donkeys tied to foal in pasture

Steady & Strong: Training with Donkeys

Life without mom can be a scary time for any foal. One minute she’s there for reassurance or food, but come weaning day, she’s out of their lives.

At Sterling Ranch, weanlings have a little help making that transition. They’re accompanied every step of the way – actually connected to – a pair of steady, shaggy donkeys named Shirley and Mabel.

Equal parts disciplinarian, babysitter and buddy, the two no-nonsense donkeys play an important role in the foals’ weanling year. They function as a reliable and safe tool for halter-breaking the future reiners and, later, as a deterrent against predators out in the ranch’s large pastures.

“We’ve found that the donkeys help really teach them about giving to pressure, because the donkeys won’t back down and they’re really safe,” said Mackenzie Gellings, Sterling Ranch’s breeding manager. “They’re not going to hurt the babies and they’re not going to let the babies hurt themselves.”

Weaning day

Weaning at Sterling Ranch is a subtle affair, done in stages over several days to minimize stress on dam and foal. Mares and foals at the ranch, which is home to EquiStat Elite $4 Million Sire Smart Spook, are brought in from the pasture on the first day of weaning and stalled next to each other. They’re still able to see, hear and smell the other while the babies are wormed, vaccinated, micro-chipped and haltered.

For the first few days, mom is in the stall next door for reassurance every time ranch staff enters the foal’s stall to work with baby.

Until she’s not. That’s when work begins for Shirley and Mabel. First on the agenda is halter-breaking, which began this year in May. Although the foals are haltered and led by ranch staff prior to being introduced to the donkeys, they are tethered to Shirley and Mabel for much of the training.

Lessons between donkey and weanling begin in the stall; the donkeys are rigged with a leather strap around their neck, which the foal is attached to by a short lead. One of the connecting snaps is a quick-release snap – the kind often used in trailers to prevent dangerous hang-ups during transport – which can be easily released in case of emergency, Gellings said.

“One end is attached to the leather strap that goes around the donkey’s neck, and it’s a pretty short lead that we use,” she said. “You don’t want to get it too long.”

They’re tied together periodically rather than all the time, giving teacher and student a break from lesson time. Only one donkey and weanling are outside at one time to further ensure safety.

“They won’t be tied together the entire time, but the first few days we’ll attach them in the stall for an hour or two,” Gellings explained. “And then, once they’re pretty good in the stall and they’re not panicking or anything, we’ll lead them out into a little turnout behind the breeding barn and we’ll attach them outside.”

Donkey named Shirley tied to foal
Shirley (right) is one of two donkeys used by Sterling Ranch to halter-break weanlings. Later, they protect young horses from
predators in the ranch’s pastures
Future reiners

Shirley and Mabel generally have 20-30 pupils a year at the 120-acre ranch, whose stallion roster also includes $146,011-earner Rufanicki (Lil Ruf Peppy x Chexanicki x Bueno Chexinic), the 2011 National Reining Horse Association Derby and National Reining Breeders Classic Derby Non-Pro champion in all levels.

Donkeys have long been a part of Sterling Ranch’s weaning process since it was headquartered in California. Shirley’s and Mabel’s predecessor, Pedro, moved to Texas along with the horses in 1999. He was eventually retired, passing away in recent years.

Shirley, a gray donkey, and Mabel, who is brown, were bought in Texas after the ranch moved to the Lone Star State. They’re midsized animals – smaller than full-sized donkeys, but larger than the miniature variety – but they still have enough strength to stand up to the most strong-minded foals.

The key is Shirley’s and Mabel’s combination of stubbornness and safety.

“If the baby pulls back, generally the donkey’s going to stand there, because they’re pretty stubborn,” Gellings said. “But, if the baby pulls back hard enough and is rearing and flipping over, the donkey has enough give that you’re not going to get the baby hurt.”

Mabel, who is big on manners, and Shirley, who handles the tough customers, have different specialties, Gellings explained.

“Mabel doesn’t let the babies get away with as much,” she said. “She’s a bit shorter-fused, but I’d say Shirley is just a bit more consistent.

“The squirreliest babies we’ll put on Shirley, just because she’s really patient and she stands her ground better than Mabel does.”

Although there are some stubborn foals, it often doesn’t take long at all for the donkeys to get the message across to the youngsters at Sterling Ranch.

“Some of the foals don’t have a hard time learning about it at all, so they’ll only be tied to the donkey for a week or two, and then they can go outside,” Gellings said.

Coyote patrol

Shirley’s and Mabel’s jobs don’t end when the foals are halter broken. They remain pasture companions to the ranch’s fillies, helping keep them safe in the pastures for the next year. It’s a similar concept to how ranchers and farmers in some parts of the country will turn out donkeys to protect herds of pregnant cattle. The watchful animals can be quick to run off coyotes, dogs or other dangers during calving, when the cows are down or vulnerable to attack.

“By this time [as yearlings], they’re usually big and strong enough they’re able to protect themselves, but we do get some coyotes out here. The donkeys are really good at keeping those away,” Gellings said.

While the donkeys are full-time employees at Sterling Ranch, they do get time off, especially during the weaning season. The staff works to find opportunities to turn the donkeys out – without weanlings – overnight in a tree-covered pasture, even during the busiest times.

“By the end of the year, they’re definitely a lot shorter [-tempered] with the babies,” Gellings said with a laugh. “They don’t put up with a lot of stuff.” 

This article was originally published in the July 1, 2018 issue of QHN.