Donkey Dilemma

My wife, Sacha, and I enjoy trail riding with our horses and our pint-sized Blue Heeler named Shroo. She follows us faithfully on our rides and she provides us with endless entertainment. We love our Shroo and she makes us laugh at least five or six times every day. The horses however have a different opinion of Shroo and if they could talk they would tell you that she is an irritating pest rather than a beloved source of amusement. If you know anything about Blue Heelers you would sympathize with the horses.

Heelers, you see, are incorrigible ankle biters. This is in their blood and these dogs cannot resist the instinctual urge to dart in and gently nip the hind leg fetlock. This so-called heeling is a highly esteemed trait if you are a cowboy in need of a working dog to move your cattle. From a horses’s perspective, it can be more than a little annoying. In fact, our horses have sought retribution for Shroo’s ankle nibbling on many occasions. They have tried to kick and stomp poor little Shroo, but they rarely manage to touch her because Shroo is amazingly fast. She can spin on a dime and sprint like a cheetah.

Our donkey, Pancho, also accompanies us on trail rides and he shares the horses thoughts concerning Shroo. In other words, Pancho and Shroo are not friends. The donkey is as donkeys are, rather slow and ponderous – just like Eor in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. In stark contrast, Shroo is kind of hyperkinetic and overcaffeinated. Thus, Shroo cannot help but focus her over-abundance of energy on Pancho’s total lack of momentum. Whenever he stops to nibble a leaf or take a bite of grass, Shroo has to bark at him or bite his ankles to keep him moving. He provides Shroo with a lively “raison d’être”.

Once and only once has Pancho ever managed to kick little Shroo. She kind of flew through the air, landed with a roll, and then went right back at Pancho like nothing had happened. She was also oblivious to the strip of skin missing from between her eyes that was a testament to Pancho’s accuracy. Their relationship can be summed up as, Pancho having a very high tolerance for Shroo, and Shroo having no tolerance for Pancho.

Pancho is such a gentle and loving creature that I truly cannot say anything disparaging about him. He does have some quirks though and one of them is bridges. He simply does not like bridges. In Pancho’s opinion, bridges are very very very untrustworthy.

When Pancho was younger he did not have any problem with bridges and he used to cross them readily without hesitation. Then one day we were riding on a trail from Duncan to Cowichan Lake and we came to a an old railway bridge that had been converted to a pedestrian bridge. There were wooden planks with wide gaps and a metal mesh had been nailed onto the planks to provide traction. When the horses and Pancho walked on the mesh it rattled as it had not been secured with many nails. It kind of spooked the horses but we walked them across without too much trouble. Pancho then walked onto the bridge and started to come towards us (we rarely need to lead him as he follows us like a dog). He got half way across and suddenly he froze and appeared to stare very intently down between the planks at the river below. Then he very slowly and gingerly walked backwards until he got back to solid ground and that was the end of that. Henceforth, Pancho declared all bridges impassable. I am sure I could have persuaded him to cross the bridge if I were a donkey whisperer, but alas I am not.

After the impasse at Cowichan Lake, I endeavored to restore Pancho’s confidence in civil engineering by coaxing him over a few trail bridges using carrots. After awhile he began to cross these practice bridges readily in anticipation of a nice crunchy treat and I declared myself an expert donkey trainer.

Then one summer, Sacha and I took the horses and Pancho on a trip to the mountains in the southern Okanagan. We packed up all our stuff and headed into the wilderness. A couple of miles up the trail we came to a bridge across a steep-sided creek filled with car-sized boulders. The span consisted of two Douglas firs to which rough cut planks were nailed. We dismounted and led the horses across. Pancho started walking back to the truck and trailer. I retrieved him but no manner of coaxing or persuasion was going to get him onto that bridge. “Pancho,” I said, “We’ve come all this way. This is our vacation. We are supposed to be having fun. Please cross this bridge.” Pancho ignored me and his very long ears were lying very flat and his very sad eyes were very sorrowful.

I then tried to find a place to ford the creek but only succeeded in falling into it and came to the conclusion that the bridge had been built for a reason.

