Teachers, Healers, & Guides: Part Two
The day I met Frankie I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. I had long bought into the ideas of donkeys being stubborn and prone to outbursts of aggression and up to that point I had no reason to believe otherwise. But, Frankie was different. From the moment I laid eyes on him, there was a softness about him. It took me a long while to put my generalized “donkey bias” aside and see him exactly as he was, but I knew from that first moment that there was something special about him
Frankie was a rescued donkey at one of our local animal sanctuaries, The Ranch (now located in Placerville, CA). He had been abandoned in a field with his mother and had minimal human experience before being taken in by Kate and her organization. But, with gentle love and consistency Frankie began to blossom.
I can’t imagine what he must have felt the first few times he encountered me. I was a complex mixture of anxiety and fascination. He was such a beautiful and wondrous creature, but the back of my mind was constantly replaying repeated imaginings of donkeys kicking, biting, and lashing out. Frankie never seemed to mind though. He was unwaveringly patient with me and always regarded me with a quiet inquisitiveness, as if he was just waiting for me to figure out on my own just what a gentle and loving soul he was.
Because donkeys are inherently different than horses, much of the knowledge and understanding that I carried from growing up around horses was of little use in really comprehending his behavior and instinctive nature. Wild donkeys are generally solitary equines who live in dry arid regions, whereas horses find themselves in harem style hierarchies (or bachelor groupings) on more lush and grassy terrains. This major distinction can account for many of key differences in behavior we see between horses and donkeys. Due to their solitary existence, donkeys are more territorial and are more prone than horses to fight rather than to flee when they feel threatened. They are also more likely to freeze and survey their surroundings when they are unsure (which can be misconstrued by humans as “stubbornness”) and this can lead to anxious behavior towards enclosed spaces, such as trailers, due to an instinct to avoid being "trapped". Donkeys are also regarded as faster learners because they rely on their own abilities to maintain their safety and well being rather than that of a herd; and this can lead to cleverly discovering ways in which to avoid situations they deem unpleasant or negative.
Had I known and truly understood all of this when I first met Frankie, the evolution of our relationship might have looked different, but likely it would have been far less meaningful. Frankie was an excellent teacher in overcoming fear and releasing bias. Frankie was a gentle guide in the art of slowly building confidence and trust. Frankie was also a master at knowing when to lean in and when to back off.
There were days when he barely looked at me. Whether I was frustrated or not really paying attention to his signals in the way that he deserved; Frankie would refuse to give me the time of day unless I was fully present. However, on the days when I was open or ready for connection, he would approach the fence without fail and rest his head against my hand waiting for his beloved “behind the ears” scratches. Beyond that though, for whatever reason, there was always one emotion that Frankie seemed to understand without fail. That emotion was sadness.
During the time I spent working with The Ranch, when they were located in Southern California, there were definitely some waves of deep sadness. I was juggling the newness of becoming a mother of two, exploring the complex world of homeschooling and fighting a seemingly endless battle with chronic illness. In general my life was wonderful, but there were definitely those days when the weight of trying to keep up with everything was heavy on my heart. Those were the days that Frankie would saunter up to me and rest his head against my side and I could wrap my arms around him and hug him close. I would scratch behind his ears and he would lean in, warm and compassionate. As I would move about the pen trying to clean, he would follow me, gently bumping up against me for more scratches. There have been studies done that suggest that humans may excrete certain scents or have certain minute physical changes related to our emotional states, that equines are able to detect. Whether you believe he was responding to subtle changes in my chemical or physical expression or he was simply aware of an energetic shift of some kind; there was no doubt in my mind that Frankie knew the "sad days" and had his own personal protocol for interacting with me during them. I never once walked away from him on those days feeling quite as weighted down as I did when I first walked in.
Over the few years we had together, I began to understand his body language more deeply and learn how to react (or not react) to build trust between us. I started reading about donkeys in my free time; their evolution and behavior and their healthcare and needs. I grew to love a species that I had timidly avoided most of my life, thanks to misunderstanding and ignorance. Frankie helped build a bridge and also helped open me up to learning more deeply about all species of domestic animals. I was keen to continue to expand my knowledge base and to avoid missing any more opportunities to connect with other animals.
Frankie is still a part of The Ranch family, but now is happily traipsing about five beautiful acres at their facility in Northern California. He has a new jenny as a companion and a whole herd of equine friends. I miss him all the time, but whenever we get a chance to visit, I always have my hands ready for good solid ear scratches and plenty of love to shower over him. I have never yet met a donkey quite like him, but thanks to my experience, I am now open and excited whenever I get the chance to spend time with one of these amazing creatures. Fear has been replaced with understanding and hesitancy with joyful anticipation and it is all thanks to a donkey named Frankie.
If you’d like to learn more about Frankie and The Ranch and all the incredible work they do, please visit their website: AtTheRanch.org
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