Wild donkeys trained to compete at Stock Show

01/26/2013 8:07 PM

01/27/2013 10:41 PM

Donkeys, or "burros" in Spanish, have a reputation for being stubborn. But at least one horseman at the Stock Show feels that the rugged beasts of burden are really just more thoughtful than other equines.

"They don't think like horses," said Ken Schwab, one of the six competitors in Saturday's Wild Burro Bonanza, a first time event that is similar to the Mustang Magic competitions that have been part of the Stock Show in recent years. "They're not flighty. They think things through."

Both events, which are presented by the Mustang Heritage Foundation based in Georgetown, use wild stock gathered by the Bureau of Land Management.

They are given to horse trainers who have just a few months to break and train the animals to the extent that they are able to be shown in a competition that tests the skills of the horse and rider. The foundation, which holds these events around the country to encourage the adoption of wild horses, expanded its efforts to include donkeys because, as with the horses, there are many in need of a home that is safer than running wild on the open range.

"Although there are more [wild] horses, there is a need for burro adoption," said Kyla Hogan, the foundation's event and program director, explaining why her organization had branched out into donkeys. "People don't realize that there are a lot of different uses for a burro, other than as a companion. They can be used as guard animals, for example."

Schwab has been involved with the Mustang Heritage Foundation's events for a number of years.

"I've trained about 25 mustangs," said Schwab, of Hutto. "I'm okay with it. I'm not good at it. I can't win at it."

But, even though Schwab said he had no experience with donkeys, he decided to get involved with this new competition. And it was an eye-opening experience.

"They have this high level of refusal. They have a mind of their own," said Schwab, who only had about four months to train his donkey for this show. "Honestly I think they probably are smarter [than horses]."

Schwab said he also found his 2-year-old gelding donkey, Pancho, to be more even-keeled than many of the mustangs he has taken on.

"Their whole demeanor is pretty even. Horses react if they get scared. Donkeys think about it and methodically do something. But they don't get frazzled," said Schwab, 68, who made his living in the medical laboratory equipment industry and who calls his longtime involvement in training horses "a hobby."

But that does not mean donkeys are always ready to cooperate after they have thought things out.

"I tried to train him to pull a little buggy and that was a disaster," said Schwab, shaking his head. Pancho apparently didn't much care for being hitched to a buggy, so he snagged it on a fence post and tore it up.

But Schwab was able to train Pancho how to do some of the chores that will be required of him in the Justin Arena on Saturday evening.

The donkeys are not ridden in this competition, but instead are challenged to handle properly while they perform tasks such as maneuvering around obstacles, carrying a pack and being loaded into a trailer. There is also a freestyle performance class which "encourages trainers to choose music, costumes and props which permit them to show the athletic abilities of their burro in a crowd appealing way."

The event has a total purse of $6,000, which includes a $2,000 award to the winner.

Schwab said that he learned a number of lessons while preparing for this event.

"I spent a lot of time trying to get him to yield without getting into a contest with him. It has a lot of do with letting him think about it and letting him have his way to a degree. He'll never turn it all over to you, where a horse will," said Schwab.

But in talking to the veteran horseman, you get the impression that he does not feel he got very far with Pancho.

"He's never bitten me. He's tried to kick me a few times, but he's never done anything mean to me," said Schwab. "He kind of accepts me. But he may have his own ideas tomorrow."

Yet, when Schwab enters Pancho's stall, the donkey readily responds to the affection his owner offers and even tolerates the attention of a stranger, making it hard to imagine that he was as wild as a jack rabbit just a few months ago.

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