After much discussion and consternation, Sacha and I tied a rope to Pancho’s halter and yarded him inch by inch onto the bridge. With each inch we gained, Sacha tightened the end around a tree trunk. After much effort, we had three feet on the bridge. Using all of our strength we managed to force him to pick up his trailing hind leg and place it onto the first plank. And once that hoof touched the plank, Pancho trotted across the bridge with the utmost confidence and seemed very happy to be reunited with his horse friends and with us too.

After spending several days exploring alpine meadows, we returned to the bridge with trepidation as we had no alternative route back to our truck and trailer. We were not entirely confident that we could successfully haul a reluctant Pancho back onto the bridge. However, when Pancho saw the bridge, he pushed the horses aside and charged over the bridge. I guess he knew that he was not far from trailer and its well stocked supply of alfalfa hay.

The next morning, an outfitter with a big stock trailer pulled into the trailhead campsite. He unloaded a string of skookum pack horses along with a mule. He was heading up to his cabin with supplies for the upcoming Bighorn Sheep season.

“Do you like the mule?” I asked.

“Why, yes. Never owned a mule before. Others swear by them for packing in the mountains. I bought this one last year.”

“Did you have any trouble with him crossing the bridge?”

“First time out, he would not cross it! I put my saddle on my biggest pack horse and we pulled him across with a rope dallied around the horn.”

“Apparently donkeys and mules are related,” I said with profound wisdom.

A couple of years later, we were on another wilderness trip in the Chilcotin and we had spent a long day on the road traveling from Tsuniah Lake to Chilko Lake. Pancho had a fair bit of weight in his packs and he seemed tired. Towards the end of the day, Sacha decided to take the packs off Pancho’s sawbuck saddle and she slung them over her riding horse’s saddle. This obliged Sacha to walk, but if you have ever spent eight hours in the saddle, you know that a bit of walking is good for your muscles and also good for your horse.

We reached the Chilko River well into the evening and came to a bridge at a place known as Henry’s Crossing. Being tired, we were looking for a place to camp and we crossed the bridge hoping to find a nice grassy meadow for the horses and Pancho where they would have plenty to eat. When you are on pack trips, you are always looking for a place to camp where there is feed. Should you camp in an area without grass, you will not sleep knowing that your horses carried you all day and were then picketed or high-lined with empty stomachs.

The other side of the bridge had a Texas gate and I had to dismount to help Sacha with an awkward gate. When we got the horses through, I then realized that Pancho was nowhere to be seen. “He must have found some grass back on the other side. Surely he  is not wary of this bridge. It’s a car bridge. It’s solid.”

I started walking back across and was thinking about how to yard a donkey more than one hundred feet across a bridge when I heard a forlorn bray.

I ran to the edge of the bridge and looked down and to the far side of the river to see Pancho standing on the bank in an agitated state. Then, before my eyes, he leaped into he river!

My heart has never sunk so low. The Chilko River was in full flood and that is to say that it was a deeply powerful force. At that moment, I did not think I would ever see Pancho again.

He tried to swim across the river, but immediately got swept hundreds of yards downstream. All I could see was his ears and his nose with its big nostrils barely above the water as he swirled in the current.

A long ways downstream I saw him try and get out of the river in several places where the bank was too steep. He would then try to swim across again and only get swept further away. Finally I saw him pull himself out of the current into a flooded swampy area.

Later, I did manage to find Pancho down in the swamp but he was too cold and scared to be led out. I had to return to the horses and unpack some grain to coax him back to solid ground. He and I spent the night close to the fire drying out and warming up. He ended up with a singed mane and I burned the crotch out of my only pair of pants when I put them too close to the fire. Luckily the damage was patchable.

The next day, Pancho crossed the bridge without the slightest reluctance.

Wool Ranching (Ewe and lambs)

My wife, Sacha, and I are fortunate to have a small acreage here in the Comox Valley. It is a great home for our horses and our donkey.A year ago, I made a pitch to Sacha.

“Let’s buy some sheep and try farming,” I said.

Sacha looked at me quizzically. “Are you nuts? Farming is hard work and we are already busy enough.”

I decided to sweeten my proposal. “Could I have some sheep if I build you a new tack room for your horse gear?” 

