Save Your Back and Pack Your Ass

Sore shoulders, aching backs and stiff knees leave indelible memories for wilderness travelers approaching their fifties. Young couples with children hang their backpacks up in the garage, while others hide them in long forgotten places. One solution in answering the call of the wild is to replace backpacks with panniers. Relegated to the status of a breeding animal for mule owners, the noble donkey, once the esteemed animal of choice among ancient Egyptians, is slowly making a comeback both as a riding animal and a pack animal. The lovable donkey is the perfect working pet for families with only one to two acres of pasture.

While both children and retired couples may easily hike most mountain trails, the obvious problem of carrying supplies, tent, cooking gear and the kitchen sink prove daunting. Much attention has been given to llamas and goats as pack animals. While these exotics capture the imagination of many, the most loving, dependable and sure-footed equine, the donkey, quietly stays the course, as the world's most trusted and lovable pack animal. A pet pack donkey is easily trained, and yearly feeding and health costs are less than the cost of cable television. Best of all, a donkey offers therapeutic love for anyone willing to reach out a hand and scratch a pair of long ears.
Save Your Back and Pack Your Ass
For years I had been a summer fly-fishing guide and a high school teacher. My primary exercising regimen consisted of rowing during the summer and walking from desk-to-desk the rest of the year. In short, I reached my 50's woefully out of shape. As the author of a Montana fishing guide, I made the decision that it would be nearly impossible for me to cover backcountry trails carrying 60 pounds on my back. My last back packing trip a few years ago had been exhausting. Nearing the trailhead on my return, I looked up to see a middle-aged man leaning on his saddle sizing me up. The practice for trail right-of-way is for the hiker to give the right-of-way to riders and stock animals. What a spectacle I must have presented for this muleskinner to pull off the trail for me.

"You looked awfully tired, " the mule-man said sympathetically.
"I'm more than tired," I replied, shifting my pack for some momentary relief.
"You need one of these fine mules," the man countered as he patted the neck of his mule.
Surveying his matched pair of mules, I laughed and said, "I don't think my two-acre spread would accommodate even one mule."
"In that case, what you need is a burro. One acre is all you need. Well, you're only a mile from the trailhead. Have a good one."
"A mile! I still have a mile to go. Are you sure?"
The man re-adjusted his cowboy hat, smiled, and headed up the trail. Looking at his pack mule, I rolled my shoulders and shifted my pack. I couldn't help but wonder on all the creature comforts tucked away under those diamond hitches. Last fall one of my ninth grade English students, Amanda Jennings, wrote an essay on training donkeys. Her expertise on donkey training convinced me that a rank beginner, a greenhorn like myself, could train a pack donkey. With Amanda serving as my mentor, I bought my first donkey and named him Buddy, my new fishing buddy.

Donkey EyeWherever mule breeders and mule lovers gather, donkey breeders and donkey lovers will be there as well. For a newcomer, the best source of information is to join in the fun of a mule and donkey show. You won't find a friendlier group of people, or a better place to buy a donkey. Buying from a reputable breeder generally eliminates buying a sick or troublesome animal. Professional breeders take pride in their animals and their reputations. A buyer may be surprised to find him or herself being interviewed by the breeder. Most breeders disdain sending off their donkeys to be forlorn pasture ornaments for suburbanites to glance at on their way to work. These animals need love and work. Finding a donkey breeder is surprisingly easy.

