Grounded Training






By Curtis Imrie

Pack burro racers are ground trainers from hell. We train our animals for the three to 30-mile burro races from the ground and may never get on the donk or hitch up a cart behind the animal. Pack burro racing is a little known sport where thin clad runners sprint, jog, walk and race alongside donkeys laden with 35 pounds of mining gear. Consequently, we spend most or all our time on foot navigating the same trails and roads that the beast runs. 

Over time, one develops cues and a body language to manage the animal from the ground at the end of a lead rope, usually near the animal's left hip. It's this odd dance of hazing, tapping and cajoling the critter down race courses that makes our sport semi comical yet very athletic. The donkey gets a deeply embedded sense that the human is a perpetual partner. You become part of his herd of two and his security blanket and task master. I have tripped and fallen in mid race, and the animal has so respected me that he stops, too.

The donkey has been so conditioned that he's almost like a suburban dog who brings his collar and leash to his master for a walk. The donks get bored as well and come to look forward to any and all changes to their paddock life. They'll do the standard training courses, but they'll always like something new and different. That's why it was no big deal for Masai, my 16+ hand jack, to rumble this past January at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. It was just enough new stimulus to engage his willing soul.

It's always been kind of sad to me that hardly any young American knows how to handle a set of lines. Where do you think the term "teamster" comes from? This is too much fun to be left to the old timers. Rolling through the tunnel leading into the gaping, yawning National Western Stock Show arena is something akin to the thrill of Steven Boyd and Charlton Heston, Mr. NRA himself, rolling into Ben Hur's coliseum. It was particularly gratifying with monster Masai, who before his debut as a draft animal, looked like a big amiable life support system for a breeding mechanism. I've always known Oscar and Peckinpah liked to pull. But Masai relished it and floated around the arena. It's not that different an adrenaline rush to those initial surges from the pack stampeding in the early stages of a burro race. Ride em cowboy. Catch that wave; hang on to that comet because here we go.

Let me explain the event. The "single hitch pleasure driving class" involves a single animal harnessed to a cart with human driver seated behind, circling  the arena and performing a number of gaits, stopping and standing, and finally backing when the judge requests. The driver must carry a whip at all times and upon entering the arena use it to "salute" the judge. Gentlemen must wear a coat, hat, gloves..."dressed conservatively according to the style of the day." A knee rug drapes over the driver's knees. And around the huge arena you go with five or six other carts, donks and drivers. The animal must show extraordinary composure, listen and follow commands he hears and feels in the lines attached to his mouth. So it's really about the animal. It's not too dissimilar to other forms of education. Now bear with me on this; this may seem a little off the wall. The teacher appears when the "student" is ready. Pack burro training did the ground work with Masai,and all I needed was a little help from my friends, a set of cues, the gear and some organ music.

No wonder there was such resistance to the horseless carriages. This could all get very personal. I look forward to the jingle and jangle of wheels and harness and lines echoing at a trot through the Stock Show tunnel next year and bursting out into the light, complete with hokey organ music in the air. Okay evverreebody....let's skate.

I didn't train Masai, of course. He trained me. I haven't been feeling that hot the past few years and the gentle jibing and encouragement of our pack burro ass-ociation members sustained me in an odd way. I made up my mind to use what little energy I had and burrology on working with my greener animals in the races. I particularly paid attention to my three-year-old Masai.

The hubcap-sized buckle, the money and the blue ribbon at the NWSS single hitch driving class was won over the very tough 21-mile Mosquito Pass course that I used to run in close to two and a half hours. But on that 2002 afternoon with Masai and a squirrelly gut, it took more than four hours. However, Masai and I really got to know one another on that long pressure afternoon… and on many short hike/runs during the summer. I knew when he was about to sull up, blow up, shuck, or have at it like many smaller animals from Hayduke to Moose to Oscar and Peckinpah. It's the same learning to anticipate and develop a peculiar dialogue with my partner so I can eventually ask him to the ultimate question when under pressure, "Will you please deliver, now?"… whack! The whack isn't hard on his butt, but he KNOWS that I need his cooperation NOW.
"Trust me, dammit." "You're not going to get hurt." And that's when these peaceful appearing docile creatures give up their profound characteristics of caution and become warriors too. Don't kid yourself. The biggest misconception about man's oldest beast of burden is that he's stubborn and a little cowardly. No. He just wants to know you're sure. And finally, he'll jump off that cliff with you… if you've done the ground training from hell…like all successful pack burro racers must.

Some day pack burro racers have to get back to mechanical aids, leg press, and the whole tradition of good horsemanship. But we're a cantankerous lot and want to dot it OUR way. That was the case with Masai and me at the Stock Show. I had this intuitive feeling, having worked with Hayduke, Oscar and Peckinpah, that in a self taught, primitive, single hitch way with the funkiest of carts imaginable that I was ready …  and somehow Masai was ready … on Stock Show day in Denver even though I never had put all the equipment on him nor a cart behind him.

Carrie and Craig Clawson from Kiowa, Colorado, had just won the Grand Champion jack halter class with Masai's eight-month old jack foal, Jack Daniels. This young couple has been raised on horses and longears by their mom and dad, the Parkers, who own Iron Horse Stables between the railroad tracks and I 25 south of Castle Rock. Carrie helped me tack up Masai to a cart and we started him in a small round pen near the arena and work him around the wall, Carrie at Masai's head all the while. Eventually I got in the cart. Carrie led him and me down the alley between the draft horses and the parked semi trailers and the incoming freight train 10yards away Closest I've ever seen Masai coming unglued -- eyes rolling behind the "blinkers," wanting to jump out of his feet! But some old-time breeder knew it was no good to cross spooky George Washington's mammoth jacks with even the best Belgians, Clydes, Perchenonsetc., whereupon you'd have a crazed mobile home sized mule who could really hurt somebody with their hybrid strength and  a two-ton, beer wagon trailing behind him. My only insurance was NWSS mule/donkey show curators, Tom Mowery and Bill Rossman who I've seen jump retaining walls to catch runaway teams dragging tangled contestants.

I gave Masai all the pressure in one moment that I had applied on him in the four hours on Mosquito Pass last August during the Leadville Boom Days pack burro race. He bent … but he didn't break. And he sure let me know he was truly different from the wild, chargy stock I've caught, bred and raised from much of my pack burro racing life.  But you know what? Carrie was at his head, and I was on the lines and the beast got through it. She introduced me to a cavasson and the check rein…duh. We took him up to a larger arena, and he was stepping out fine. What I thought was a sluggish brute was actually a quick study. Thirty years ago when some rank jack and I charged out of Fairplay for 30 miles, I thought, you know… we can do this..... same here in the city.

The challenge has changed and the partner is bigger, but the idea was the same as we tooled around the darkening round pen as trains thundered through the stockyards beside us.

The next day I polished what Masai learned the night before with help from Anita and Jake Skobel, experienced muleskinners and harness and hitch masters from Leadville. We hooked Masai to a heavier cart Jake trucked in from Grand Junction ….and it was into the arena we went …. Showtime! It may be small, dorky potatoes to urban America and a bit corny in this over-revved and over-hyped, over-communicated, over-fossil fueled world, but you couldn't prove it by Masai and me. Besides, I've been to the Stock Show eight times now and the State Fair twice.

