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Are Donkeys Stubborn?

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It doesn't help a donkey's reputation that so many truisms refer to his supposedly obstinate nature. There is a reason donkeys are believed to be stubborn, but his real character is probably more accurately reflected in the proverb, "Better to ride on an ass that carries me than on a horse that throws me."


When a donkey plants his feet and refuses to move, we humans assume he's being stubborn. After all, he obviously knows we want him to move and yet he resists. Our perception is that he is doing it on purpose: moving only when he wants to instead of following our instructions. According to Ben Hart of The Donkey Sanctuary in the United Kingdom, part of our perception might be based on the fact that donkeys look like horses, and so we expect them to act like horses. A donkey doesn't behave like a horse, however; when he refuses to move, he believes he has a good reason. His perception of the situation is different from our own.


When a donkey senses danger, his reaction is to freeze in place and assess the situation. In most cases, he won't move a single step until he figures out the safest action. This makes him appear stubborn, particularly if we don't see the danger or fail to realize that a harmless object has him worried. His habit of stopping and thinking, rather than running, is one of his survival means. It's also the characteristic that makes a donkey a trustworthy mount, especially on precarious trails. A tumbling rock, skittering snake or branch slapping in the wind makes him stop and think instead of bolting, which is what a startled horse would do. Better an ass rode than from a horse thrown, indeed.


A donkey who isn't actually in a dangerous situation but thinks he is can usually be persuaded through leadership and rewards to give up and go along. But he must have prior confidence that you won't lead him into danger. For example, a small stream that you know is safe to cross might look scary to your donkey. He might not realize it's not deep or swift. If he won't walk through it, get off his back and walk through the water ahead of him so he can see it's safe. Offer him hay, carrots, apples or a nice scratch on the head for doing whatever you ask. The more he becomes aware he can trust you as a leader and that doing what you ask pleases you, he will seek the rewards of following your instructions rather than his instincts.


As a donkey has more experiences, he realizes he doesn't need to be afraid of many things. He will ignore the tree stump, flapping plastic bag and bird taking flight that once caused him to stop in his tracks. You might think he has become less stubborn; in his own mind, he has gained the confidence to perform his job without worrying everything is out to get him. Pay close attention to your donkey's reactions to objects and situations. Let him explore from an early age. Let him take time to think about things that bother him so he can figure them out, ultimately walking right past without hesitation.