Following my six-day trek with a donkey in Provence, southern France, this is my handy guide for donkey trekkers, including donkey care, handling, packing, weight limits and what to take…
What could be better than walking through magnificent countryside in the magical company of a donkey? Donkey trekking is a time-honoured tradition in France but it’s popular throughout Europe and in parts of North America, Australia and beyond.
You can walk with donkeys for an afternoon, a day or a week and choose easy or challenging walks. You can trek circular or linear routes and go with or without a guide. When it comes to donkey trekking there are all kinds of options.
Donkeys are intelligent and curious creatures who enjoy being involved in our activities. Walking is a great opportunity for them to leave their field, get valuable exercise, make new friends and explore the riches of their local countryside.
On the flip side, tourism in some places still means donkeys being overworked and overburdened. As a donkey lover, you want to know that any donkey you hire is well treated. Read what the donkey hirer says about donkey care and make sure they provide training. If in doubt, call them or send an email with any questions.
Key Donkey Trekking Welfare Points:
- Training is provided on how to look after your donkey
- Your donkey doesn’t carry you, just your luggage
- Your donkey can carry a small child for limited periods
- Your donkey should carry no more than 40kg
- Your donkey will need regular breaks, with shade
- Your donkey will need access to clean drinking water
- Your donkey will need suitable accommodation at night
- You donkey will need hay in the morning and evening
You will be shown how to tie up your donkey. This is important as you will need to do this whenever you stop for breaks, lunch and also when you arrive at your lodgings. The Quick Release Knot secures your donkey but can also be untied quickly by you in an emergency. It’s worth getting used to tying this knot ahead of time. You can practice at home using a dressing gown belt and a bannister!
Ideally there will be a secure yard or fenced paddock available for your donkey at night but there may be times when you need to tie him up. Your donkey will be appropriately trained for this and should be in a safe area free from the risk of predators.
When tying your donkey overnight, the rope should be just long enough to reach the ground when extended, so that he can move around a bit and lie down (donkeys sleep standing up and lying down) but not so long that he can get tangled up in it. It shouldn’t trail on or too near the ground when the donkey is standing.
For shorter rest periods such as lunchtimes and evenings, where he can be supervised, you can use a long chain or rope to give him room to move around a lot more and have a roll.
Your donkey will love a good brush every morning, over the neck, body and legs. Don’t brush harshly on the belly as it’s sensitive but run your hand over it to check for any shrubbery or bugs that need removing.
Every morning, check your donkey’s hooves for stones and clean them out using a hoof pick. You may need to check for stones during the walk too, if your donkey suddenly stops walking.
This will be organised by the donkey owner, who will probably arrange for hay to be dropped off at each one of your stops for your donkey to eat in the morning and evening. Donkeys eat slowly so you’ll need to give your donkey his hay first thing in the morning, so that he has time to eat while you get ready and have breakfast.
Right before you set off for the day, offer your donkey a drink of water. If there is an opportunity for your donkey to drink during the course of the day then take it. You might pass a stream or a fountain, so encourage him to have a drink.
As soon as you arrive at your destination, the first thing you need to do is offer him water again and make sure he has access to clean drinking water overnight by refilling his bucket when necessary and ensuring it doesn’t get kicked over or full of muck.
How to Pack your Donkey
The Saddle Mat
Place the saddle mat on the donkey and move it downwards into place, so that the hair on the donkey’s back lies flat. The saddle pad should be clean and will need to be dried out in the sun at lunch time and between walks.
The Pack Saddle
Add the pack saddle, ensuring that it is centred on the donkey’s back. Equipment should be in good condition and well-fitting, so as not to cause rubbing or discomfort for the donkey.
Tie the four bands in the following order:
- Tie the band that goes just behind the front legs. This band needs to be as tight as possible. Your donkey’s middle will expand as it’s tied and then go down again. If this band is not sufficiently tight, it will rub. You should find it difficult to slide your flat hand between the band and the donkey’s body.
- Tie the band that goes in front of the hind legs (just in front of the genitals on a male donkey). This needs to be secure but not overly tight. You should be able to slide your flat hand between the band and the donkey’s body.
- Tie the front band around the donkey’s neck. This should not be tight.
- Tie the crupper. This should not be tight. It is only there to prevent the pack saddle sliding forwards.
Pack saddles vary and some have fewer bands to tie. Follow whatever instructions you are given by the donkey owner and take a photo of the pack saddle correctly fitted – on both sides. This will serve as a good reminder of how the bands need to be tied, even down to which holes to fasten the straps with.
Attach The Saddle Bags:
- Fill the saddle bags and, if you don’t have scales, lift one in each hand to feel how heavy they are. They need to be as close to equal weight as possible.
- Attach the saddle bags to the pack saddle, ensuring that both handles go round the trees on the opposite side. Fasten the bags securely so that they sit close to the donkey’s body and are nice and upright.
