« Mules Can't Stand Prosperity | Main | Newsletter Extract »

September 15, 2004

Donkey Heaven

By JoAnn Szabo

“Donkey for sale. Rides and pulls. Gentle. $200.” I really wanted a pretty dappled pony with a flyaway mane and tail to pull my cart. Would a cute little donkey do? The price was right. What harm would a phone call do?

“Hello Sir, can you tell me about your donkey for sale, please?”

“He’s a gelding, four years old, gentle. Been in parades and traffic. Pulled a cart with blinking Christmas lights in a parade with kids and firecrackers, and he never did nothin’. He’s ‘bout 55 inches, brown with a white nose, and he loads good in the trailer.” The address wasn’t impossibly far away, and the owner would be there this afternoon.

I didn’t really want to buy that donkey, since I really wanted a pony. The man had said all the right things, though. On a lark, I thought it would be an adventure to go look. A person could never know quite what they’d find in an adventure. I didn’t have to buy. It would be fun just to look. Just in case and feeling a little foolish, I hitched up the horse trailer to the truck and drove to find the address, wondering what I’d find.

The little semi-rural blue-collar town had a few backwater streets just off the main drag. The street with the donkey was in a seedy area littered with junk cars. There were yard roosters calling, and mean looking, barking, dirty pit bull dogs with oversized neck chains. I was beginning to wonder just how much adventure I wanted.

Dubiously, I pulled my rig over alongside the address the man had given me. The place looked like Old McDonald’s Farm. There was a dilapidated filthy chicken-wire cage full of doves and parakeets. The barn was falling down around piles of old cans, broken car parts, and ancient rotted garbage. Turkeys and chickens were strutting about the yard. The soil, if you could call it that, was East Texas Gumbo—black sticky gook made into deep mud by the recent rains. Pot Bellied Pigs scurried and snuffled and snorted, making sucking sounds with their feet and noses as they moved in the sticky stuff. I didn’t see a donkey.

I hesitated to knock on the door, but it opened anyway. A youngish tall, skinny man came out in his none-too-clean undershirt and jeans.

“I came to see the donkey you have for sale.”

“He’s over here.” The man led me around the barn to a grassy knoll with a row of trees. He showed me a little brown donkey tangled in a way-too-long rope tied to a tree. The rope was wrapped around the donkey’s legs so tightly that the donkey could neither lift his head nor move his front feet. A pony probably would have injured himself fighting to get free in a similar predicament. The donkey stood patiently waiting for a human to come and disentangle him. “He always ties hisself up like that,” the man said as he unwrapped the donkey’s legs from the entwining rope. I stifled my anger at the man for failing to protect his donkey from danger. “Wanna see him rode? I don’t have a cart to hitch to no more. Sold it.”

I nodded grimly. The man produced a worn western saddle, a dirty pad and a funky old bridle tied with knots and duct tape. The donkey ducked and fidgeted while the man none-too-gently threw his gear on the little curly brown beast. “Just gonna ride down the road” the man indicated, pointing to the main drag. “He doan’ neck rein or nuthin’. Wanna go first?”

I shook my head no, having heard less-than-favorable donkey stories in the past. I was sure I didn’t trust the man, the busy highway, and the unknown little animal. The man threw his leg over the saddle and the donkey took off down the road, little feet flying. What a picture they made in silhouette as they went off into the sunshine! The tall man’s skinny legs hung down low, and the donkey’s big ears reached up high. Backlit, they almost looked like an illustration from a Bible story. That donkey had a syncopated gait. His little hooves went rat-a-tat-tat on the tarmac, and the man didn’t bounce even a little, despite slouching crooked in the saddle. Suddenly, a big diesel dump truck roared right by close, and the donkey didn’t turn an ear—just kept right on with his rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat. The man turned around and came back. “Wanna try ‘im?”

