Extra Special: Secrets of a Therapy Donkey

Extra Special: Secrets of a Therapy Donkey

donkey hire UK
Mike (centre), staff and donkeys at Mike’s Donkeys

There are no two ways about it, donkeys bring us joy. The calm and understanding nature of these humble and affectionate animals is a wonderful, and strangely powerful thing.

Donkeys are a familiar site, plodding up and down Britain’s beaches, adorned with bells and colourful bridles. They are regulars at fairs and fun days, and no Easter parade is complete without one. Their talents include giving rides to children and pulling carts, and some even have a knack for show business!

Mike’s Donkeys is the UK’s number one provider of donkeys for all manner of occasions, from fetes to TV work, weddings to corporate events, theatre appearances to parties.

donkey hire for film
Mike’s Donkeys filming for the BBC

Donkeys are smart and enjoy working, as long as they are well looked after, and they perform a myriad of jobs with patience and skill.

However, there is one job reserved for a very special kind of donkey. An extra special donkey. That is the job of therapy donkey.

Spending time with donkeys has enormous therapeutic benefits. For children with disabilities, riding therapy donkeys improves strength and coordination and boosts confidence and self-esteem.

A donkey’s slow and steady presence gives a feeling of security and comfort to the poorly, the elderly and those feeling vulnerable or suffering from emotional difficulties.

Touching, grooming and cuddling donkeys is a great social facilitator, allowing people to relax and feel a sense of nurturing and connection.

“Even those with severe disabilities have smiled when helped to just touch a donkey.”

donkey therapy
Therapy donkey Dermot with a resident

A therapy donkey needs to be kind and enjoy interaction with people. In the field, he will come to you and lean into you. He must be quiet enough to stand and be fussed over for long periods. Yet, crucially, he (or she) must be brave enough to venture into unfamiliar buildings, bedrooms and other small spaces.

Taking a large animal into a confined area with vulnerable people is fraught with hazards and only a select few are entrusted with this honour. A care home visit will never be a donkey’s first job.

Danny Donkey & Pals Assisted Therapy, a sister company of Mike’s Donkeys, is managed by Kelly Baker. Kelly and Mike travel all over the country providing specially-trained therapy donkeys for care home visits, special needs schools and educational days. 

donkey therapy
Aubrey enjoys his visits with the ladies!

Kelly uses basic Makaton and is trained to work with those on the Autistic spectrum, people with developmental and anxiety disorders, visual and hearing impairments, Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy, and a wide range of learning disabilities and emotional problems.

She began her equine career with horses, including problem horses, which taught her a lot about animal behaviour. She says much of it is common sense and understanding why animals do the things they do,

“There is always a reason for an animal’s behaviour. They don’t have the capacity to behave in a certain way in order to annoy you. Their behaviour is always telling you something.”

Basic training starts with getting the donkey used to wearing a head collar, being caught and generally building trust, although Kelly says that everything you do with a donkey amounts to training.

Getting in and out of a lorry, going to an event, being around the public – all of these are learning activities. Kelly watches the donkeys in action and then tailors more specific training as required.

Donkey rides for children
Donkey rides for children

If a donkey tolerates being handled all over, having his tail swished and his feet lifted, Kelly will take them out to a Palm Sunday or Christmas event. On these jobs, donkeys will get more accustomed to crowds, buggies, traffic and loud noises.

When it comes to further training, Kelly is looking for a donkey who listens to her and understands her body language. She needs to have complete control when turning or backing up.

Once a donkey is ready for therapy work, she will take them to a larger inside space, for instance, an empty village hall. They will practise walking on different surfaces, such as patterned rugs or sheets, and work on steps, being in a confined area and getting in and out of a lift.

therapy donkey visits Frome Community Hospital
Charlie with staff on a visit to Frome Community Hospital

When the time finally comes for that first care home visit, donkeys are always accompanied by a more experienced therapy donkey, as they learn best from them.

Mike’s Donkeys are 90% rescues. This can make training a challenge as it’s easier to mould a young donkey’s behaviour. Over the age of two, the basic temperament needs to be there, or it can’t be taught.

Nevertheless, regardless of age, Kelly is looking for certain traits. Some donkeys are simply not suitable for work. These donkeys are either sold to a good home, or they remain on the farm, enjoying a secure and happy life, with plenty of donkey friends for company.

therapy donkey
Dermot taking it easy at home

Mike’s Donkeys are extremely well cared for, with fields to run around in, comfortable shelters, regular vet checks, physio and visits from the farrier. They also enjoy plenty of downtime, working on average just one day a week throughout the year.

Mike, Kelly and the team love their donkeys, all of whom have their own distinctive characters. Andy loves ice-cream but hates puddles. Nelson likes chin rubs but dislikes sudden movement or his ears being touched. When it comes to training, you need to know your animal.

Charlie is Kelly’s star therapy donkey. Rescued from serious neglect, he was found locked in a barn and starving. As a result, while he doesn’t mind all the attention he gets, he is ultimately motivated by food. Kelly uses treats to get him to position his head over the beds of patients so that they can reach him.

therapy donkey training
Kelly with Charlie practising getting in the lift

Donkeys are very careful about where they put their feet, so a strange floor covering or a lift can present big challenges. Kelly explains,

“Charlie was not too keen on the lift to begin with as it moves and wobbles, but he gets a treat as soon as he gets in, and again when he gets out. Now he drags you to the lift!”

Due to being locked up, Charlie has a big fear of being trapped and a trigger for him is thinking that he can’t get out. Kelly knows that as long as he can see the exit, he’s fine.

