was an upsetting time. I can remember sitting in the stable with the donkeys and crying for two hours as I felt we couldn’t live with them because of the braying and we couldn’t live without them because we loved them so much! It got so bad that, at one point, we asked the Sanctuary to take them back and they even had another home lined up. But we knew we couldn’t let them go. We would have been heartbroken.” 

Finally persuaded that the neighbours really didn’t mind the noise, they made the decision to keep the donkeys. Cobi says, From that moment our bond with them got stronger as we realised how much we adored them and what an integral part of our family they were”.

And the braying seemed to get better after that, We still get a good morning bray at about 7.30am and there are some donkeys living just outside the village so sometimes they bray at each other but that’s all. It’s funny, every donkey is different. Some people are disappointed if they get a donkey who doesn’t bray!”

Precious on the other hand didn’t like having her back hooves picked and would kick. A Donkey Welfare Adviser from the Sanctuary came to make sure they were doing it properly but she kept kicking. Eventually trainer Ben Hart came and saved the day, setting out a step-by-step shaping programme for them, as Cobi explains,

“We would start by simply touching her leg, then letting go. We gradually touched it for a bit longer and went a bit lower each time, always giving her lots of praise when she didn’t kick. Once she was fine with us holding her leg, we moved on to picking up the foot and putting it down, then gradually holding it for a bit longer each time. Eventually we were able to pick her hooves without her kicking. It was a case of teaching her slowly that we weren’t going to hurt her.”

Donkey Guardians
Cobi and Mark Snelson, Donkey Guardians, with Cudos and Precious

Despite these initial difficulties, Cobi wouldn’t change a thing, “New owners should expect teething problems but they need to know that they can be ironed out and working through them will only deepen the bond you have with your donkeys and make the whole experience much more rewarding.”

And how are Precious and Cudos enjoying their new life now? “They are village celebrities” says Cobi, “They’ve done the Palm Sunday Parade and a WI photo shoot. I regularly take them for walks around the village. They love meeting people and nibbling on the hedgerows. People always stop to say hello. Everyone loves donkeys. People stop their cars and wind the windows down. We even take them to the pub sometimes and have a drink outside.”

“When donkeys are at the Sanctuary they live in big groups. When they go to a home, their real personalities come to the fore. Precious and Cudos have both changed a lot since they came to us. Precious was the nervous one and she’s now the more confident donkey, always leading on walks, although she can still be cautious and nervous at times. Cudos is the calm matriarch. She loves children.”

I ask Cobi if being a Donkey Guardian is what she expected. She says, “It’s more work and more time consuming than we thought it would be but for us that’s been a positive thing. They are a big part of our daily routine. I check on them twice a day, muck out and give them fresh straw and water every morning and pick their hooves out every day. I’m definitely fitter than I was.”

Mark and Cobi’s lives are a whole lot more sociable now too, “Friends and family come to visit more often, I’m sure it’s because they want to come and see the donkeys. We’ve made friends with other donkey guardians and bonded more with neighbours in the village. You can see the donkeys from the road but if you want to meet them properly you have to come in. Sometimes people knock on the door and ask if they can say hello to the donkeys. I always say yes as it’s enriching for them. They love meeting people.”

Cobi’s final piece of advice for anyone considering keeping donkeys is this, “You need to be devoted to your donkeys. They’re not just lawnmowers. They thrive on human interaction and affection. They need lots of love and cuddles. The more you give your donkeys, the more they give back. I love spending time with them. They’re so affectionate and we’ve got a lovely rapport with them. We’ve had them for two years but it feels like forever. We can’t imagine life without them now. Donkeys are very intuitive. They just know how you’re feeling. They’re real little friends.”

Cobi and her donkey
Cobi and her beloved Precious


The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon currently has over 6,000 donkeys and many are healthy and suitable for rehoming. All Donkey Sanctuary training and support is provided free of charge to Donkey Guardians. In addition to the Introduction to Donkey Care, Mark and Cobi attended courses on Health Care and Behaviour once they had their donkeys.