I clambered up. The little donkey carried me just fine, and gaited smooth as glass. I rode him past junk cars, crinkly plastic bags, snuffling pigs and scurrying chickens. He was unflappable. I dismounted and picked up his feet, rubbed his ears, looked at his teeth, patted him all over. His little donkey teeth said he was really 4 years old, all right. I led him to the trailer and he hopped right in. In the trailer, I held his halter and looked in his deep liquid brown eyes. The donkey breathed on me, “You look nice. Take me home.” I rolled my own brown eyes and sighed back, hooked.

I glanced at the health papers the man handed me. “Where’d you get him?”

“Sale barn. Got the health papers with ‘im. Doan know nuthin’ about ‘im ‘cept what the man said there. He drives and rides, and kids rode him some. My daughter rode ‘im, but she got her a pony now. He ain’t fer sale.” He pointed to a dusky dun Shetland with a flaxen mane and tail in a filthy stall. I felt sorry for the kind-looking pony.

“You’re sure the donkey drives?” I asked this knowing with a sinking feeling that I was going home with the donkey no matter what the man said.

“Yes Ma’am. Drove him myself in a parade. Sold the cart last week.”

“What’s his name?”

“Whatever you call him.”

“What’s the least you’d take?”


I counted out the cash for the man and gave him his tack back. “He’s a pretty normal little donkey now,” the man said with a knowing look toward me as he pocketed the money. I took his meaning as to expect trouble at home. “You’ll give ‘im a good home now, won’t ya?”

I looked around and nodded, thinking of the clean barn, big pastures and safe fences at home. “He’s on his way to donkey heaven.”


My trailer was made to haul big horses and was 7’tall inside. There’s a little window in the front so the driver can check on the horses by just glancing in the rear view mirror. The donkey’s long dark ears showed through the window, dwarfed as he was by the big white trailer. I had to grin every time I glanced back. When we got to the farm, I let the donkey out. He was so small that when I let the tailgate down, he could slip under the butt bar in the trailer if I didn’t watch.

I put the donkey out in the big pasture with the heifers. It was a marvelous early spring late afternoon. The young bovines were feeling good. The donkey just stood and looked at his new pasture mates a long time. They were peacefully eating hay to supplement the sparse early springtime grass, and donkey had his own pile to eat. Not satisfied, the donkey put his ears back and charged, galumping his stiff donkey gallop, head-down full tilt after the little cows as they scattered. The young cows ran bucking and cranking their tails through the new wildflowers, glad for an excuse to play.

Full of himself after a mad dash, the donkey put his head up and looked around for something else to do. My young bull stood alone a few yards out from the fence. He had not been eating with the cows and did not run with them. Donkey trained his long ears on the bull.

Buoyed by success in chasing cows, the donkey charged the bull. Head down, nostrils flaring, flinty hooves flying, teeth bared, tail cranking, the determined brown donkey bullet flew straight toward his mark.

The bull stood his ground and lowered his head a little. “Make my day” was on his breath.

The donkey never wavered. Gallump, gallump he bravely charged, right toward the bull. The young bull didn’t bat an eyelash and stood his ground. At the very last nano-second, the donkey swerved right around the half-grown bull and toward the fence post behind. The bull didn’t even bother to look to see where the donkey had gone. Rather, he resumed peacefully chewing his cud and swatting files with his tail.

The donkey stood panting a minute, ears at half-mast, contemplating his next move with a puzzled look on his face. Those heifers had been so easy! What was wrong with this one? Comically he stood, visibly gathering his courage and recouping his dignity. He wandered quietly a little ways then suddenly turned. Gallump gallump gallump! He tilted full speed, looking as mean as a cute little donkey could toward the motionless bull. This time the young white bullock barely bothered even to lower his head. Teeth flashing, ears flat back, the donkey charged as close as he dared, then veered off around the bull, bucking and cranking his tail back to another fence post. Snorting and splay footed, the donkey stood for a moment. He then retreated back to the cows’ hay that he had so valiantly won, and began to eat. The cows were still scattered off in the pasture amongst the tender new spring flowers.