Charlie on a care home visit
Charlie on a care home visit

Another of Kelly’s top therapy donkeys is Dermot, who came from Ireland several years ago and was initially quite a nervous donkey. After working with Kelly, he is now confident enough to go into buildings and bedrooms.

therapy donkey
Dermot cheering up a patient

Kelly describes Dermot as a very affectionate donkey who genuinely enjoys cuddles,

“Dermot will go to someone in a wheelchair and hold his head for strokes for an hour.”

I ask Kelly if the donkeys understand what they’re doing when they visit care homes and special needs establishments. Do they know why they are there? She replies,

“Donkeys may not understand the impact that being in a wheelchair might have had on someone’s life, but they recognise emotion.”

donkey unknown

Special Thanks To:

Kelly Baker of Danny Donkey & Pals Assisted Therapy

Mike’s Donkeys have bases in Wales, Somerset, Basingstoke, Peterborough and the north of England. Their donkeys happily travel to any destination in the UK. For an extra special experience, give them a call today!

Related Pages:

For donkey hire companies and donkey therapy organisations where you are, check out the listings below or find more locations under Donkey Hire and Donkey Therapy…

Donkey Hire UK & Ireland

Donkey Therapy UK & Ireland

Donkey Therapy France

Donkey Therapy USA

Copyright 2018 Amy Swift
These Ears Are Made for Listenin’

These Ears Are Made for Listenin’

donkey listening to guitar
Natalia and donkey Cometa Libera Photo: Deea Wolf www.nomaddeea.com

What makes a good listener? Empathy? Understanding? Making eye contact? Giving great advice?

According to many communication experts, the best listeners are those with the ability to just be quiet, not interrupt and concentrate fully on what someone is saying without getting distracted.

Donkeys are famous for their calm and steady nature and reluctance to do anything in a hurry. Anyone who spends time with donkeys will tell you what good listeners they are. From the knowing in those deep, brown eyes to the slow turning of those big, beautiful ears to face you.

So, what is it that donkeys hear when we play them a tune, and can animals have an emotional response to music?

Psychologists at Emory University in Atlanta found that birds have a similar response to their own music as we do to ours. Lead researcher Sarah Earp explains,

“Both birdsong and music elicit responses not only in brain regions associated directly with reward, but also in interconnected regions that are thought to regulate emotion. That suggests that they both may activate evolutionarily ancient mechanisms that are necessary for reproduction and survival.”

The sounds and patterns that animals use to communicate are often highly complex and should not be underestimated. According to Jen Mapes of National Geographic,

“Scientists argue that the nature of music may be deeper than previously thought – and may suggest an inherent knowledge of music that is shared by many animals, including humans, birds, and whales.”

Some donkeys enjoy ‘singing’ along with a trumpet or violin, as if responding to a fellow donkey braying. Dogs may howl when they hear a piano, just as their ancestors howl to communicate in the wild.

There is no doubt that animals recognise more than just noise when they hear our music. Their reactions vary, depending on the volume, tempo and genre.

Studies have shown that jazz and heavy metal music can cause animals such as cows, dogs and horses, to feel agitated, while classical and country music can help them relax.

We seem to like the idea that animals share our musicality. YouTube is awash with dancing dolphins, pop star parrots, musical monkeys and trunk-swaying elephants, performing on command.

But don’t feel bad if your pet is not blessed with any particular musical talent, or if your donkey doesn’t even bray. He will make an excellent groupie and will love being your number one fan.

Video used with kind permission of Christopher Ameruoso, who performs music for animals. One of his favourite fans is Hazel the donkey.

Top Video Credits:

Georgi the donkey and Jonny on guitar, courtesy of Eva Maria Avril at Eselgarten Pondorf in Germany.

Donkeys Bramble and Bobbin at Florence Road Festival in Brighton, with staff from East Clayton Farm in Sussex.

Da Vinci the donkey and sanctuary volunteer playing Amazing Grace on the violin, courtesy of Tina Brown at the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada

Jessica Lee singing Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show with donkeys Bunny and Tee, courtesy of A Donkumentary blog in Texas.

Pintofmilk and his entry for Irish restaurant chain Supermac’s jingle competition, in which he came second place. Featuring Noinin the donkey.

Header Photo: 

Deea Wolf, author of international art and travel blog Nomad Deea


Pet Acoustics Sonic pet products by Janet Marlow

7 Scientific Studies About How Animals React to Music Meredith Danko, Mental Floss, 4 November 2015

Scientific Studies on Animals Reveal Just How Much Music Shapes the Natural World Jordan Taylor Sloan, Mic, 2 July 2014

Music Genre’s Effect on Horse Behavior Evaluated Christa Lesté-Lasserre MA, The Horse, 18 Jan 2013

Birds’ brains respond to music the same way human brains do Alasdair Wilkins, Gizmodo 12 December 2012

Birdsong: is it music to their ears? Sarah E. Earp and Donna L. Maney, Emory University, Atlanta, 28 November 2012 

Do Animals Have an Innate Sense of Music? Jen Mapes, National Geographic, 5 January 2001 

Copyright 2018 Amy Swift
The Donkey Diet

The Donkey Diet

Donkeys Eating
Photo: Kendra Bond at Peace for Ponies

Ask ten donkey owners how they feed their donkeys and you’ll get ten different answers.

Some search for low sugar hay and dutifully test each new batch, while others just use whatever they can get hold of.

Some happily let their donkeys graze freely all year round, ignoring the cries of fellow donkey owners that all that grass could kill them. Yet, their donkeys are the picture of health.

One thing is clear: every owner, farm, pasture and paddock is different. And, of course, every donkey is different. So, let’s take a broad look at the donkey diet. Read more