There are no two ways about it, donkeys bring us joy. The calm and understanding nature of these humble and affectionate animals is a wonderful, and strangely powerful thing.
Donkeys are a familiar site, plodding up and down Britain’s beaches, adorned with bells and colourful bridles. They are regulars at fairs and fun days, and no Easter parade is complete without one. Their talents include giving rides to children and pulling carts, and some even have a knack for show business!
Mike’s Donkeys is the UK’s number one provider of donkeys for all manner of occasions, from fetes to TV work, weddings to corporate events, theatre appearances to parties.
Donkeys are smart and enjoy working, as long as they are well looked after, and they perform a myriad of jobs with patience and skill.
However, there is one job reserved for a very special kind of donkey. An extra special donkey. That is the job of therapy donkey.
Spending time with donkeys has enormous therapeutic benefits. For children with disabilities, riding therapy donkeys improves strength and coordination and boosts confidence and self-esteem.
A donkey’s slow and steady presence gives a feeling of security and comfort to the poorly, the elderly and those feeling vulnerable or suffering from emotional difficulties.
Touching, grooming and cuddling donkeys is a great social facilitator, allowing people to relax and feel a sense of nurturing and connection.
“Even those with severe disabilities have smiled when helped to just touch a donkey.”
A therapy donkey needs to be kind and enjoy interaction with people. In the field, he will come to you and lean into you. He must be quiet enough to stand and be fussed over for long periods. Yet, crucially, he (or she) must be brave enough to venture into unfamiliar buildings, bedrooms and other small spaces.
Taking a large animal into a confined area with vulnerable people is fraught with hazards and only a select few are entrusted with this honour. A care home visit will never be a donkey’s first job.
Danny Donkey & Pals Assisted Therapy, a sister company of Mike’s Donkeys, is managed by Kelly Baker. Kelly and Mike travel all over the country providing specially-trained therapy donkeys for care home visits, special needs schools and educational days.
Kelly uses basic Makaton and is trained to work with those on the Autistic spectrum, people with developmental and anxiety disorders, visual and hearing impairments, Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy, and a wide range of learning disabilities and emotional problems.
She began her equine career with horses, including problem horses, which taught her a lot about animal behaviour. She says much of it is common sense and understanding why animals do the things they do,
“There is always a reason for an animal’s behaviour. They don’t have the capacity to behave in a certain way in order to annoy you. Their behaviour is always telling you something.”
Basic training starts with getting the donkey used to wearing a head collar, being caught and generally building trust, although Kelly says that everything you do with a donkey amounts to training.
Getting in and out of a lorry, going to an event, being around the public – all of these are learning activities. Kelly watches the donkeys in action and then tailors more specific training as required.
If a donkey tolerates being handled all over, having his tail swished and his feet lifted, Kelly will take them out to a Palm Sunday or Christmas event. On these jobs, donkeys will get more accustomed to crowds, buggies, traffic and loud noises.
When it comes to further training, Kelly is looking for a donkey who listens to her and understands her body language. She needs to have complete control when turning or backing up.
Once a donkey is ready for therapy work, she will take them to a larger inside space, for instance, an empty village hall. They will practise walking on different surfaces, such as patterned rugs or sheets, and work on steps, being in a confined area and getting in and out of a lift.
When the time finally comes for that first care home visit, donkeys are always accompanied by a more experienced therapy donkey, as they learn best from them.
Mike’s Donkeys are 90% rescues. This can make training a challenge as it’s easier to mould a young donkey’s behaviour. Over the age of two, the basic temperament needs to be there, or it can’t be taught.
Nevertheless, regardless of age, Kelly is looking for certain traits. Some donkeys are simply not suitable for work. These donkeys are either sold to a good home, or they remain on the farm, enjoying a secure and happy life, with plenty of donkey friends for company.
Mike’s Donkeys are extremely well cared for, with fields to run around in, comfortable shelters, regular vet checks, physio and visits from the farrier. They also enjoy plenty of downtime, working on average just one day a week throughout the year.
Mike, Kelly and the team love their donkeys, all of whom have their own distinctive characters. Andy loves ice-cream but hates puddles. Nelson likes chin rubs but dislikes sudden movement or his ears being touched. When it comes to training, you need to know your animal.
Charlie is Kelly’s star therapy donkey. Rescued from serious neglect, he was found locked in a barn and starving. As a result, while he doesn’t mind all the attention he gets, he is ultimately motivated by food. Kelly uses treats to get him to position his head over the beds of patients so that they can reach him.
Donkeys are very careful about where they put their feet, so a strange floor covering or a lift can present big challenges. Kelly explains,
“Charlie was not too keen on the lift to begin with as it moves and wobbles, but he gets a treat as soon as he gets in, and again when he gets out. Now he drags you to the lift!”
Due to being locked up, Charlie has a big fear of being trapped and a trigger for him is thinking that he can’t get out. Kelly knows that as long as he can see the exit, he’s fine.
Another of Kelly’s top therapy donkeys is Dermot, who came from Ireland several years ago and was initially quite a nervous donkey. After working with Kelly, he is now confident enough to go into buildings and bedrooms.
Kelly describes Dermot as a very affectionate donkey who genuinely enjoys cuddles,
“Dermot will go to someone in a wheelchair and hold his head for strokes for an hour.”
I ask Kelly if the donkeys understand what they’re doing when they visit care homes and special needs establishments. Do they know why they are there? She replies,
“Donkeys may not understand the impact that a person’s disability might have had on their life, but they recognise emotion.”
Special Thanks To:
Kelly Baker of Danny Donkey & Pals Assisted Therapy
Credit for all photos to Danny Donkey & Pals Assisted Therapy.
Mike’s Donkeys have bases in Wales, Somerset, Basingstoke, Peterborough and the north of England. Their donkeys happily travel to any destination in the UK. For an extra special experience, give them a call today!
For donkey hire companies and donkey therapy organisations where you are, check out the listings below or find more locations under Donkey Hire and Donkey Therapy…
Copyright 2018 Amy Swift