By this time I was laughing so hard I could barely stand up. I left the donkey in with the cows for the night, thinking he’d be ok, and that the cows would take care of themselves.

In the morning I came out with more fresh piles of sweet-smelling light green hay for everybody. The donkey had horn marks all over him that dug down to skin beneath his thick curly brown fur. Even the littlest cow shook her horns, rolled her eyes, and wouldn’t let the chastened donkey near any hay at all. The little brown scratched-up rag-tag longears looked woeful. I caught him up and put him in an adjoining pasture with two big horse geldings thinking he might get along better with them.

The donkey must have been bred to mares before he was gelded. As soon as he saw those two big shortears, he ran straight for their behinds and mounted them. Needless to say, the horses speedily appraised the donkey of his own gelding status as well as theirs. Apparently the donkey had to learn his way the hard way into donkey heaven.

Later after the horn marks healed, I rode the donkey down the country lane at home. Going away from home he shied suddenly at birds, shadows, rocks, nothing and everything, sour as a bad lemon. He tried to run for home and finally refused to move at all when we weren’t turned toward home. I don’t know why he was so good when I tried him, and now was so horrible.

Clearly riding a donkey meant that you had to see the world through donkey ears—quite a different view than riding other equine types. This donkey couldn’t be coerced like a horse. He insisted on negotiation. He wanted to know “What is in this for the donkey?” He wanted to have a cheerleader, not a rider.

We have over time mutually learned to get along. The donkey likes it now when I sing nonsense donkey songs and silly syncopated lullabies to him while we’re on the trail. He likes to go see who’s who and what’s new in the neighborhood, collecting all available pats and treats from neighbors. He likes to slow down when he’s tired and speed up a little when he’s excited. Who wouldn’t?

After awhile I blew up the pneumatic tires on the cart, dusted off the seat and hitched the donkey up for the first time, dreading the worst, given how far we had to come to get the donkey to be a reliable ride. How surprised I was to find that the donkey was trained rather well to drive! He didn’t mind if the tires popped with a bang, or if the cart were stuck in a rut. He pulled me and my friends along merrily in donkey-time on many a relaxing sunny Saturday afternoon. He taught new drivers to have confidence, and old ones to have new respect for donkey dignity.

The donkey still didn’t have a proper name. Names like Jack and Jake and Alpo came and went. None of them stuck. After repeated story telling about the donkey’s Quixote-like charge on the bull, Don Quixote stuck as a name for the donkey. It still didn’t seem quite right somehow.

One day, out on a trail ride, the donkey and I came across a Quarter Horse ranch where the stallion had a hyphenated name—Bit-O-Honey. Donkey said he liked that kind of spelling better, as he and I both had trouble remembering how to spell his name. From that day forth the donkey officially became Donkey-O-Tee, and “the donkey” dropped the “the” and had a big “D”.

Donkey hadn’t yet been on a big Texas trail ride. His debut came on the Southern Magnolias’ annual fall family ride, an all-day affair with about 50 horses and no donkeys. Donkey was really enjoying himself checking out so many shortears. Some of those big shortears were sure scared of my little longears, and we weren’t entirely welcome. Some of the long-time Magnolias and their families steered their shortears clear of Donkey and frowned at us. Donkey failed to notice and kept flirting, as he was having entirely way too much fun to be distracted by any frowns, thank you.

One especially big shortears had also never been on a big trailride before.
She was a huge black mustang with lots of draft blood. She wasn’t afraid of Donkey. She had been around donkeys before and knew how sweet they really are. What she couldn’t understand was why the horse herd was acting so unnaturally. No one had explained to her that riders wouldn’t let other horses play rough with her to establish a herd pecking order on a trail ride. She was very, very scared that the other horses would turn on her. With a rider she would not be able to run away or defend herself. The big powerful black mare pranced and snorted and lathered and tried to run away. Her rider tried hard to calm her and keep her going slow. The pain of the bit pulling constantly on her mouth just scared the mare more. The rider was worn to a frazzle.

