Thursday, November 1, 2012

Chez Martine (learning about donkeys)

Chez Martine
Pascal, Martine & Cathy

Martine is one of the first to believe that Donkeys were on the “come back” after so many years of neglect of this essential animal prior to the automobile. Choosing to live on the family's gentleman farmer's estate over 40 years ago, she has been a founder or co-founder of each of the main organizations in France that address the breeding, training, and re-adaptation of the donkey in our modern world either as an ecological farm work animal (mostly for vegetables and specialty types of gardening including work in hot houses) or as a leisure animal for the family.

I'll spare you the politics, only to tell you that like in all associations, professional organizations etc . It is difficult in our present world to grow a project with a common goal that does not include a power struggle or a financial gain. Despite efforts to focus on ideals, such as the well being of the animals and their status, there are always people who see associative organizations as a vehicule for their own self esteem, financial gain and or power play.
The donkey is not like a horse. It does not respond to power games, authority without reason, or simply brute force. By nature donkeys are sedentary animals that establish a territory, defend it if needed, organize their lives as a heard where each individual takes care of the others while living quite an independent life. A smart animal donkeys can be “educated” to do many things, but only because you have convinced him that doing it was a “good thing”. Those that want to dominate, force the animal to do things that are not in his opinion safe or sensible … will find the donkey to be stubborn and this to the point of exasperation. But if you listen, observe and take the time to dialogue with the animal, provided he has not been traumatized in a previous life, he will respond and do incredible things to help you in whatever endeavor you have.
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Here I want to say that people who have donkeys as decorations in their yards, as a toy for their kids, and who generally treat the donkey as a pet are in fact creating terrible conditions of life for their animal. Bad treatment of this type is common and over feeding, bad mannerisms and negligence should be identified and dealt with to protect these good spirited and generous animals.

As a sedentary animal the donkey needs his own space where he is “free” to do as he likes. Then when you want to teach him, work him, use him for a task, he needs to be taken out of his SPACE and taught that when this occurs he is “working” thus not free to do as he likes. Just like children in school, they love to learn but need a framework of conditions to focus on the task at hand. Also in the same sense, you need to respect the donkey's perceptions of personal space. If you approach from the front and extend your arm to him, for him this is an aggression, thus he is likely to turn away or react negatively since you enter his buble of comfort. Just like you when you meet someone, if you are too close or that you allow yourself to touch them, most likely you will offend the person. However if you enter like would another donkey on the side, scratch them (not a pat which is an agression) and most importantly talk to them, then they will not object to your presence and eventually allow you to start work.

Donkeys consider you to be “part of the heard” … once you have established contact. As such you need to learn Donkey language and behaviour, most of it body language and speech to let them know when you approve, disaprove of something or a behaviour. A set of simple commands, creating a “reward” that is a caress, an immediate (less than 3seconds) reaction to a “bad move” etc … and NO “goodies” such as carots or apples which in their metabolism works as if you gave your kid a “candy bar”. You can give them something like that but not on a regular basis and only occasionally.

So I have spent a couple of weeks almost with these 7 donkeys at Martine's house and was able beyond the excellent theory courses by Martine and her collegues each specializing in “feet care”, equipment, and various activities with donkeys (hiking, riding, pulling a cart or working the land), to establish a functional relationship with each animal. Of course I know I know “nothing” since each relationship is a special investment with the need to “recognize” the spirit and will of each other. But we did an interesting exercise which was to go to a fair where they sell donkeys and horses and I learned how to recognize a potential candidate for my journey. The feet need to be well aligned, vertically when viewed from all directions, the hoof not deformed which means manicured or used naturally correctly so that the animal has not developped structural issues. The back on young ones are not yet level, when you work an animal you want his whole body to be sufficiently mature. I'll be looking for animals at least 5 years old and not over 10 (maximum 15) years old. The teeth slant is more pronounced on older animals and of course it is essential to inspect the whole mouth as poor dental structure or over use indicates futur problems. You need to choose a rather underfed rather than a fat animal. Many more health issues with fat animals both structurally as well as internally. Beware the “gloss” of the coat is important to avoid animals with imballanced or parasited digestive systems. Walking the animal, paying attention to his behaviour … are all important preliminary steps to finding a work companion. Then comes the critical issue, is there a personal contact with the animal? Does he pay attention to you as soon as you meet? Do you “feel” him and does he tolerate your presence? Without letting the emotional enthousiasm overcome your analytical approach, only animals that you determine you have a feeling for are worth considering. Whenever possible, just like when you hire a person for work, you should find a way to establish a trial period where you can handle, work and become familiar with the animal. After all, you are not buying a car, but a living creature that will interact with you and make your life either miserable or full of joys. I feel ready to try.

The week's program was conducted by several experts, sometimes in team to allow more individual tutoring. The experts knew their stuff, their years of practice allowed us to ask a wide range of questions and each participant to focus on his individual project:
  • One day of overall knowledge about the animal, his history, his living habits, including anatomical and physiological knowledge.
  • One day of work on the feet with cleaning, trimming, shoeing and other treatments including diagnostic of health issues and ways to treat them. Hands-on practice was quite interesting and every day we handled the feet prior to any work with the animals.
  • One day on the material, the various contexts in which you can work the animals (farm work, pleasure rides and pack-saddle operations, the raising of donkeys to create mules …). Each halter type, saddle type, and equipment to pull was installed several times on the animals and examples of variants per culture or region of the world was discussed. The types of materials used, the ergonomy of the material to make it comfortable for the animals, the options and common errors were also covered.
  • One day at the fair to practice identification of issues with animals, discuss with sellers and observe process followed by a few hours on the legal, administrative, and business considerations for those wishing to establish an activity with donkeys.
  • The last day was devoted to the carriages and other work with donkeys. We were able to practice getting the animals ready, go through the process of getting animals used to a cart or other devices, handling the animals using voice and reigns, and of course took a ride.
During the courses, anecdotes, examples and many stories were told to illustrate the dos and dont's of the best practices. We visited several sites where people had developped various activities. Tidbits such as learning why you mount a horse from the left were shared (this was so that the saber would not impeed climbing on the saddle.

Fortunately I was able to spend a little time with Martine on site and thus was able to complete the formal course work with extensive discussions on the specifics of my proposed venture. Mostly this conforted me in my expectations that if I have much to learn, none of it is out of my reach nor more difficult than simply taking the time to adapt and develop good practices.
Possibly, one change is that I might after the first 6 months (basically the PCT) acquire a big donkey, a mule or possibly even a mustang to ride as well as walk … we'll see.
Did I mention the good food, the wines, the “home life” feeling that enabled the 10 students to feel comfortable, participate in daily life activities and learn from each other. An important part of the training allowed students to be focussed on learning while sharing life experiences.

Martine Jouclas
 L'Ânerie. 06 87 47 68 84
Centre ânier de formation

Photos by Isabelle & Cathy (via PER)

Isabelle David
La ferme Bio de Vignaut
Produits bios de saison
Camping à la ferme
Table d'hote /Repas collectif

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