The best source is contacting The American Donkey & Mule Society at 2901 N. Elm Street, Denton, Texas 76201 (940-382-6845). The AD&MS organization publishes a magazine, The Brayer, four times a year. Each issue offers articles on the care and training of donkeys and mules as well as up-coming regional events. Scattered throughout each issue are advertisements from breeders from around the country. The office staff at ADMS will provide state association presidents who may direct a buyer to breeders in their area. The ADMS website is

The age and sex of a donkey should be considered in terms of other animals that a family might own, as well as how soon a family wants to pack. Geldings are generally considered easiest to train and maintain. A three year-old gelding broke to halter and to lead can be ready for the trail with three or four months training.
Keep in mind that a young weanling offers the advantage of watching a young donkey grow, and they are as adorable as kittens and puppies. For the couple with young children ages 2-4, the weanling would be the perfect pet for the entire family to train. When the children reach the age of five or six, both they and their pet donkey would be ready for an adventure in the backcountry. The disadvantage of buying a weanling is that a weanling would not be able to pack until he or she was three years old. At three years of age, a large standard will carry up to 80 pounds his first summer. Thereafter, the donkey should easily pack about 100-125 pounds for 10-15 miles per day. For the older couple or a family, this eliminates having to carry any weight on their backs, with the exception of possibly a daypack for a camera and lunch.

Buddy the Donkey on a Bridge

Training should begin with the breeder. A novice should expect that the donkey he or she is set to buy should be halter broke, have some training with a lead rope and have some experience loading into a trailer. Donkeys are intelligent and forgiving of first time donkey trainers. A training regimen essentially focuses on the bonding process and building trust. Establishing who is the boss quickly transforms into, "Boss, I love you." Responding to the lead rope, familiarity with pack equipment and exposure to strange sights and weird phenomenon prepare the donkey and his trainer for a safe trip into the mountains.

Maligned throughout the ages for being stubborn and cantankerous, donkey trainers know that their donkey's refusal is usually born of fear. When the donkey is faced with a new sight or challenge, he stops and assesses the situation. We ascribe this characteristic to people as being cautious and prudent. Good looks, charm, intelligence, and loyalty, that is what the world knew about the donkey until the age of mechanization.

If you are seriously considering getting your ass into the mountains, and you have never trained a horse or donkey, I have outlined some specific training tips that you might find helpful.

Donkey EyeGetting to Know You...

A donkey owner's first training lessons should combine friendliness with firmness. Having safely brought your donkey home, walk him around the perimeter and show him his new home. Keep in mind that he or she may be somewhat traumatized from the trip, so your goal is to make your new animal comfortable. Establish a morning and evening feeding time so that he associates the reward of food with your presence. Most of the literature I read emphatically stated that one should never leave an unattended donkey with a free-dragging lead rope. I personally have met two trainers that leave the lead rope attached to the donkey for upwards of two weeks.

However, these unruly, semi-wild donkeys are placed in a small pen so the trainer can catch and take control of them a couple of times a day to gentle them. The idea, of course, is that each time you approach your donkey with a halter, he must learn that you will be successful! Establishing this bond of familiarity and finality of command is essential before the real training begins.

If your donkey wins even a few rounds of you chasing him around the pasture with a halter, a powerful incentive for running away is established. If you do not have a small feeding pen, then set up a small electric fence enclosure. I found that packer pellets are great rewards for coming to the halter. Like all reward schedules, you must taper off the pellet rewards and replace the food rewards with verbal praise and grooming or petting. Donkeys learn fast with food, but they can become nippy and aggressive when they find out you have come empty handed.

Just like Pavlov's dog, which salivated when the bell was jingled, shaking a coffee can of pellets will bring your new pet running. Feeding from your hand, rather than dropping the pellets on the ground, can encourage biting and lunging. Practice dropping the pellets in front of your feet so that you can reach the halter and attach the lead rope. After a week, you should be able to attach and remove a halter from your donkey fairly easy. Keep in mind, however, that these first few weeks your animal will test you to see which of you is the boss. Firmness must be established from the very first encounter.

A few weeks ago I volunteered to canvas a neighborhood for a school fundraiser. At one home I was met by an out-of-control dog, which barked and scratched the door. The owner yelled to no avail. As he opened the door a crack, he simultaneously grabbed the dog's collar while lifting his knee as he attempted conversation. I just wanted to walk away from this pathetic dog trainer. Controlled by the antics of his spoiled, undisciplined dog, it is frightening to envision this same man training a 700-pound donkey!