“Put her nose right on Donkey’s rump and let him baby sit her. She won’t be able to go fast then, and you won’t have to pull on her,” I called to the mare’s rider. I had done this before for colts I had trained. It had saved a lot of pain and unhappiness as long as the leader was willing and wouldn’t kick. Donkey loved the attention and didn’t mind a bit being a leader.

At first the rider turned her nose up at the idea. How could such a strange little mount help her big snorting beast? Finally, exhausted, the rider gave in and tried. Her mare calmed almost immediately. For the rest of the ride the mare kept her giant head right over Donkey’s little sloping rump. What a Mutt and Jeff pair they were—the plucky little donkey shambling along in easy staccato time with the nearly docile big mare practically stuck to his behind! The little donkey cast a very big black drafty shadow that day, and everyone who looked had to grin. We had certainly won a friend. People who had frowned before and steered away started smiling at Donkey.

At the lunch stop we tied the equines to several long parallel picket lines. Magnolias and their families were enjoying barbeque under the trees when there was a commotion, then a panic, amongst the equines. Horses reared and pulled back and tried to run away in great colorful waves of panicky horseflesh and flying hooves. The stout picket lines were threatening to give way with all the equines still tied to them. It would have been a real disaster with much potential for serious injury, as the animals would become entangled and then panic some more. We could all see it coming. I had a sick, awful feeling deep in my stomach.

Right in the center of the stampede, a pig had gotten out of its pen and was wandering amongst the equines looking for a nice hot steaming pile of grain-filled manure for a meal. Most of the equines hadn’t seen pigs before and were sure this strange extra-terrestrial-looking free-roving porcine wanted THEM as a meal. Donkey, who was on the end, had lived with pigs on Old Mac Donald’s Farm and wasn’t scared a bit, Quickly, I untied Donkey and mounted. His impossible big ears were riveted on that hog. Donkey loved the chase. His short little Donkey neck snaked down close to the porker’s flying trotters. The half-grown pig was fast and wily. Tulip ears flopping, that spotted, muddy pig dashed, dodged and dove for cover behind poles, through panicked horse legs, behind trees, wherever he could! Little pig eyes sparkled at us with clear mischief and defiance.

“This is fun!” Donkey said, grinning to himself as he nimbly cut and parried the squealing, grunting, protesting porker into a rickety pen. We shut the gate. The heaving, panting waves of sweaty scared horses calmed. Only the trampled grass near the picket line was the worse for wear.

Donkey was a genuine hero. The Magnolias and their hushed families who had gathered to helplessly watch their beloved horses self-destruct began to clap. As the word spread throughout the ride, Donkey got hundreds of pats. Admirers big and small pressed close with bread treats from the barbeque, sugary doughnuts, salty corn chips and plenty of strawberry soda right out of the bottle for Donkey. People stroked his long silky ears and said what a good boy he was. Children put their sticky hands all over his brown curly coat. Grown men scratched his neck and slapped his rump affectionately. Women admired his silky white nose and big eyelashes. Donkey-O-Tee had a real taste of Donkey Heaven at last.

JoAnn Szabo along with her husband Richard Waybright are the rangers at the ArtPark of Far East Texas, an eclectic seven acre east Texas art environment, wildscape, and private home with an oriental flare, among other things. We have Donkey-O-Tee, a draft mule Sunshine, and two draft ponies, Hunky and Dory. All the equines ride and drive. All the rangers muck and feed.

Posted by Guest Contributor at September 15, 2004 08:25 PM


Cute story. Thanks for sharing

Posted by: Anna Hopkins at April 17, 2005 08:32 AM


Posted by: lee mcmahon at June 10, 2005 04:55 AM