When it comes to manual labor, donkeys can ease the strain of halter-breaking for both foals and people, and set the stage for future training.
Halter-breaking is hard work. Just ask Jenny, who spends much of her time teaching weanlings to lead. Her pay isn’t much—just good grass, clean water and an occasional pedicure—but she does get six months off every year.
Jenny is one of two donkeys Tammye Hutton uses to halter-break foals at Hilldale Farm in Brashear, Texas. The farm is home to stallions including Nu Chex To Cash, a leading sire of reining and reined cow horses, and a group of top producing broodmares.
For more than 20 years, Hutton has enlisted donkeys to help with halterbreaking. The process, she says, quickly teaches a foal to respect the halter and lead rope. It also saves quite a bit of wear and tear on the people who would otherwise have been wrestling with the weanlings.
“This doesn’t hurt my back. It doesn’t hurt my neck. The foals don’t pull on me or run off or do all of the things that foals do sometimes,” Hutton says. “The foals are bigger and heavier than we are, and I don’t care anything about having those foals drag me around. And I don’t like to halter-break them when they’re a week old, either.”
Hutton prefers to “let horses be horses” until they’re weaned.
“If these foals are going to be show horses, the trainers want them to be civil but they don’t want them to be pets,” she explains. “I like mine to grow up like horses, in a herd. If you walk out in my pasture, whether it’s weanlings, yearlings or broodmares, the horses are so friendly anyway that even though we don’t handle them much—just get them up once a month to deworm, vaccinate or do whatever has to be done—when you go out in the pasture they’ll come to you.”
The foals get their first real lessons in handling just after they’re weaned, with the help of donkeys Jenny and Bunny.
Easy Does It
The process is a simple one, Hutton says. At weaning time, mares and foals are brought into the barn. Each foal is put through the stocks and haltered, and then moved to a stall as its dam is taken away. The halter, with an attached lead rope dragging behind, is left on the foal. Hutton likes to wean foals in pairs to lessen the stress.
“We get them used to being away from their mamas for a day, and the next day we put them on the donkeys,” Hutton says. “We lead the donkeys into the barn, tie them up, put their harnesses on, and then lead one into the stall with a foal. We hook the foal to the donkey and then lead the donkey out to the pasture. We lead them because we don’t want them to go too fast or in the wrong direction, and if the foal gets in a little trouble we want to be able to get hold of the donkey and stop her.”
The pairs stay together just a few hours or sometimes overnight, depending on the disposition of the foal. When the donkey eats or drinks, the foal has the same opportunity. When the donkey lies down, the foal has to wait on it, essentially learning to stand tied at the same time.
“Four to five hours is usually enough,” she says. “Occasionally we’ll get one that we’ll have to leave on the donkey longer. Sometimes a foal will rear up and throw itself down. Some of them get pretty darn mad! The donkeys will just stand there and wait on them. Those donkeys use pretty good judgment. If the foals are really bad, they’ll just start pulling them. They’ll pull them a few feet and the foals will get worried and jump up. It usually doesn’t take them long to figure it out.
“When the foals get to really pulling hard, the donkeys stop. Then it won’t be long until you’ll see a little slack in the rope. When you see that, you know they got somewhere. You’ll see the donkeys walking around, there’s slack in the rope and those foals are right there with them.”
In addition to avoiding battles between people and foals, Hutton says using donkeys to halter-break is a safe option.
“You’ll get some foals that will fight and get a leg over the rope, and they’ll scuff up a leg, but the hair grows back,” she says. “You hear horror stories of foals that are tied up and hurt their neck or hurt somebody. The donkeys actually teach them patience, and they give. When a foal pulls, the donkey gives. It’s not like tying them to a solid fence or tree. They’re not as apt to get hurt. Knock on wood, I have not had any hurt other than getting their hair scuffed off.”
The donkey-foal pairs are put in a pen near the barn that’s been cleared of any obstacles that have the potential to cause injury.
“There’s nothing in there that they can walk around or get hung on,” Hutton stresses. “We don’t want the donkey to go around one side of a post and the foal to go around the other side.”
She also is concerned for the donkeys’ safety and comfort, which is why she uses a surcingle or cinch and breast collar.
“We first started out tying a rope around the donkey’s neck and tying the foal to it, and that worked just fine,” she says. “But later on we had harnesses made for them, because donkeys, mules and horses pull better from their withers. It’s easier on the donkeys; it isn’t pulling on their necks all the time.”
The foals are outfitted in flat nylon halters and cotton lead ropes.
“We always use cotton, because nylon ropes will burn,” Hutton says.
Hilldale Farm manager Doug Gerard, who had not used donkeys for halterbreaking prior to working with Hutton, says the process is easy on everyone involved and safe for the foals.
“The foals really can’t get in a bind,” he says. “The great thing about it is, when I take one off the donkey, I can tie it up, and within about 20 minutes to half an hour I can have its feet picked up and be trimming them.
“When I used to halter-break by hand, I could have a foal moving and giving to pressure within about 10 to 15 minutes, but the whole process would take about a week by the time I got them leading around, gentled down and tied up, and their feet picked up and trimmed.
“This sometimes takes less than two days. I can put them on the donkey for part of the day, bring them in, mess with them and have their feet trimmed that day. Life is much easier. And I can be doing something else while they’re being halter-broke. It’s just valuable time management, I think.”
It’s also a good basis for future training, Gerard adds.
“They’re hooked to the donkey, and they might fall down but the donkey just holds them. They’re going to get up when they’re tired of lying there,” he says. “It’s amazing how quickly they figure out their best lot in life is to go along. That’s the key with any training—that they realize this is what’s easy. It’s all about understanding that your way is the best way.”
Article Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Western Horseman.