For safety's sake, train your donkey to follow your command. Notice I said command, not request or plea. When he complies, reward him with praise and hugs. Although they do learn quickly, donkeys are timid creatures, and each new lesson confuses and frightens them at first. Shape their behavior. Reward them for small, incremental movements towards a behavioral goal. I encouraged Banjo to cross a small practice bridge. I rewarded him over a period of a couple of evenings for just approaching the bridge, as he was terrified of it. Then I rewarded him for placing a hoof on the bridge. Looking at me with his big, brown eyes, he seemed to say, "OK, Dave, this is as far as I am going. Pay up with the goodies!"

After a couple of evenings, he refused to go any further. He was terrified of crossing this bridge, and no amount of pellets would entice him any further. The lesson took on a level two tactic. "Banjo, you are going to cross this bridge because I command you to follow me. Furthermore, you will not only learn to cross bridges, but you will learn to trust me, as I will not lead you in harm's way." The lesson commenced from rewards and praise to a negative reinforcer ­ the whip. Pauline walked up behind him and smacked him on the rump with a buggy whip. Startled, he almost ran over me, but on the other side he discovered his reward. Within an hour I had walked him across three or four times without any prodding.

I have had to resort to the whip when teaching my donkeys to load into a trailer, lead correctly, and not pass each other on a trail. For the most part, the whip was merely a startling prod. A few times I have had to sting them. Never use the whip around their head, as they will learn to be spooky every time that you raise your arm. Keep the whip trailing at your side, and flick it behind you, as if some mysterious force was responsible for administrating the sting. Under no circumstance should you allow a donkey to kick or bite. At the first transgression, react instantly. Yell and scream, and at the same time strike them with a whip or a stick on their rump.

Continue until you are out of breath. After I reported some nipping and biting, I was chastised from the breeder on my complacency. On the next sneaky bite from Buddy, I exploded into action, which included kicking Buddy. I can assure you that no harm was done to Buddy. He went into shock when my tirade was exhausted. He literally buried his head in my chest. Since that time he has never even feigned a nip. After you have taught your donkey to be haltered and tied to a post, practice lifting all four of his feet so that horse farrier can trim his hooves. Take time to clean out their hooves with a hoof pick so that he will learn that you have a purpose in this exercise. The next major lesson is teaching your donkey to follow you on a lead rope.

Never wrap the lead rope around your fingers, and tie a knot at the end of the rope. Another good tip, which I initially ignored, is to wear gloves. Hold the excess rope in serpentine coils so that if you had to release the rope in an emergency it would easily drop from the palm of your hand rather than dragging you across the field. First, you have to decide on a set of verbal cues for the following commands: follow me; stop; back up and "Don't try to pass me up, you stubborn ass!" I started out with the following: come on; whoa; whoa, stop, whoa, get back, get back ­ back--back!

On my third day of leading Buddy I was both exhausted and discouraged. I had managed to undo in two days everything the breeder had taught Buddy about leading. I had been told to outsmart the donkey when he chose to turn a direction other than the direction I was leading. Instead of losing a tug-a-war with a 600-pound donkey, I was to take control with a tight turn in the direction he had selected. I was using my neighbor's field to work with Buddy. The lesson had escalated to sheer panic and confusion for Buddy and stupidity on my part.
Buddy wanted to just run ahead of me. Because I had extended him about five feet of lead rope, he kept passing me, which lead me to the end of my rope. I was yelling "whoa" when I really meant get back.

The proverbial insults that followed, and I must confess the use of the rope to express my frustration, precipitated the most exercise I had had in years. Buddy exploded in the air. First his front feet were off the ground, then his back feet were in the air and finally all four legs kicked through the air. Dragged behind Buddy on a full run, each time he jumped I too would find myself launched. I hung on with determination as I catapulted across the pasture. I dug my heels in just as I had seen cowboys do it in the movies. Finally, Buddy came to a slow walk. I took charge and tried to turn him in small circles. By then I was at the end of the rope and exhausted.

I saw Dave Hurtt driving across the field in his old ranch truck, chased after by his two blue healers. I was so out of breath. I couldn't talk, and I think Buddy was a little pooped as well, as he stood by my side watching the approach their approach with suspicion.
"Thought I'd come over and see how the two of you were doing, " Dave said leaning out the window. "For awhile there I thought you were teaching this young one a few dance steps." I grinned at him, as I stood hunched over with my forearms crossed above my knees. After a kindly critique and a bit of advice, I walked Buddy back home. The next day I started fresh, and Buddy has been a star pupil once I learned what I was supposed to be teaching.

After talking it over with Dave, I decided to use the clicking of my tongue against my teeth followed by the verbal command "Come-on, Buddy" and a slight tug on the rope. Whoa means stop. No means no, and "Back" was reserved only for those times I wanted him to step backwards. My biggest mistake, however, was that I had been leading Buddy with too much slack. My new training regimen kept my hand on the rope very close to the halter with Buddy's head close to my shoulder. In this manner, I was able to reach up and pull back the halter to reinforce the command for "whoa." With this close control, I could immediately react by pulling the halter.

Surprisingly, I could pull Buddy's head sharply by pulling his head into my chest and using leverage to turn him sharply. All that heretofore power was negated, as a donkey or a horse offers little resistance with this close-contact maneuver. Conversely, turning him sharply to the right required a quick step out in front of him and then stepping into the side of his head with my shoulder. Heads and necks are not meant to bend that sharply so the body quickly spins around to alleviate the discomfort. Thereafter, we practiced figure-eight maneuvers, and when Buddy caught me by surprise and turned, I followed in the same direction, albeit much sharper. In talking with my student, Amanda, I learned to capitalize on this principle when Buddy got it into his mind to do his own thing. If he started backing up, I knew not to get into a losing tug-a-war.

Instead I would jump squarely in front of him, and pulling down on his halter, I would yell "Back, Back!" If he took to a trot, I would jump out in front of him and yell, "Let's go!" Every time he would stop immediately in puzzlement. I might not be the smartest guy in the neighborhood, but I am not a dumb ass, and neither is Buddy!

Initially I had to walk Buddy alongside of a fence to keep him in a straight line. Later I had to carry a whip as I would attempt to turn him, and he would have to be reminded that I was the boss and the command was not open for negotiation. I still had trouble with Buddy wanting to get ahead of me. When he does this, I drop some slack in the lead rope and flip it up with a downward motion while at the same time yelling "NO!" A few months later on the trail in Yellowstone National Park, I could let Buddy trail behind me with quite a bit of slack. At that point it didn't matter as we had settled into a comfortable pace and understanding.

Once again the key is small increments followed by lots of praise and intermittent goody rewards. To begin teaching your donkey to lead, hold the lead rope close to the halter and give the command for walking. If he refuses to budge, immediately reach up and grab the side of the halter and make the sharpest turn that you can make. Use your elbow as leverage. Hey, this is progress. Each time that you give the command to walk, be ready to turn him on a dime if he refuses to budge. If he throws a temper tantrum and backs up, get right in his face and yell the "Back" command. This really confuses a young donkey as now they are not getting their way they are responding to your command.

One moment they think they are in charge, and the next moment they are following your command. When he shakes his head and starts to come to a stop, anticipate it with a "Whoa" command, and then praise your donkey enthusiastically. Take a moment at these junctures to show your affection by scratching him and showering him with praise. This is also a good time to take a treat out of your pocket as a reward. But if your new friend becomes aggressive and tries to snatch the treat out of your hand or nip your fingers, ram your fingers up his nostrils! Donkeys learn fast.

The Training Post:
Tying your donkey to a training post with a slip-knot or a bowline knot affords opportunities for grooming and health care. Every two weeks during the summer season your donkey should be sprayed down with an insect repellant. Begin with just a rag dipped in water to prepare him for this procedure. Leaving him for a short duration will teach him patience so that he doesn't feel he has been abandoned. Otherwise, an impatient, braying donkey can be a nuisance. When you return to him, surprise him by dropping some pots and pans or drop a piece of tarp next to him. He may struggle against the post thinking he is under attack, but this is good training to teach him that unexpected events happen on the trail, such as dropping a canteen. This is also a good time to introduce him to a front foot hobble.

When you are in the backcountry, you need to both secure your donkey for the night as well as allow him to graze without wandering out of range. You may tie your donkey to a tree or a picket rope stretched between two trees, but the easiest method to keep your donkey from wandering away while he is grazing is to attach a front foot hobble. Be sure your donkey reacts passively to your touch; drape jackets and ropes across his back and down his flank. While he is in post training, be sure to introduce him to ropes on the ground, including ropes that move! After you can easily lift his legs, attach a front foot hobble. After a few tug-a-wars with the post and ample rewards for behaving, he will accept the front foot hobble. Be sure to run the rope through about ten feet of garden hose.

Tape the ends of the hose to the rope. The hose will protect his legs should he become entangled in the rope. The first time that I attached a front foot hobble to Buddy, I allowed too much line. He broke away from me and started to run, even after a number of calm sessions when he was attached to the training post. Horrified, I lunged for his halter and missed. When he got to the end of the rope, he was spun around with his leg stretched out. Terrified, he struggled to extricate himself and nearly pulled out the screw-in pin. (I have since abandoned the pin when a mountain bike rider came out off the side of the mountain into my camp. Buddy was off and running, and the pin trailed behind him for a half mile before I could catch up with him.) I had been derelict in my training, and as a result I could have seriously injured Buddy.

The next lesson I shortened the rope considerably and attached a short lead rope which was only two feet long. I stayed by his side for 20 minutes while he grazed on my front lawn. The next session I sat in a lawn chair, and sure enough I had to jump up and take control of him when he panicked for no apparent reason. By the third session I worked in my garage around the corner.

Preparing for the Pack:
Before your donkey will allow a pack on his back, he will want to examine all the items up close and smell them. Begin by holding just the blanket out in front of him. After he has smelled it, gently touch his flank with the blanket, and then let him re-examine it. On the first introduction Buddy allowed me to stroke him with the blanket prior to resting it on his back. Follow the same procedure with the pack and pannier bags. Janelle Reiger was right. The easiest lesson of all was to place the pack on his back and walk him around. They are born packers. Buddy tried to bite the cinch for a few minutes, and then he ignored it, as if it had been part of his life for years. Since I was a bit timid, I had Amanda and her mom come over and show me how to properly adjust the pack. When we let Buddy walk off with the pack on his back, he walked around in circles stumbling from the "weight".

It was quite amusing, but Buddy just came to a stop as if to say, "Ok, stop your laughing." Thinking I would have the same reaction with Banjo, I let him loose and he ran around the entire pasture as fast as he could run, and run he did! Buddy looked over at me as if to say, "Way to go, Dave. Let me guess. Your two sons were exactly alike, and you never had to adjust your parenting. Humph!" Once again I had put one of my animals at risk. All that jumping and running had loosened the pack, and it had begun to slide off of him just as he came to a stop.

After just a few day hikes up some of the local canyons with the pannier bags filled with small sand bags, Buddy was ready for the trail. Here are a few tips I gleamed from the Brayer when they reprinted "Instructions on Horse Packing, 1943, Part I; prepared by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, North Pacific Region.
"Care of Pack Animals: The packer will make every reasonable effort to keep his [animal] at a high level of efficiency and to prevent the animal from acquiring saddle sores, galls, lameness or any other affliction....

Feeding: The packer will make sure that his [animal] gets enough of the proper feed and water to keep them in condition for the job, even though it means much inconvenience to himself. An animal will usually do best if turned loose during the night. [I carry a 4 battery operated electric fence, and I attach a front foot hobble to one of my donkeys in case an animal spooks them during the night. Carry packer pellets in case a lack of grass prevents adequate feeding. Also reward your donkey with a carrot prior to packing him in the morning. At the end of a day's hike, reward your donkey with a 1/2 a cup of grain.]

