Gentle, stubborn, peaceful and beautiful… it’s Donkey Week this week. Most of us look back fondly on donkey rides as children, so we asked two women to share their memories with us.
For many people a donkey ride at the seaside is our first encounter with an animal larger than a dog, and one which holds pleasurable memories.
So many people hold donkeys in special affection, even those who are rather frightened of horses. While horses seem so powerful and unpredictable, donkeys are often associated with gentleness and humility.
An ancient history
Wherever these associations come from, their origins must be ancient since in the Bible Jesus chose a donkey to carry him into Jerusalem to signify that he came as the Prince of Peace rather than as a mighty warrior king.
Although Nativity Play images of a heavily pregnant Mary being carried to Bethlehem on a donkey to give birth to Jesus are not mentioned in the Bible, it doesn’t escape theological reasoning that the donkey has a symbolic place in two of Jesus’ most significant journeys. The cross of darker hair on a donkey’s back and flanks is said to commemorate this.
Donkey charities today
Throughout the Middle East and many developing countries, donkeys are crucial working partners for humans, carrying massive loads to market, pulling heavy carts at brick kilns, being a family’s sole means of transport.
A charity very close to my heart is the Brooke Hospital for Working Equines. It was started by Mrs Dorothy Brooke in the 1930s when she visited Cairo and was horrified by the condition of cavalry horses abandoned there by the British Army after World War One.
The Brooke now provides welfare, veterinary care and training for owners to enable them to continue providing for their families and communities with the donkey given access to adequate feed and water, shade, well-fitting tack and medical treatment.
Closer to home, in Devon, there is the Donkey Sanctuary, founded by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, to provide a safe, loving home to donkeys who have been cruelly treated or whose owners can no longer care for them. After all, the phrase ‘donkeys years’ is well founded in the fact that donkeys are famously long lived. The first thing my dear friend Carol thought of on buying her donkey Paddy was what provision she would need to make for him in her will.
The Donkey Sanctuary is open every day and many people love to visit, finding an antidote to stress and emotional distress among the donkeys. If you can’t be there in person, you might like the webcam.
The Donkey Sanctuary harnesses (sorry, couldn’t resist) this therapeutic relationship between donkeys and humans, in providing donkey-assisted therapy for disabled children. The human therapists say that the donkeys instinctively know they are carrying children who need special support.
Despite their reputation for gentleness, donkeys can be stubborn. One of my favourite holiday memories is of walking Paddy up the lane to the Post Office where he was treated like royalty. I bought a packet of mints to share with him, but Paddy wasn’t going back to his stable whether I liked it or not until he’d had his chance to walk a little further and gaze at a particularly lovely view of the Cornish countryside.
So we leaned companionably on the gate, chewing our mints until he was happy to go home.
Every summer it was the same. My friends started talking excitedly about their anticipated holidays. They talked of the South of France, Majorca, Italy and places further afield. Some were going on cruises or camping or other things that I had never experienced. I didn’t care though, every year my parents packed a case and we got the train to stay with my grandparents in the north.
They lived in a tiny terraced house in a town that smelled of fish. All the men of my family, with the exception of my father, were seamen. They were poor people but generous with their hospitality and we feasted on freshly caught fish straight from the docks.
Our holiday became their holiday and our whole family used to catch the train every day to the nearest seaside town loaded down with buckets and spades, crabbing nets, mountains of sandwiches and flasks of tea.
The best part of the holiday
But for me, by far my favourite thing about my holiday were the donkeys. Not for me the Cinderella pumpkin carriage pulled by two tiny white ponies. The donkeys arrived early in the morning with the couple who owned them, trotting along the road together jostling to be first on the sand and waiting for their carrot treat.
They wore coloured leather bridles adorned with bells and with their name painted across the head strap, like Dolly, Daisy, Noddy and Rufus, and I loved them all. I loved the colour and feel of their coats, soft, warm and in subtle shades of grey and brown.
But best of all, I loved to ride them.
I saved my money up all through the year to get my brief taste of horsemanship. I didn’t mind that the saddle chafed my bare legs as I bumped up and down along the sands and the feel of my bare feet in the stirrups.
After a while the owner asked my parents if I would be allowed to help walk the donkeys back to their field at the end of the day and my holidays were complete. I lived for those moments when I took hold of the ropes and followed the donkey couple the short distance back to the yard. I loved to help feed and water them before letting them run back into their field.
However, all things have to come to an end and we got ready to return home. On the last day of one particular holiday the donkey man approached my father and explained to him that they were looking for people to have the donkeys over winter and that I had indicated that I might be able to have one.
My father laughed and explained that there might be a small problem……..we lived in a first floor flat.