In just a few minutes the donkeys will be jumping out of the white trailer and seeing, for the first time, their new home. It’s been over six months since I bought the miniature donkeys from Crown Meadow Farms in Scio, Oregon. And although I visited them several times and participated in a crash course called “Donkeys 101,” the complete donkey experience begins today.
Peggy is backing the truck and trailer down the driveway, so that she can pull straight away from the barn after she and Tiana help acclimate the donkeys to their new farm. I’m impressed by how evenly Peggy drives backwards and wish Bruce could be here to see it. She eases to a stop in front of the barn and bounds out of the cab with a “hello!” and a hug for me.
I can’t believe this day has come. The donkeys are finally here after all the planning. It seems the only thing I’ve heard around the barn the past few months has been “when the donkeys arrive . . .” or “we need to make sure . . . gets done before the donkeys come.” And, I think everything is done. The barn is restored, the stall is ready, a no-climb fence that’s strong enough to keep Clydesdales in and coyotes out surrounds the paddock, and the sleeping loft is finished, so we can spend time here. We should be ready for Chippo and Ziggy.
The donkeys hop calmly out of the trailer, and Peggy and Tiana lead them toward the gate and into their new pasture. Bruce has recently had the tractor in the pasture and the wheels created deep lug patterns in the mud that give Chippo pause. He tries to dodge some of the marks, but soon relaxes and walks on. The women unclip the leads from the donkeys’ halters, and the furry boys immediately come to greet me. Both are wearing tufted winter coats. The hair on their heads is alpaca soft, but the hair on their bodies is thick and coarse. Ziggy is gray with a black cross draped across his withers, and he is more willowy than Chippo. Chippo is a burnt red color like his namesake – the Chipotle pepper. He has a white lightning strip on his forehead reminiscent of Harry Potter’s scar, and like Ziggy has a black cross etched over his back. Chippo is more compact and heavier, but his features are well balanced. Peggy has often said it’s Chippo who would win at the shows, because of his unique color and perfect confirmation. In addition his coat is a bit less coarse and more of a luxurious, deep plush than Ziggy’s. Both are roughly thirty-six inches tall at the withers (shoulder) and weigh approximately two hundred and fifty pounds.
Peggy asks if she can have a “tour,” so I show her the donkey stall first. It’s spacious enough for three large horses. The cement floor is covered with thick cushiony black stall matting, and Peggy says it’s good we have the mats butted up tightly against each other; otherwise, the donkeys might be able to peel a mat up and chew on it. Though Peggy looks with dismay at the old wooden beams in the stall.
“I’m afraid they are going to chew on the wood in here,” she says. And she points to some rounded corners at the top of some beams where working mules or horses from long ago had chewed. When we built this stall and used old barn wood, we didn’t think about donkeys chewing.
“And these doors with the wooden handles – oh boy – you’d better get some tin corner strips and cover all this wood. It may not look good, but it will save the wood. I don’t think Bruce will be too happy with the donkeys if they chew down his nineteenth century barn.”
I’m sure Peggy is right about Bruce, but maybe the donkeys won’t be tempted to chew on the corners.
Next, I take Peggy and Tiana to look more closely around the 1. 5 acre fenced paddock while the mini-donks follow close behind. I show Peggy the five black locust trees that we recently discovered are toxic to horses, and, unfortunately, they stand inside the paddock.
Peggy says, “If you don’t want to cut the trees down, then they need to be fenced off. You can let the donkeys inside the area to graze, but they need to be supervised, so you can catch them if they should decide to chew on any part of the black locust.”
I nod, and I’m beginning to get the feeling chewing is a real issue with donkeys.
Then Peggy sees some wire sticking out of an old snag, and explains the donkeys might rub up against the tree and impale themselves on the wire spikes. I hadn’t even noticed the spikes. “These must go,” says Peggy. And she and Tiana get some tools from Bruce’s workbench and clip off some of the wires. A few of the wires can be safely removed by pounding them flat against the snag.
The next surprise is my hay. I take Peggy into the barn to proudly show off the impressive stack of hay, and Peggy says, “This hay doesn’t look too good.”
“You’re kidding. I got it from a farmer who sells just to horse people, and he’s got a great reputation. Folks have been buying his hay forever.”
“Some of it looks moldy Sher, but let’s dig into the bales and check it out.”
Peggy cuts the hay bale string and quickly spreads open the middle of the bale. A white cloud rises from the dry grass. She leans down, inhales deeply, and grimaces.
“Sher, smell this.”
I lean in and sniff. The smell is putrid, and the hay in the middle of the bale is dark with a milky cobweb glazing.
Peggy says, “This bale looks the worst from the outside. Let’s go through some of the others.”
We open a few other bales. They are better, but all seem to have dark spots here and there. Peggy has been making and selling hay since 1982, and she’s developed a keen knack for spotting good and bad hay.
