Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Donkey talk

I realized that I haven't written much about my donkeys lately. Since this blog is titled Donkey Sense, I think it's high time that I did so. Also, it was time for their worming yesterday and it reminded me how much I love my donkeys. Now most people don't like worming their equines. It's a generally a bit of a fight and unpleasant for both the human and the horse. I didn't want to have to go through that with my donkeys. Especially when I first got them and was working on developing their trust and affection. So... when I very first started worming them, I used a trick that the previous owner of the donkeys had told me. I spread the wormer on a couple of tortillas, rolled them up and fed them to the donkeys. Marie and Tessla were still very excited to get any kind of bread as a treat and were quite willing to eat the tortillas, even with the strange tasting paste inside. However, I didn't want to keep worming them that way.

I'd read about a method of training horses to accept the worming tube in their mouths that involved filling old tubes with honey or applesauce and making the tube a method for delivering treats, rather than that nasty thing with the nasty paste that a human forced into their mouth every other month. So I took some old empty tubes and rinsed them out thoroughly and filled them with honey and went out to teach Marie and Tessla (Kanemura hadn't been born yet) that the little white tube had good tasting stuff inside. I also had a pocketful of carrot sticks which they already knew were treats. (I'll explain about why I use carrot sticks rather than just chunks of carrot later.) Now it's been a long while since I actually did this wormer training, but I have a pretty clear memory of how it went.

I called Marie and Tessla over, gave them each a carrot stick and then held out the tube so that they could sniff it. I had squeezed out a little bit of honey and smeared it on the tip so that they could smell what was inside. Tessla just sort of looked at it then ignored it. Marie gave it a good sniff and then started lipping it. I held it in such a way that she could get the end of it in her mouth, then squeezed out a little honey. Marie tasted the honey, then began to try to pull the whole tube into her mouth. I had to grab the tube with both hands to keep her from getting it away from me. I pulled it completely out of her mouth, made her stop trying to get it back, then let her suck on the end again while I squeezed out more honey. This time, she didn't try to suck the whole tube into her mouth, but she did clamp down with her teeth and kept sucking as I squeezed more and more honey into her mouth. After she'd had most of the tube, I pried her teeth open and tried to give Tessla some of the honey. He really wasn't interested in the tube, but I did manage to squeeze a little bit of honey on his lips which he then licked at. He didn't seem very impressed, so I guessed he just didn't like honey all that much. I held out the tube to Marie again and she was quite happy to suck out the rest of the honey. I was a little worried that the tube might break from her biting on it, but apparently these little tubes are designed to withstand a fair amount of abuse.

I gave Marie honey from the tube several times over the next couple of months. (I'd done the initial training right after worming them using the tortilla method.) Marie very quickly learned to look for the little white tube and was always eager to get her mouth around it and suck the sweetness out. Tessla never did really get all that interested in it, even when I kept smearing honey on his lips. I was a little worried that Tessla would end up being hard to worm, but in general, he's a very agreeable fellow and he's a lot smaller than a horse, so I wasn't too worried.

Finally the time came to worm them again. I figured that Marie would put her mouth on the tube willingly enough, but that as soon as she tasted the wormer, she would pull back and try to spit it out. So I put both their halters on them so that I could control them a little better. I held the tube out to Marie and she put her mouth around it and I quickly squeezed the entire dose into her mouth. What happened next was a total surprise. She clamped down on the tube and kept sucking. I was so startled that it took me a while to pry the tube out of her mouth. And even after I got the tube out and she had plenty of time to taste that what was in her mouth wasn't honey, she still wanted to suck on the tube. I had to keep pushing her away so that I could give Tessla his dose.

As I expected, Tessla didn't put his mouth around the tube and suck the way Marie did. I had to hold his halter and put the tube in his mouth and squeeze. However, he didn't put up a fuss when I did so. He actually stood very quietly and let me squeeze the wormer into his mouth. He did make a funny face and mouthed a little bit, but he didn't spit the wormer back out. So even though he wasn't as easy to worm as Marie, he wasn't exactly difficult. When Kanemura was old enough to start being wormed, I did the same sort of training with him. He wasn't as excited about the honey as Marie, but he didn't totally ignore it like Tessla.