Care of Feet: Rocks or sticks may become lodged in the [hoof]....They should be removed as soon as discovered. (Carry a hoof pick in your day-pack and regularly check your donkey's feet.) [I]f allowed to remain it may cause serious lameness. Any lameness or tendency of an animal to "favor" a foot should be investigated promptly to determine and remove the cause.

foothobble.jpgHobbling and Picketing: There are several styles of commercial horse hobbles have a short length of chain with swivel joints in the middle and equipped with leather straps on either end for fastening around the horses ankles. When hobbles are necessary, the conventional type placed below the fetlock to prevent bruising the leg tendons, and buckled only tight enough to keep them from slipping over the hoof....To picket a horse, attach the picket rope to a short stout peg at ground line and to the hobbles placed on one or both of the animal's front feet. A half hobble may be used , with the swivel to keep the rope from kinking.....The picket rope should not be attached to the halter or the animals neck because of the danger of the animal becoming tangled in the rope and "hanging" itself or getting severe rope burns. Picketing is a last resort.

Care of Backs: The condition of a pack animal's back is particularly important, because the fitness of the animal to do the job largely depends upon it. The back is frequently a source of trouble to the careless or the inexperienced packer, as it will become sore unless properly cared for. The same is true of the parts where the cinches, cinch rings and latigoes work. Sores are much easier to prevent that to cure, and for this reason the packer should keep prevention uppermost in his mind. Sores are caused by chafing, scalding, or gouging and are referred to as "saddle sores", "ring sores", "kidney sores", "cinch sores", or "galls". There are several good practices that will help prevent them:

1. Breaking in: A sufficient period should be allowed for gradually toughening the back when the animal is first placed in use following a long lay-off. Extreme care should be used during this period to prevent the development of sores before the back is thoroughly conditioned. The first trips made should be short with light loads. Care should be used not to get the animal too hot during this period, since steam makes the back...tender and more susceptible to scalding and blistering.

Especially during this period, the animal's back and sides should be carefully looked over as soon as the saddle has been removed to detect the first signs of soreness. Places where the hair is slicked down, lumps or chafed spots are all indications of pressure spots, which should be massaged with the hands or a brush immediately to stimulate circulation. A similar examination for the same purpose should be made of the animal's back and sides before saddling. Feeling with the fingers may reveal a small bump (half the size of a pea), which may be the beginning of a blister. A wet spot on the back in the morning may mean a chaffed spot and swelling may mean a bruise. In each case, examine the saddle blanket or other articles to determine and remove the cause.

Washing the back and sides with a moderately strong solution of either salt or alum and water after removing the saddle will help to toughen the animal's skin where the saddle and cinches work. If sores do get started, treatment of them should start as soon as possible. A good gall cure applied according to directions on the container helps, but it is just as important to make sure the sore is not further aggravated by the saddle or the rigging during the healing process. Correct the cause of the sore.

Galls, hobble burns, and rope burns should be kept soft with bacon grease. Application of salty bacon grease or butter will frequently prevent the hair from turning white on galled spots.

2. Keep backs clean: Use vigorously a stiff brush, with or without curry comb, before saddling to remove dust, dirt, and sweat deposits.

3. Keep saddle blankets clean: Select a suitable type blanket and keep it washed free from dirt, hair and sweat deposits. A saddle blanket should ordinarily be cleaned thoroughly with a brush and soap and water at intervals of at least six to ten days. Blankets should be dried before using.

* * *
Having had no experience with equines, I was delighted to have two trained donkeys in less than six months. Although this article is not a fully comprehensive article, it should suffice to launch a novice donkey trainer. Contact the folks at the Brayer for reprints of articles. I also recommend Joe Back's definitive book, Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails

Receive fresh articles via email!