Peggy says, “The smell gives the hay away; it should smell sweet and grassy, not sour, not neutral, and not dusty. Smelling and looking is the only way to know what you have. See how parts of the bale naturally break off in sections. This is called a flake. Break into the middle of a flake too, so you can make sure it is clean all through before you feed it to the donkeys. Moldy hay can give the donkeys a respiratory disease and make them very ill.”
I can see myself carefully checking the hay, but I am sure Bruce will not be so diligent, and when I travel and have a farm sitter, how can I trust them to do this? I feel rather dismayed. Peggy brought one bale of hay for the donkeys to eat combined with my hay, and I hoped she brought enough to help them transition to solely eating my hay. But Peggy isn’t positive Chippo and Ziggy will even eat my hay right now because of its mixed quality.
Peggy says, “Call the farmer. I bet he will take the hay back, but set it aside, so he can take a look at it. It was a wet year for haying, and it’s been harder to find good dry hay.”
Turns out Peggy is right, because I found out later this hay came from a field where a water line broke in addition to it being a wet year for The Dalles, and some of the hay was still damp when it was baled. The farmer said he’d be happy to exchange the hay. In fact he wasn’t as surprised and concerned about the bad hay as I was. I guess this is probably because I am expected to have the skill to recognize bad hay and set it aside. Apparently it is okay to give moldy hay to cattle, and he has many cows, so the farmer is happy to trade my moldy hay for more good grass hay he cut from another field.
The last thing Peggy and Tiana did before leaving was to take the donkeys on a walk with me. At first Peggy walks with both donkeys on a lead. She walks in the middle with a donkey on each side. Then she switches, and makes both donkeys walk on the right side of her. One lead rope drapes from the outside donkey’s halter over the inside donkey’s neck. Both styles seem awkward to me.
“Peggy, what is the best way to lead two donkeys?”
“I think it’s safer to walk with the donkeys on your right side, if you walk between them and they spook, you might become sandwich material,” says Peggy.
I can easily visualize being scrunched between a pair of hefty donkeys, and I’d rather avoid this, if possible. I remember Peggy’s other advice too—walk beside the donkey not in front – that way if they spook they won’t run you over. Still spooking is not as big a concern with donkeys as it is with horses. Horses truly panic. They endanger both you and each other when they try to flee what frightens them. Whereas a donkey may jump aside or run a short distance, but they generally stop quickly. Sometimes when they are afraid donkeys will stand their ground and stare at a new object or event taking a moment to “think” before acting.
Peggy says, “Why don’t we let them go and see what happens. The property is fenced, and they can’t go anywhere.”
I agree and Tiana also nods as she continues to document “donkeys’ first day” with her Nikon camera. Peggy slips off each halter, and the donkeys keep walking alongside us. A good sign! Then they swish their tails and begin trotting through the meadow, then running and bucking. A mini-donkey’s buck and running kick is a whimsical jab. It is delicate in comparison to the mule’s massive power punch, which when well aimed crunches bones.
Soon Chippo chases Ziggy. Chippo’s ears are laid flat back against his lowered head. Ziggy’s ears are erect, and he carries himself more upright as he runs away. Suddenly they stop, turn, and race straight toward us. I feel a little alarmed when it seems like they are going to run us down, but just as they reach us, they both put on their brakes, and Peggy laughs and gives them a treat.
The donkeys are happy to follow us back to the barn, and they easily walk into the paddock and allow us to lock the gate behind them.
“I think they will love it here Sher, and you’re going to have a lot of fun with them. I bet you will be able to hike with them off lead, and they will follow you all over Mule Springs.”
“I hope so. I wonder what it will be like for them their first night away from home. Will they bray all night? I plan on staying here tonight to make sure everything goes okay.”
“Call us if you have any questions or problems, and let us know tomorrow how they do,” Peggy says.
I agree, and I watch as Peggy and Tiana climb into their big truck. They need to leave now, though there’s hours of daylight left, because the eastern section of the Columbia River Gorge has a high wind warning in effect at 4:00 p.m., and I can see oak leaves blowing across the field and the trees are beginning to sway slightly. Understandably Peggy and Tiana don’t want to be pulling a horse trailer while 50 mile per hour winds are blowing in the Gorge. So, I wish them well and thank them profusely for bringing the donkeys.
Again Peggy says, “Call us if you have any questions or problems.”
“Okay, and I’ll let you know . . . .”
Peggy pulls away and begins to move slowly up the gravel driveway, and I head back ready to settle in with Chippo and Ziggy in the “new” old barn.
Author’s Note: My apologies for taking so long to post. Laptop broke, and I have had to buy another. I have been spending a ton of time at the farm since the donkeys arrived, and we don’t have Internet yet, so it forces me to go into town to work on the computer. I’m getting these challenges worked out, but it has taken longer than I had hoped. Stay tuned! Part two—donkeys’ first night—coming soon.