I've now had Marie and Tessla for a little over a year and a half and Kanny is almost a year old. When I go out to worm them, I don't even bother with halters. I do still bring carrot sticks and give them some both before and after the worming. All of them now willingly take the tube in their mouths as soon as I hold it out to them and suck down the worming paste. They don't seem to care about the taste at all. Even after the paste is gone, if I hold out the empty tube to them, they will mouth on it and try to suck any remaining paste out. I reward them for their good behavior with carrot sticks and the occasional sugar cube.

An interesting note about this last session of worming. I've always wormed the donkeys myself. Sometimes Foxfire has watched, but until now, he's never actually helped. This time, he decided that he was going to worm Marie. And this time, although Marie did come up and put her mouth on the tube, she backed away from Foxfire as he was squeezing the wormer into her mouth. Foxfire had to move with her to get all the paste in her mouth before she got away from him. I had been watching this and knew exactly what the problem was. Foxfire was used to worming being a bit of a fight. Ziggy is a good horse, but he doesn't take wormer all that well, so Foxfire's body language was telling Marie that something unpleasant was going to happen to her. Instead of holding the tube like it was a treat that she would only get if she behaved herself, he held it like it was something he was going to have to force down her throat. She picked up on that and it scared her, so she backed away from him. By following her and forcing her to keep the tube in her mouth, he could have really damaged her opinion of the worming tube. Fortunately, she'd had enough positive experiences that this one bad experience didn't sour her. Just to make sure, I went over with an empty tube and held it out to her like a treat and when she mouthed it, I gave her a carrot stick. To be fair, and to reinforce that worming tubes are good, I let all of the donkeys mouth the tubes and then gave them carrot sticks.

Foxfire's experience just goes to show how much your thoughts and feelings as expressed through your body language affect your interaction with donkeys, horses or any other animal. Marie loves those worming tubes, but because Foxfire was tense and was thinking about having to force her take it, she became scared and backed off. Once I came over with my more relaxed body language, she was more than willing to suck on the wormer tube. To be fair to Foxfire, he had been having a very stressful day and at least part of his tension was due to that. Also he was used to having to fight to get wormer down his horse. So his body language reflected his prior experiences with worming. And I hadn't talked to him about body language or about how you should think of the wormer as a treat and not something bad. So it's partially my fault as well. Next time he helps me, he will undoubtedly do better with it.

I promised earlier to explain about the carrot sticks, so here's the explanation. When Ryan and I went to the Equine Affaire for our vacation a couple of years ago, one of the presenters talked about how a horse can sometimes choke on a chunk of carrot. It doesn't happen often, but it can. He also talked about how the carrot sticks (he called them slivers) were smaller and easier to control in terms of portion size. Basically, you don't want to give your horse (or in my case donkey) too many carrots in one day. If you simply break the carrot into chunks you can get four maybe five chunks from one carrot. If you chop it into slivers, you can get twelve or more slivers from one carrot. So you can reward them more frequently without actually giving them more carrot. It's especially helpful in my case since I have bad teeth and can't use my mouth to break the larger ends of the carrot into chunks. So, since I have to use a knife to chop up the carrot anyway, I might as well cut it into long skinny slivers rather than short fat chunks.

When I was first taming Marie and Tessla, the carrot sticks were useful in another way as well. As I mentioned previously, neither Marie nor Tessla had ever been handled by humans before I got them. They hadn't been taught how to properly, gently lip treats from the flat of one's palm. When I tried to give Marie a treat that way, she would put her mouth around my whole hand and then suck/scape the treat into her mouth. She never bit down on my hand, but it still wasn't very pleasant. So it was just easier to hold the carrot stick by one end and point the other end at her mouth and let her take it that way. As she got more used to human interaction, I did teach her the proper way to accept a treat from the palm of the hand, and she now takes sugar cubes and horse treats very neatly that way. It wasn't hard to teach her the polite way to take treats, but it did involve bopping her on the nose and/or pulling the treat away whenever she tried to take my whole hand in her mouth, and I didn't want to do that to her while I was still working on earning her trust and affection.

Anyway, that's it for today. I hope that I haven't bored all you horse people with all this donkey talk.

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