Once in the arena, Masai harnessed and pulling me in the cart behind him, riding the wave at an extended trot, I heard the call over the organ music for a "park trot." What the hell is that, I thought? Put the "parking brake" on and trot? Nope. I confronted what was in front of me -- and it wasn't down the road , but a huge ass. Years before, I could see over Peckinpah's and Oscar's butts, but with Masai I had to move to the edge of the cart seat to see around him and trust centuries of harness and rings that the lines were still going to Masai's mouth and that my Mosquito Pass verbal cues still meant something even though the blinders prevented him from seeing me and this contraption he was dragging around seemed even more a natural extension of his body and biomechanics than our standard halter, 15-foot lead rope and pack saddle. Hey! He was doing me a favor either way. But the verbal cues remained the same. "Easy" to slow down; "Hup" to trot; "He yaw" for faster; "Whoa" for stop. I'll be damned if a touch on the lines didn't make these verbal cues even more direct to his walnut sized brain.  A touch on the sides or the butt with the mandatory whip was another mechanical aid that made it easy to enforce the equine golden rule, "make it easy for him to do the right thing and difficult to screw up."

Somehow, the business of living, my day job, climate change, the drought and the quintuple jump in hay prices in Colorado and incipient middle age had encroached on my enjoyment of my donks. The extended moment in the arena and the cavernous NWSS arena/ Event Center, haulin' ass with my ass momentarily banished the bitter sweet struggle of small ranching and reminded me why I do this stuff. A working, functioning, organic partnership with some "body," apart from my piddy pat, teamwork at its second best. There are other mammals on this planet that celebrate their existence with song and dance! The corny organ music played on. Get out of the way ole Dan Tucker… you're too late for supper.

I was there, literally, for the ride. Anita Percefield-Skobel, transplanted Indiana Annie Oakley, long-haul drivin', Leadville livery service and muleskinner from the highest city in North America … cloud city, Leadville (10K feet in elevation), has a more trained eye than I. Watching from the stands, she said Masai looked like he was pulling with his chest and totally congruent with the whacky gerry-rigged cart. He had a ground eating gait compared to the shorter striding standard donkeys. Well, I knew I had the funkiest cart because I assembled two of the other well sprung cushion carts going around the ring -- Oscar and Sue Conroe, Peckinpah and Jake Skobel There were other carts and I'm sure we looked like go carts with peculiar engines. But we all changed directions, did our park trot, road trot, walk and lined up for the judges and backed.

Masai was like an old  Chevy Laguna. The torque took more time between gears, but he was so smooth. He was prepared to back back to Buena Vista, but the judge stopped us after four steps. Same old pressure-release from the jerk line/lead rope of pack burro racing. Twenty mule team jack whackers had even more success with that long single line hauling tons of borax wagons from Death Valley to Boron, California, using similar jerkline, pressure-release hitching techniques a century ago, not unrelated to sitting in this stadium as we watched the judge pace up and down the line of animals and carts.

Easy to say now, after the adrenaline is gone and it's a matter of history and the lost frontier that these contestants inadvertently honor in our own peculiar moment. It's all been done before and probably better. Even the six-hitch draft animals that came on after us don't hold a candle to those runaway 20-mule teams. Talk about harness and jingle and jangle! You'd have to be a multi-national corporation to set up a rig like that now. Some group out in California did just that. But just how long can you be a corporate write-off?

The musical tones of a knowledgeable longears announcer, Ms. Kathy Herrin, called out, "In first place… from Granite, Colorado… Masai D. Democrat." What?! We're a long way from the columbined trails of the high country. 

My jaw dropped! All I wanted to do was get through this performance -- hitch, cart, body and Masai all intact. Oh yeah. There's ribbons and hardware and cash attached to this -- to say nothing of old timey photographer (Remember celluloid images instead of digital?) with a big camera and a flash bulb  --  the omnipresent rodeo queen presented a drape-sized ribbon to me. When I was younger, the Boom Days and rodeo queens would give me a kiss, too. This one wouldn't have anything of it. What the hey. I cracked my whip, called "hup" to Masai and I headed into the tunnel at a trot with my "one-day wonder."

Having written all this, I would now have to say, "Kids, adults...don't try this at home." This is NOT the way to properly prepare for an arena, single-hitch event. I share this story simply to illustrate the power of pack burro style ground training in acquainting you with your animal and preparing him and you for just about any task required. The long, slow way is still the best way.