For those of you who are considering walking with a donkey (and of course for armchair travellers), here are some thoughts on day-to-day life with a donkey as I experienced it while walking in France for a month with a donkey named Kaïcha.
Of course, your own donkey-walking experiences may vary wildly depending on your donkey’s personality, your own personality, your equine experience, the number of people in your group, and other factors.
Donkeys EatDonkeys like to eat. Sometimes, in fact, they seem never to stop eating. In order to make progress and to show your dominance, you are supposed to give them a firm “No” and yank on the lead rope if they try to eat while you’re walking together. This often works relatively well under normal circumstances.
Walking through tall grass is different. It is enticingly easy for your donkey to move her head to the side and grab a mouthful. It’s also hard for you to stop her. In these situations, it can take hours to advance a few kilometres.
Donkeys can also be devious. If you let your donkey stop when she wants to scratch her leg with her nose, she may take advantage of this when the local vegetation is particularly delicious, halting regularly to scratch and snatching a mouthful of grass or flowers as she raises her head.
Donkeys don’t like ascents. At least, my particular donkey didn’t. Kaïcha had walked well uphill for other people in the past, but because (I assume) I was not dominant enough, I had problems with hills.
If you’re in a similar situation, your donkey’s reaction to hills may vary. Sometimes the merest hint of a slope (or no slope at all) will slow her, but sometimes her pace won’t change much until the hill gets steep. Your donkey may stop every few steps. Or she may continue to advance, but make less actual progress than the slowest of snails. You may even have a miraculous hour or day when your donkey wants to climb hills faster than you do and you have to hold her back.
I eventually decided that I’d walk along at Kaïcha’s pace as long as she kept moving. This sometimes kept me from becoming as frustrated as I’d get when urging her forward, and often she’d get bored and pick up her pace somewhat. All in all, I figure we averaged about two kilometres per hour, including a ten-minute break every two hours or so but not including an hour’s stop for lunch.
Donkeys like to descend hills quickly. My usually slow little donkey got annoyed at anything (i.e. me) that stopped her racing down hills at a breakneck speed.
The approved donkey-slowing position involves walking in front of your donkey with your arms stretched out to the sides. You may have to constantly move from side to side to get in your donkey’s way when she tries to get around you. Your donkey may get frustrated and nudge you firmly with her nose. If this doesn’t work, she’ll decide that if she’s going slowly anyway, she might as well stop and eat.
So you may find yourself descending a steep, rocky slope with your arms out, trying to keep your donkey from either racing ahead and dragging you down the hill or coming to a complete halt. In this situation, you have very little attention to spare for dangerous footing.
Donkeys and TrafficDonkeys and traffic go together like oil and water. Or they would if, say, oil was completely oblivious to water and so didn’t worry about walking down the middle of a small bridge because it was unhappy with the narrow width of the sidewalk that hugged the bridge’s side. (In that particular instance I decided it made more sense to get Kaïcha across the bridge as quickly as possible than to try to get her to the side, which might well have been an exercise in futility.) Needless to say, you and your donkey may cause the occasional small traffic jam.
When you’re leading a donkey, the obvious way to get her off the road in case of sudden traffic is to lead her onto the verge. She is usually happy to saunter in this direction, as grass, flowers, hedges, and other tasty delights often grow there. Unfortunately, once she has her food, she’s not concerned if her rear end protrudes onto the road. To deal with this, you have to lead her further onto the verge. She may be less happy about this, since the grass at the edge of the verge is perfectly satisfactory, and she is not particularly worried about disrupting traffic or being hit by a car.
As alluded to earlier, donkeys don’t like narrow sidewalks, particularly if these have the occasional metal barrier to separate pedestrians and traffic. Sometimes they have a valid point, since their panniers make them too wide to fit on some of these sidewalks.
Donkeys and Damp
Donkeys don’t like to get wet. When there isn’t a proper shelter in their fields, they will hide under trees. They will walk in the rain, but they’re not thrilled about it.
Once, I thought Kaïcha was horribly hurt because she bent her back knees every time I touched her back. It turned out (after a call to her owner) that my touching her made her feel how wet she was, which made her seriously unhappy.
Donkeys’ reputation for stubbornness is said to come from their reactions to fear. A scared horse will dash away, while a scared donkey will dig in his or her heels.
Kaïcha in many ways wasn’t a terribly fearful donkey. She largely ignored dogs, had no fear of traffic, and wasn’t generally bothered by the bridges that plague many people who walk with donkeys. But still, even on the Stevenson Trail, which she’d travelled many times, she sometimes hesitated when approaching flimsy bridges or other obstacles. Usually I waited, walking ahead to show her there was nothing to be afraid of. It often worked.
We returned to Kaïcha’s home by the Regordane Way, which Kaïcha had never walked before. She was more nervous. She refused to walk next to a flapping ribbon until a wonderful woman ran out of her house with an apple and spent ten minutes enticing her forward. She balked at walking between two cars that otherwise blocked our path, until someone moved one of the cars. She objected to a few perfectly harmless (as far as I could see) bits of the route. Once we even had to turn around and find an alternate route when I couldn’t get her to cross a shallow but wide and rocky stream. (I suspect if there had been another person, we could have managed to get her across.)
She was also more nervous about other animals. In one case, she froze, staring at a very old dog who wasn’t even that interested in us. After I spent a few minutes encouraging her to move, she suddenly shot forward, dragging me with her so suddenly that I went sprawling across a low wall.
Walkers and locals are often excited to see donkeys. I got to practice my French more with Kaïcha than I would have without her, as both walkers (mainly retired French people who spoke little English) and locals (same thing—although she also got a couple of kisses from kids) would stop me to talk about her. In one case, though, a man from Langogne was less than delighted when a friend pointed out she was nosing around his baguette bag.
People were incredibly kind when I needed help, both when I was with Kaïcha and when I was wandering around towns without her.
Your donkey will probably delight you, too, when she isn’t causing serious frustration. When she comes to meet you at the pasture gate, traverses a difficult bit of terrain without complaining, fails to misbehave when she so easily could, tries to groom you, or nudges you in a friendly way, you may forget all about the difficulties she’s caused you and feel sad when you realize that your exhausting, difficult, amazing, wonderful journey together is coming to an end.
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If you have any general questions about walking with a donkey, please ask them in the comments so everyone could read the answers. If you’d like to know about specific parts of the Chemin de Stevenson or Voie Régordane in a donkey-related context, let me know. I’ve thought about writing a post on that, but it’s a big topic, so I won’t unless there’s some demand.