Welcome to my blog - a diary about living with donkeys, notes about care, my training sessions and the absolute pleasure of donkey companionship.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Working with Sola

Sola Wolff from Seattle was here this past weekend.  She is a gifted young trainer who impressed me the first time I saw her working with her mules last October.

At breakfast the first morning she was here, I confessed that I have been thinking about finding another home for Ringo!  He has been intimidating me lately and I haven't been able to work through it very successfully, rather, I felt we were getting stuck.  I felt sorry that I don't take him out for the walks that he loves and am reactive to him pushing me around.

Sola listened carefully and encouraged me to do what I feel is best.  Then we went out for our first lesson with the donkeys.  Well, what was so incredible about this weekend was that Sola showed me an entirely different picture of Ringo and taught me some new skills for working with him.  She was so impressed by him and it was amazing to watch him respond to her clear direction and light touch with willingness and intelligence!

What I learned:
1.  Shoulder yielding is THE big news!  I had been working on getting Ringo to move his hips back but he was still too much "in my face."  But getting him step over with his shoulder is the key and he does it easily.

2. Alex says that to "change" a behaviour, you can teach a different behaviour that is incompatible to the one you don't want.  Ringo has been tossing his head and bopping me with his nose.  That has been making me nervous as he can snap at me too.  Sola showed me how to gently lay my hand on the bridge of his nose and ask him to let me hold it there for just a second.  Yes?  Click and treat!  Then "can I put both hands around your nose?" ... yes?, click and treat .... and variations of this.  Now he comes up to me and instead of throwing his nose around, he holds it quietly for me to touch ... brilliant!

3. Mat work - much more focus needed here for both of us - build duration by layering criteria.

4. Grass eating on a walk - well eating grass is an equine's dream, so rather than prohibit that, we decided to teach him when he can and can't eat.  Ask him to stand on grass, shorten the lead rope so that if he drops his head he can't reach the ground, hold the lead softly with both hands at my stomach ... easy boy.  If he stands quietly for a moment, say "Good Boy!" and that's the signal that he can drop his head and eat a few mouthfuls.  Allow him to do that for 2 or 3 bites, then raise his haed, shorten the lead again and stand or walk on.  Repeat.  It was amazing to see how fast he caught on the "the grass game!"

5. Pacing - vary the pace of my walk, slow motion to fast and ask him to match my pace.  Teaches awareness and helps if he wants to run downhill.  He learns to walk at the speed that I dictate.

6.  Bracing - this is my body posture needed to help me hold my ground in case Ringo tries to leave!
I need to extend my leg nearest to him but centre my weight back and over my bent outside leg, knee aligned over hip so that I am leaning away but standing perpendicular to his shoulder.  This involves some dancing around on my part! Meanwhile I have slid my left hand down the lead rope and rotated my shoulder and elbow, bringing my elbow towards my core.  Sound complicated?  It IS!  And not at all graceful yet but it does work!


  1. Love these tips! Just starting a donkey training program of my own and will check in here for your progress and guidance.
    In lieu of the clicker, up until now anyway, I've used my voice and a treat. You know, lively praise and then an immediate treat.
    Is there any difference in doing this instead of a clicker, do you know?

  2. Hello! Good question - and yes actually priase is a very different signal than the "click!" Words are actually loaded with nuance and sometimes uninteded meaning or sometimes no meaning at all (the animal hears "Rover, blah, blah, blah!)

    However research has shown that the click is processed by a different, non-cognitive part of the brain called the amygdala. The click gives an instance message and it's always the same "YES! That's what I wanted, you're on the right track!"
    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala

    So the animal gets a solid message quickly after performing the behaviour. It's important that the timing is spot on so that the message is clear.

    In time, you'll be able to "micro-shape" which means capturing the tiniest movement or even capturing and rewarding the donkey for "thinking" about doing what you are after!

    If you don't want to use a hand-held clicker, just use your tongue but make only 1 sharp click sound (i.e. not a "giddy-up sound.)

    Keep me posted!