It was last spring when this ancient donkey came to the farm. In the beginning, we thought she might not make it. Nobody likes change but we couldn’t tell if it was a hunger strike or her organs shutting down.
Then she nibbled and sipped and gave us a chance. She gained weight. Upper-thirties, we’re thinking. She has no teeth; she can’t graze. Her big old ears are mostly deaf and her eyesight is poor. We call her Lilith.
And I’m not saying Lilith’s quirky, but the only friend she’s made is the goat. And that only happened after she managed to kick him in the head.
Some days her walk was almost remotely fluid, all things considered. But by fall, she took a bad step sometimes, and it developed into a limp. After a few months of actual nutrition, her hooves started changing. I thought I saw a crack, not that she let me near her hooves.
Let’s be clear; she was alive for a reason and it wasn’t being stupid about her feet. That’s how predators kill donkeys out on the prairie; they clamp down a leg and it’s all over.
At the same time, Lilith developed a new habit of coming up to strangers for a scratch. It almost created the illusion that she’d surrendered. I knew better. If my hand snuck a few inches south of her spine, her hind end came my way fast.
Our dance must have been a strange-looking event; Lilith teetering her butt around stiffly, her hind hooves twitching up and down fast enough to send me scurrying out of her way. Is this what all my years of dressage training have come to? A war of wits with a relic of a donkey. Well, yes.
Choosing to not pick a fight is always the right answer. But it doesn’t mean giving in either. I like to call it peaceful persistence.
Our process had to speed up now that she was hurting. I set a date with Roxann, my farrier, and came up with a plan.
I rigged up makeshift stocks by dragging an old gate into the corner of a pen. I secured the front of the gate to the fence panel at a corner using twine. It isn’t that twine works all that well, but it’s a tradition at this point. Sometimes I even think twine’s good luck. The gate was angled wide, with a bowl of feed at the ready.
Then I led her in and slowly lifted the gate, bringing it parallel to the fence panel, but not tight enough to squeeze Lilith. My friend, Nickole, offered her a snack which was apparently an insult. Lilith pulled back, I held onto the lead rope, and began slowly touching her shoulder. She was mad, nipping at me while I sweet-talked her.
Finally, I lifted the first foot. Good girl. For all the thousands of times I’ve cleaned hooves and never seen a rock, this time there is a sharp one wedged deep by her frog, and I went for it. There’s no telling how long it had been there; years maybe.
It probably would have been good to stop right there, but I worried about what I might find in her other front hoof. She was stomping mad when I got to her other side; meaning stomping quick enough that I couldn’t catch her hoof. Now would have been the time to get frustrated or even just more forceful. I went extra slow picking her hoof up, then quickly picked it clean. We let her hind feet wait. She paused to glare at me good and hard before walking away. Never underestimate a donkey’s memory.
The next week, all I saw was her backside. Instead of our usual scratch-fests, she only seemed to remember the atrocity, and spun gingerly around, kicking at me as she left. If her hooves felt better, she didn’t say so. I went to work melting her new grudge, and just when she was almost accepting scratches again, the farrier came.
The same chute set-up, except that I thought she’d had probably stressed her neck pulling back, so this time her head was loose at the front of the chute and I had a rope behind her rump. Roxann began slowly touching her leg, until finally, Lilith released a foot. Nickole, with the feed pan again; this time Lilith ate a few bites. She was so mad it is more like she bit her feed, the way she wanted to bite us.
The trimming took a few minutes but Lilith stood well. It was a long time on one front foot. After a rest and more sweet talk, lifting the second foot seemed much harder. It would have been the time most people would have doubled down to push on through. She’s little and frail; the three of us could have manhandled her easily.
Instead, my farrier started humming softly, and Lilith lost the will to attack her feed pan or any of us. We all praised her, grumpy as she was. When we finished, she limped away–sore and unhappy.
It didn’t help that the weather turned cold. I was back to wondering about her quality of life. Now she seemed all-over uncomfortable: Still sore in front and her hind seemed worse as well. I gave her a couple more weeks. Everything goes slower with elders.
Then I had the rescue’s vet out to check Lilith. She perked right up and walked toward the vet with curiosity. No way was she standing still for that stethoscope, though. I got the halter slowly over her nose before it occurred to her what that might mean. She walked off while I was trying to clasp the buckle. She kept on pushing and I kept on struggling. Think very slow motion bull-dogging, only now I’m fussing trying to get my gloves off, too. Negotiating; not fighting.
Then Lilith stood quietly in the stocks, picked up her feet fairly peacefully, and she still passively tried to bite the vet, as a matter of pride. The vet scratched her kindly. Who doesn’t love an opinionated old donkey?
Lilith’s diagnosis: Not bad for her age; let’s try some Previcox for the pain, and see if she can be more comfortable. Probably a decent diagnosis for me, too.
That’s how negotiation works; you refuse to escalate. In time, everyone gets to have their way. Just not all at once.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro