Donkey Assisted Empowerment

The Way of the Donkey Assisted Empowerment

Equine and Donkey Assisted Therapy

Horses have been used for equine assisted therapy purposes for many years. Research backs up the effectiveness of this approach for various populations including disabled youth and adults, “at risk” youth, and adults who have suffered various forms of trauma. 

The Way of the Donkey believes that donkeys hold significant promise for use in therapy, especially in the area of addressing trauma disorders. When a young person or adult has suffered trauma, several key approaches hold promise for remediation. These include: self-regulation/self-calming, problem solving, breaking tasks into doable parts while focusing on future goals, and positive acknowledgement of success. 

Donkeys could become very excellent equines to use in therapeutic settings. Further, if an effective approach can be developed, implemented, and evaluated to determine effectiveness, this approach could be licensed with training provided to others.

There has been some development of approaches to use donkeys in therapeutic settings. The Donkey Sanctuary in the United Kingdom reportedly is engaged in some of these kinds of activities, however, there does not appear to be much research published on this. This is how The Donkey Sanctuary describes its current activity in this area:

“Donkeys have a unique presence, a zen-like grounded quality. We’re using their abilities as sentient facilitators and encouraging them to be an equal partner in the session.” – Caron Whaley, Director of Donkey Assisted Therapy. 

Initially, the programme involved riding therapy for children with additional needs but over the past four decades it has evolved to cater for users with emotional and cognitive needs as well as physical. As a consequence we are developing a new model focussing on self-esteem, coping mechanisms, conflict management, empathy and many other skills. Children with physical, social and behavioural difficulties gain confidence, improved life skills and a sense of achievement from the programme. And the donkeys – many of whom have been rescued from a life of neglect, mistreatment or abandonment – gain a new and rewarding life engaging with lots of people. We hope to expand these services to other groups such as veterans, youths at risk and sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Connection on a new level. There have been significant changes set in motion at The Donkey Sanctuary’s donkey assisted therapy centres. This area of work is one of our primary focuses alongside the welfare of donkeys and mules. After 40 years of donkey assisted riding therapy operating essentially as our founder Elisabeth Svendsen imagined it, our programme is getting a beneficial make over. The Donkey Sanctuary has recently trialled and introduced a new programme, which sees children spending a little less time on the back of a donkey, but significantly more time interacting and engaging with the donkeys. This approach will see children learn through experiencing and discovering things about the donkeys through hands-on interaction with the donkeys. It provides more opportunity for a connection between donkey and child on an emotional as well as a physical level. This also means we can now measure those “magical moments” of engagement of the child with the donkey but also assess if the donkey’s life is enriched as a consequence.

There are some professionals in the U.S. who also use donkeys for therapy, however, it appears that the approach these professionals are generally using is a horse therapy approach and simply substituting donkeys. There are a few donkeys that have been certified through Pet Partners. These donkeys appear to be used for petting purposes on visits to schools, hospitals, and senior facilities.  

Therefore, part of The Way of the Donkey’s activities will include seeking funds to conduct research on the effectiveness of the use of donkeys for such purposes. 

The Way of the Donkey Approach

It turns out that donkeys share many of the traits that social science researchers say help people feel happier, feel empowered, and more effectively respond to stressful situations. This is the foundational insight for the empowerment programs we will develop, implement, and evaluate.

Empowerment Approach

Donkeys are very friendly and exceptionally smart. Donkeys can be ridden and can pull carts. They also do very well on mountain trails and obstacles courses. Donkeys are very laid back, but also very self-protective and have a mind of their own. You can “tell” a horse what to do, but it is necessary to “negotiate” with a donkey. Donkeys appear to be very intuitive. When interacting with humans, they appear to have an excellent sense of how the human is feeling. 

The strategies for working with donkeys are also very different than with a horse. With a horse, the trainer or rider generally “tells” a horse what to do. with donkeys, it is important to establish trust, work in partnership, and “negotiate.” Thus, learning to work with donkeys provides an excellent opportunity to develop effective leadership and team skills. 