Donkeys rehomed from The Donkey Sanctuary come fully vaccinated, with a donkey passport (now a legal requirement), a book on donkey care, a good quality rug, lead ropes and even some food. A Donkey Welfare Adviser visits every 6 months, and straight away if there’s a problem. In the event that you are no longer able to care for your donkeys, they will be returned to the care of the Sanctuary.

You don’t need to live in Devon to be a Donkey Guardian. The Donkey Sanctuary has centres across the UK and Ireland and they even run rehoming schemes in Italy and Spain. In the UK, Redwings Horse Sanctuary and the RSPCA also operate rehoming schemes and provide ongoing support to their donkey guardians.

Many people prefer rehoming to buying donkeys because they know their donkeys will always be cared for. There is also a strong case to be made against encouraging breeding as there are so many unwanted donkeys and not enough homes to go around.

Get at least two donkeys

Single donkeys are never rehomed on their own, unless they will be joining donkeys you already have. Donkeys form very strong bonds and, being herd animals, do not do well on their own. You are most likely to get two donkeys who are already best friends and it’s much less traumatic for them to be rehomed together.

Pasture Management

Donkeys are desert animals with extremely efficient digestive systems. They are prone to weight gain and serious health problems if grazing on grass is not restricted. Cobi has learned the importance of good pasture management, “We thought 1 acre divided into 3 would be fine but with the lush green Somerset grass, they were gaining weight. We had to restrict their grazing more. It’s a fine balance between giving them space to run around in and keeping their weight down. We have 9 sheep and they eat down the grass in one section and then the donkeys go into that area. Donkeys will chase sheep though so we keep them separate.”


Let’s face it, standing in a field all day can get pretty boring so it’s really important to provide environmental enrichment for your donkeys. You can buy all sorts of great enrichment products online, such as inflatable balls and slow feeder toys but it’s possible to create plenty of enrichment for donkeys without spending any money at all. Here are my 10 Easy Enrichment Ideas for Donkeys.

Money Matters

Before plunging in, it is important to know that keeping donkeys will involve initial and ongoing costs. In addition to the cost of relocating and buying land, Mark and Cobi spent £1000 on fencing, £3000 on a concrete standing area and money on stabling before they were ready to keep donkeys. If you only need supplementary electric fencing and equipment, you can get set up for between £300 and £600.

According to The Donkey Sanctuary, the average cost of keeping donkeys is between £700 and £1200 per donkey, per year. That’s based on standard feed and routine veterinary treatment for a healthy donkey in good condition. If you need extra treatments, this can be expensive so it’s worth getting veterinary insurance. Mark and Cobi spend £300 per year on straw and £150 on dental checks and vaccinations. They also pay for farrier treatment every 10 weeks and for someone to visit their donkeys twice a day when they go on holiday.

For more information on rehoming and keeping donkeys, click on the links below:  

The Donkey Sanctuary Rehoming Scheme The Donkey Sanctuary

The Cost of Keeping Donkeys The Donkey Sanctuary

Can We Help, Now That You Have A Donkey? The  Donkey Sanctuary

Donkey Health & Welfare The Donkey Sanctuary

The Cost of Owning Donkeys Foghorn Farm Donkey Training, USA

New Donkey Owner Short FAQ Foghorn Farm Donkey Training, USA

Keeping Donkeys: Habitat and Facilities Foghorn Farm Donkey Training, USA

What Does It Take To Own A Donkey? Foghorn Farm Donkey Training, USA

Recommended Reading:

The Complete Book of the Donkey Elisabeth D Svendsen MBE (Kenilworth Press, 2009). All you could ever need on the origins of the donkey, health, care, legislation, stable management, handling and training.

The Donkey Companion Sue Weaver (Storey Publishing, 2008). A comprehensive guide to donkey care, including training, equipment, enjoying and caring for donkeys. Information is broken down into manageable chunks and interspersed with the history of the donkey, photos and illustrations, helpful tips and funny stories.

You can find lots more books on the Donkey Time Donkey Books Page.

Copyright 2016 Amy Swift

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