Humane Care and Training
by Sheri L. Thompson, DVM
Pack burro racing donkeys are athletes and thus are kept in good condition. Just like sled dog athletes, they are conditioned and trained before they race. Donkeys are healthiest when they are fit and not overweight. Overweight donkeys are prone to health problems, such as hyperlipidemia and laminitis. A sick donkey should not be raced. Donkeys that get training year round tend to do the best in the races. If you can, get them out for other activities, such as parades, shows, trail rides throughout the year. There are different innate athletic abilities of donkeys, just as there are in people. Some donkeys are excellent racers and others would prefer to walk the course or stand in the shade under a tree.
The Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation has strict rules overseeing the treatment of donkeys at the races. There will be no cruel or inhumane treatment of the donkeys. Cruel or inhumane treatment involves any action or inaction, which causes preventable pain or suffering to a donkey. Any contestant mistreating their animal may be disqualified. No needles, electric prods, narcotics, clubs or whips, other than the halter rope may be used. If the halter rope is used to drive the donkey then a pressure release method should be used. A rule of thumb to follow is only apply the rope on the donkey as hard as you would on yourself. It is considered abusive to use the lead rope to hit them repeatedly or hit them with a stick. The rope is used to cue them as with a driving whip for carriage horses.
The burro must be outfitted with a strap- (leather or synthetic) or rope-style halter. Jack chains may be used only if used with a pressure-release technique. A jack chain is a chain or strap which is used to apply pressure over the muzzle, under the chin, or through the mouth. Any racer coming across the finish line with nose and/or chin injuries on the animal resulting from the jack chain will be disqualified. The halter, pack saddle, britchen, and breast collar should be fitted correctly as not to cause rub sores or injuries. Shoes or correctly fitting boots are recommended for burros running the long courses.
All runners must keep their burros under control. This is especially true for runners with jacks. If you have spent adequate time training your burro then the jack chain is only for insurance purposes if your jack gets rambunctious. A rope used instead of a chain gives them a quicker release. The burro’s reward during training is the release of pressure.
You will often hear burro racers using the command “hup” as a cue to go forward. Yelling at them, instead of using commands tends to be unpleasant to those around you and to the spectators (be aware that the spectators may view what you are doing different from what you do). Yelling just desensitizes the burro to your voice. Every chance you get, educate the spectators about donkeys and racing. Try to always drive your donkey quietly. This conserves energy! Try to use the smallest cue possible. I am impressed by the racer and burro that run along quietly as a team stride for stride. It is a treat when you train frequently with consistent good techniques and your donkey bonds with you. Not everyone has the facilities or time to own a donkey. If you lease a donkey for a race, train with that donkey as much as possible and try to race the same donkey each time. Racing can be frustrating; however, it isn’t helpful if you lose your temper. The “burro is always right” per trainer Tom Mowery. Take a deep breath and see what you can do to help the donkey. What can you do differently to get the donkey to do what you are asking?
The drive line on a donkey is their shoulder. Get behind the drive line to cause them to go forward. Be in front of the drive line and turn their head towards you to get them to stop. Donkeys respond best to pressure and release. Donkeys naturally respond to pressure with pressure against you if they don’t get a release. Trying to drag a donkey will just create more resistance against your efforts. Treats can be used intermittently. I reserve them for special occasions, the end of the race and occasionally if I get into a spot where they are stalled. Curtis Imrie was an inspiration to us. He was good at getting a group of racers out to practicing creek crossings, obstacles, etc. prior to the race.
Practice, patience, pressure/release, and consistency are key factors for forming a bond with your burro. Lastly, have fun. Enjoy the beautiful scenery if you aren’t going as fast as you would like. Any kind of motion is good!