We use a donkey empowerment obstacles course. These obstacles were designed with resilience and empowerment in mind. As we go through life, we face obstacles. We may feel like we are going up and down or forced to change directions, around various blockages, walking a straight path with no diversions, going over jumps, on a teeter totter, going in circles, or through a tunnel. We have a smaller, traveling obstacles course and a more extensive permanent one. Eventually, we want to build a larger course that simulates a mountain trail. 

Our focus is on increasing these three strengths:

  • Self-regulation. Young people have to remain calm.
  • Getting past fear. Some young people are fearful of the task of leading a donkey. We have strategies to seek to work around these fears. We also respectfully allow students to decide not to interact.
  • Empowerment and self-confidence. To convince a donkey to walk with you requires that you stand tall and be a kind leader.

At an elementary school, a third grade student was very hesitant to try to walk the donkey. He was hunched over. He meekly told the donkey “walk on”— as a question. I coached him to stand tall and talk to the donkey in a more assertive and powerful voice, warning that he should not be mean. “Stand tall and be a kind leader.” He was able to do this, and the donkey went along with him. The next time he got up to walk the donkey he took the lead rope. He was still hunched over. I saw him specifically straighten up. He then said assertively to the donkey, “Walk on.” I spoke with him after. “Did you see what you were able to do. The next time you feel afraid about doing something, remember that you were able to walk a donkey. You stood tall and were a kind leader. You can do that other times.” 

Happiness Approach

The emerging field of positive psychology, also called the science of happiness, also provides insight into the strategies people can use to live more happy and productive lives. Amazingly, it appears that donkeys already know these strategies. We teach young people that the Hippocampus in their brain stores memories that are both sad and happy. They can increase their happiness by consistently focusing on positive thinking. These are the four ways of the donkey that relate to increasing such happiness and the statements we ask young people to consider are:

  • Connect with Friends.  Donkeys bond very closely with one or two other donkeys. Donkeys can become distressed when separated from their buddy. Connectedness with trusted others, both trusted adults and friends, is known to be critically important to psychological well-being. “I had a positive connection with …”
  • Reach Out To Be Kind.  Donkeys have been used since 5000 BC in to work in service to others. Like many mammals, donkeys engage in mutual grooming. They will reach out and scratch each other’s back. “I’ll scratch yours, you scratch mine.” One of the best ways to achieve happiness is by reaching out to be kind and of service to others. “I reached out to be kind to …”
  • Build Your Strengths.  Donkeys are very curious and like to learn new things. One of the most important things kids and teens can do is build their strengths. A growth mindset and a focus on being proud of your efforts is helpful to achieve empowerment and happiness. “I am proud that I …”
  • Be Thankful. Donkeys are thankful for treats like carrots and apples. They also love to have hugs and have their backs or bums scratched. Gratitude for the good things that happen in your life contributes to happiness and appears to lead to more good things to happen. “I am happy that …”

In working with groups of children with donkeys, I start each session reminding them of their Hippocampus, which stores sad and happy memories — and that we can increase our happiness by focusing on the ways of the donkey. I hold up images with donkeys and ask them to think or tell me: “I had a positive connection with …” “I reached out to be kind to …” “I am proud that I …” “I am happy that …” Answering these questions in a daily journal is even more powerful. 

Self Regulation Approach

Donkeys have a different way of responding than a horse when facing a possible threat. Horses evolved on open plains. So if horses feel threatened, they run. Donkeys evolved in rocky areas. If they immediately ran, they risked tripping and falling on their noses. What donkeys do is stop, stay focused, assess the situation, and then respond appropriately. Donkeys are pre animals. As a result, they perceive there may be some danger, they stand tall.  In other words, they stop, stand tall, and think things through.

Very important insight when working with people who have experienced trauma, adverse life experiences, or bullying is that first and foremost, they have challenges when distressed that result in an impulsive reaction and failure to think things through. So the manner in which donkeys respond to a possible threat is exactly the way we need to help young people respond. This is the foundational insight for the approaches we will develop to work with “at risk” youth. 

I teach them about two parts of the brain: the amygdala and the frontal cortex. If we feel threatened or nervous, the amygdala reacts. We want it to react, because this is how we prepare for any danger. The frontal cortex thinks — engages in problem solving. It is very important not to “flip our lid” — not to allow our frontal cortex to become disengaged so that all we are doing is reacting, without thinking. We can follow the ways of the donkey to make sure we do not “flip our lid.”