- It’s easiest to always do and undo the pack saddle on the same side – that way you only have to remember one lot of settings.
Bear in mind that a donkey has no sense of the width of the pack saddle. If he sees a gap he can normally fit through, he’ll keep walking. In fact, I got to thinking that donkeys would make brilliant hedge trimmers with motorised blades attached!
If he brushes against a few leaves it’s no big deal, although if you’re behind him watch out for branches flying back in your face. If the gap is really narrow, he can get stuck and if you’re right next to him you can get stuck too, or even squashed. If you’re in town take care when passing parked cars or he could easily take off someone’s wing mirror.
The Donkey Sanctuary stipulates that the weight limit for an average donkey is 8 stone or 50kg for riders but this is the maximum load for a larger than average donkey and only when the rider is able to stay balanced and react to the movements of the donkey.
Many people donkey trekking are families with children. If your child is 8 stone or less and your donkey is on the large side for a standard donkey, he or she can ride the donkey, although this will mean you carrying your own luggage, or hiring a second donkey for that.
Most donkey trekking companies have a luggage weight limit of 40kg but bear in mind the weight of the empty bags and pack saddle and that you’ll be adding food and water. I would recommend bringing a maximum of 20kg (10kg per person if there are two of you with one donkey) to allow for the extra weight you’ll be adding.
Another option is to have your luggage transferred between stops by car. This service is quite commonly offered, for an additional fee.
Handling Your Donkey
Walk alongside your donkey so that you’re next to his head and keep a close eye on him. You’ll quickly learn to spot when he’s sizing up the hedgerows, which are full of tempting things for him to eat, and you can steer him to the other side of the path.
Hold the rope loosely in your hand closest to the donkey. If you need to fold it to keep it short that’s fine but hold it your palm, don’t wrap it around your hand in case he suddenly pulls away from you.
Donkeys are strong. If they bolt it can be hard to keep hold of them. If you can anticipate your donkey’s next move this will help reduce the amount of rope burn you get! If he really lunges towards a particular bush, sometimes it’s better to let him.
Whatever country you’re in, your donkey will understand your basic commands from your tone of voice and body language. A cheery, confident ‘Walk on’ is fine.
To stop your donkey if he’s in full walking mode, you can move in front of him and stand facing him. He may push into you a bit but will soon stop. You can also give a verbal command of ‘Stop’ or ‘Whoa’.
Donkey trekking is all about enjoying the journey but if you want to arrive before midnight, you may need to give the rope a gentle tug now and then to get your donkey moving. Use positive reinforcement and release any tension on the rope as soon as he steps forward.
Donkeys are extremely sensitive and observant and will easily pick up your mood. A cheeky donkey may also test you, especially on the first day. If you feel yourself getting tired or frustrated, swap places with a fellow walker.
Just remember every donkey is different and it will take a day or two to get used to each other and to form a bond, so be patient with your donkey and with yourself. It will get easier.
What to Take
All Weather Trekking
- Notebook and pen
- Mini torch / flashlight
- Pocket knife
- Zinc oxide tape (for preventing blisters) and plasters
- Wet wipes
- Water bottles (enough for a day’s supply)
- An airtight plastic box and basic cutlery for your picnic
Warm Weather Trekking
- Long-sleeved tops and trousers to prevent or protect from sunburn and heat stroke. Outdoor retailers sell a wide range of hiking clothes made from polypropylene and other light weight synthetics that wick away moisture. These can be cooler than cotton in warm weather.
- Factor 50 sun block and lip balm
- Sun hat
- Lightweight, breathable hiking boots
- Breathable hiking socks (low cotton content is best)
- Antihistamine for relieving itching from bites, stings and heat rash (available in cream or tablet form)
Before the trip
- Get holiday insurance
- Check the proposed itinerary before booking and be realistic about the number of miles you’ll be walking each day. When you factor in getting lost (and everybody does) and the speed of the donkey, an estimated three hour walk can easily turn into a six hour walk, or longer.
- Some people arrange for a break mid-trek and it can be a good idea to have a day off, when you don’t have to pack up the donkey and you can take it easy.
- If you’re not used to trekking, go on some long walks in the lead up to your trip, to get your fitness level up – and to wear in your new boots!
During the trip
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water in the morning before you set off and approximately 1 litre every hour. Try to drink little and often.
- A hydration pack with a long straw provides easy access while walking as you can drink at any time without needing to open the saddle bag.
Guidelines for the Welfare of Working Donkeys The Donkey Sanctuary
Take Steps – Responsible Tourism The Donkey Sanctuary
Please note: This article is intended only as a guide. The types of treks listed may not be suitable for everyone. It is the responsibility of travellers to ensure their own safety and the welfare of any donkeys in their care at all times.
Copyright 2017 Amy Swift