I’m back! Briefly, anyway.
I walked in France with a donkey for a month last May/June. Since I couldn’t find much information in English about walking with a donkey before I left, I thought I’d try to fill that gap now. Keep in mind that I’m in no way an expert; I just have some experience with one particular donkey.
Where should I walk with a donkey?
That’s up to you! If you search the Internet, you can find donkey rentals in a variety of countries. I chose France because a) I sort of speak the language, which is helpful both in communicating with the ânier (donkey wrangler) and in arranging accommodation; and b) France has a lot of donkey rentals and more trails with donkey accommodation—especially for a long trip—than many other countries.
I considered several French long-distance trails, and settled on the Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson (GR 70) in the south-east because it seemed the best place to find good donkey accommodation. Probably more than half of campgrounds, gîtes d’étapes, and hotels on the route can take donkeys … or have a arrangements with someone else who does. I returned largely on the Régordane (GR 700), which was more difficult with a donkey.
I rented Kaïcha (my donkey companion) from Âne Azimut because it is based in Le Monastier, which was more or less where I wanted to start. (I didn’t want to pay extra for her to be transported by vehicle.) The owner, Christophe, was great.
I’ve never had anything to do with donkeys. Is this a good idea?
That’s a difficult one. I’d had no donkey experience and very little horse experience. I think it would have been better if I’d had equine experience, but … I survived. And I’m glad I did it, although when I finished I was convinced I would never do it again. It was an amazing, challenging, intense, difficult, rewarding experience.
It helped that I’d read as many books as I could about trips made with donkeys, and of course the ânier told me the basics, but actual experience with donkeys would have been better.
From what I’ve read, I suspect it would also be much easier to walk with your own donkey, with whom you have a relationship, than with a rented donkey.
(Also, if you do have experience with horses, read up on the differences between donkeys and horses. They’re smarter than horses and react to fear in very different ways—where a horse would flee, a donkey generally digs in her heels and stops—which makes them different to deal with.)
Should I walk with a donkey?
Another difficult question, and one I’ve broken down into sections below.
The one unmitigatedly wonderful thing about walking with a donkey is that you don’t have to carry a lot of weight. On my first day of walking, I walked alone, hauling a large backpack from Le Puy-en-Velay to Le Monastier. In the evening, I creaked slowly to my feet whenever I had to stand. I had minor blisters.
After that, I walked with Kaïcha. She carried most of my luggage, and I carried a small backpack that probably weighed several pounds, depending on how much water I was hauling around at the time. It was wonderful, and I had no serious physical problems.
You will meet (and be photographed by) more people than you would if you didn’t have a donkey companion. If you speak the local language, you will chat with locals and other walkers who want to know about your donkey and why you are doing this (and in my case why you wanted to come to France to walk, when Canada is so beautiful). This is generally fun and a great way to practice your French, especially on routes, like the Stevenson, where the majority of people you’ll meet don’t speak much English. I know people would have been friendly and helpful even without Kaïcha, but it was nice to brighten their days and hear excited comments like, “This is my first donkey of the chemin!”
On the flip side, there may be the occasional person who thinks they know more about donkey management than you do, despite having no donkey experience whatsoever. This can test your patience, especially when you’re having your own doubts about your ability to look after a large, sometimes difficult animal.
A benefit of walking with a donkey is the companionship. But this is a mixed blessing. Donkeys can be lovely animals and it is fun getting to know them and their personalities, and hanging out with them when they are not totally ignoring you.
But in my experience, donkeys do not share your goals of, say, making it to your next accommodation before dinnertime. Their goals tend more towards climbing hills as slowly as they can get away with and eating as much grass, tree branches, and other growing things as they can. So at times, walking with one can be rather like trailing a whiny child.
This does not seem to be a problem for everyone. As I will discuss in the next section, people with more dominant personalities and equine experience seem to do better on this front.
Speed (or lack thereof)
Apparently, Kaïcha has walked more than 30 kilometres a day with other people. With me, aiming for more than 15 kilometres generally stretched our day out to 12 hours.
I found, as have a few other people whose donkey-walking books I’ve read, that if you don’t have the donkey experience and dominant personality (or at least a helpful human companion) to properly motivate your donkey to move, it’s better to go with the flow, so to speak, and slow down to the donkey’s pace rather than drive yourself crazy trying to speed her up. Eventually, I vowed that as long as Kaïcha was moving forward—even if it was only at 0.5 kilometres per hour—I would walk at her pace. Luckily, she usually seemed to get bored with the slow pace when I wasn’t arguing with her, and either stopped (in which case I got her going again with an “Allez!” and a swift tug on the lead rope) or upped her speed.
This was not always easy. It could be hugely frustrating, especially when the day was fading away and we weren’t particularly near our destination.
There are other elements of walking with a donkey that also make your day longer. In the morning, you have to brush her and pick out her hooves before loading her up. And if you’re not camping, her pasture may be up to a kilometre away from your accommodation, so you have to walk back and forth several times. And of course you may want to visit her in the evening. I sometimes ended up walking the same stretch of the route numerous times.
Donkeys are known for being stubborn, but stopping and refusing to go forward is the way they express their fear. I could often get Kaïcha to move beyond something that scared her by going on ahead, talking to her, and waiting for her. On one occasion, when she was terrified of some caution tape erected around an inactive crane that filled the road, a woman ran out of her house with an apple, and over the course of about ten minutes managed to lure Kaïcha forward. When those sorts of methods didn’t work, I would give her a good tug. She was well trained, and we only had to backtrack once when she refused to cross a rather large stream on a route she’d never seen before. (She was familiar with the Stevenson, so I didn’t have any serious problems there, but she was more nervous on the Régordane, which she’d never walked on before.)
This will depend on your personality and equine experience, I suppose. But walking with a donkey means having a dependent you are responsible for. Even when Kaïcha was driving me crazy, I spent a lot more time than I should have worrying about her—when she had diarrhoea, when she was bleeding just the tiniest bit, when she bent her hind legs every time I touched her back (it turned out she didn’t like the way it felt because she was wet), and on several other occasions.
My sister, a horsewoman, tells me there was a positive side of me knowing nothing about equines. I didn’t worry about some of the things she would have worried about, and so I did—and got away with—things she’d never have considered doing. For example, one day it was almost 8 p.m. and we were still a few kilometres from our destination. Kaïcha absolutely refused to step down a short step I knew she’d have no trouble with. And so I stupidly (but effectively) gave her a good push—something my sister, who has seen horses kick who are said to never kick, would not have tried.
Renting a donkey—at least in France—is rather expensive. I figure it at least doubled my walking costs. I had to pay the ânier by the day. Also, most places places charge for donkeys. Three to five euros will get your donkey a pasture and usually some sort of food.
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Anyway! I’ll do another post that gives more of an idea of what it’s like walking with a donkey on a daily sort of basis, before closing up this blog again.
If you have general donkey-walking questions, it would be great if you could ask them in the comments so that others could benefit from the replies.