If Things Get Tough… 

  • Stop and Stay Calm.  The nature of the donkey to stop when stressed is a key positive aspect of The Way of the Donkey. Avoiding an impulsive reaction when stressed is exceptionally important. The daily practice of “mindfulness” can help. Thinking through the above 4 Happiness Questions is essentially a guided mindfulness practice. 
  • Stand Tall.  Donkeys also stand tall and have presence. Standing tall immediately increases your feelings of personal power. Young people who stand with “presence” are more likely to be perceived as successful and competent. They are less likely to be treated badly. 
  • Think Things Through.  Donkeys carefully consider the best approach to follow in any situation where they are unsure. They think things through too decide what is best to do -– problem solve. To effectively problem solve, young people need to assess the situation, identify their goal, thing about different strategies, assess each strategy to determine whether it is in accord with their values and what might happen, and decide what to do and a back-up plan. It is also helpful, when calm, to think through the kind of things they can do to avoid an overreaction if stressed. 

One young girl I worked with told me that they last time she saw her mother was when she was arrested, when she was 3 years old. She lives with a marvelous dad and step-mom. (I met them.) She is in counseling. She told me she was telling her parents and counselor what she was learning about how donkeys stop and stay calm, stand tall, and think things through. 

Multiple Tier System of Supports Activities

The foundation of the approach that will be pursued is Multiple Tier Systems of Supports. Multiple Tier Systems of Supports is an approach that underlies strategies for risk prevention. There are three Tiers. The Way of the Donkey LLC will engage in activities at all three levels. 

  • Tier I. Universal. Universal interventions are those which serve the majority who require instruction and new ideas.
    • The Way of the Donkey Universal activities include one-time visits to schools or youth organizations. We bring a traveling obstacles course to these visits. Time is arranged to allow the young people to walk the donkeys at least twice. It is generally the second time talking the donkey that evidence of empowerment is visible. 
    • The Way of the Donkey’s Universal activities also include Donkey Meet and Greets which allow people to briefly interact with donkeys, sometimes allow young people to walk the donkeys, and provide the opportunity to provide handouts related to The Way of the Donkey for parenting and living. Also considered a Universal intervention are The Way of the Donkey presentations that can be made to parent groups, retirement centers, community organizations, and others. 
  • Tier II. Targeted. Targeted interventions are more in-depth, and directed at fewer individuals. Our focus is on working with young people who have experienced loss, trauma, bullying or other challenges, as well as those who are neurodiverse or have other disabilities.
    • Both the traveling and permanent Donkey Obstacles Courses are considered a Targeted intervention. We have been fortunate to bring our donkeys to elementary school after school programs in the Eugene 4J school district. These schools are located in the lower income regions, where students have experienced greater challenges. The students have been able to work with donkeys one day a week, for 5 weeks. Another day is spent talking about The Way of the Donkey and doing crafts projects. During summer 2022, our goal is to offer week long, half day summer camps. Our hope is to be able to offer after school and weekend programs fall 2022 and beyond. 
    • When we have long term property, the Targeted activities will be extended. 
  • Tier III. Intensive. Intensive interventions are those directed at an even smaller number of individuals, who have more significant challenges or concerns.
    • A specific Intensive intervention that is envisioned is the development, implementation, and evaluation of Intensive intervention that involves the use of an obstacles or mountain trail course. 
    • The more Intensive activities will require our ability to obtain permanent property, with a covered space to allow for activities when it is raining.

Future Plans

The Way of the Donkey intends to engage in evaluations of the approaches it is implementing. When these approaches are more firmly developed, have been implemented with fidelity in a variety of venues, and have documented evidence of effectiveness, we will more formally document the approaches. We will then establish a way to license and train others to implement The Way of the Donkey to serve the youth in their communities.

© 2022 The Way of the Donkey

Other Resources

Read these news articles: Amber’s Donkey. Donkeys and Autism.

Look at what The Donkey Sanctuary in the U.K. is doing in donkey assisted therapy.

Download the above information in a PDF format.

Look at our Guides for Parents/Caregivers, Youth, and Children. 

Check out our additional Information Resources.