“OK that would be nice,” she replied. “But are you sure you want sheep?”

“Oh yes, they are very easy to keep,” I explained. “And will also turn a profit.”

My Dad who is a carpenter flew out from Nova Scotia. He and I converted part of the barn into a tack room. Sacha was pleased.

Next, I procured my sheep. I bought an assortment of sheep from here there and everywhere. I even drove to Enderby to purchase some purebred North Country Cheviot ewes and a ram too.

Thus began my ovine education.

I soon realized that two of my sheep were pets. They followed me everywhere obnoxiously bleating non-stop. Their previous owner had said something about feeding them a diet of mostly bread but I failed to grasp that these two ewes had never learned to eat grass. I have been buying them molasses sweetened grain to keep them from perishing.

Oddly my two pet sheep have a fetish for blackberry leaves. Once in awhile I am not greeted by their bleating when I get up in the morning. I go looking and invariably find them tangled up in blackberry vines to the point of immobilization.

My dad grew up on a sheep farm in Nova Scotia. He gave me some advice one night after a blackberry extrication. “Son,” he said. ” There is nothing worse than a pet sheep.”

I don’t have the heart to get rid of them. I’ve given them names – Dweedledee and Dweedledum. At least I have not yet baked bread for them.

I have some other sheep that are the opposite to the pet sheep. These sheep are feral. I believed I was buying some sheep for a very good price but I did not really understand what I was buying. Whereas Tweedledee and Tweedledum are pets, the feral sheep are wild animals.

One of the feral sheep was lame a couple of weeks ago. I decided to use my lariat to catch it. Wanting to impress Sacha with my Marlborough Man savvy, I said, ” Watch this.”

I tossed my loop and just as it fell over the lame ewe’s head another feral sheep ran alongside. So I ended up catching two feral sheep at once. Instead of letting go of the rope, I decided to hold on. Thankfully the mud was soft. Sacha is still laughing.

Recently we got the flock sheared. After all was said and done, I paid the shearer $200.

“How much is all this wool worth?” I asked.

He explained that the wool from Tweedledee and Tweedledum was worthless. The blackberry vines had turned their wool into useless dreadlocks. He figured the rest might fetch $75.

And I did indeed luckily find a weaver who bought my wool for $75.

I also set aside one nice soft fleece. I used it to make a bed for my barn cat, Rawhide.

One day I found Rawhide nestled in his wool-lined bed and we had a talk. “Rawhide did you know that your bed is worth $125?”

He purred happily.

California Creatures (Trail Riders)

In 2001, my wife and I decided to go on a little adventure. We found veterinary jobs in rural northern California. We ended up living down there for three years and had many great experiences.

From a purely medical perspective, it was interesting because we got to see many things that we do not encounter in Canada. For example, there are rattlesnakes in California and we kept vials of anti-venom stocked to treat animals that were bitten. There were also unusual parasites such as ear ticks. These are soft-bodied ticks that truly crawl into the ear canal and reside there.

When we returned to Canada, I said goodbye to the snakes and ear-ticks and did not expect to see these creatures again.

In 2009, we took our horses on a trek in the Cascades. The Northwestern States have a superb network or backcountry horse trails and we chose to drive to Winthrop to explore the Pasayten Wilderness. We had our two riding horses, Gabby and Grubby, plus our faithful donkey, Pancho, as a pack animal. Except for a minor bucking mishap with Grubby that ended up with my gear strewn over a mile of brush, the trip was enjoyable until our last day. We ended up on the spectacular Pacific Crest Trail and then descended into a valley that would take us back towards our truck and horse trailer.

At one point, the trail winded along a south-facing slope of rock fall that turned out to be ideal habitat for sunbathing rattlesnakes. The horses were good at spotting them and were very wary and spooky. I can testify that the rattle of a rattlesnake does put your hair on end. Anyway, we did manage to walk out of the valley unscathed where we found a sign at the trailhead. It read “Rattlesnake Trail”.  I would have appreciated a similar sign at the opposite end.

A few weeks later, Sacha noticed the horses rubbing their ears excessively. This seemed very odd as ear infections in horse are very rare. I sedated Gabby and examined her ear canal where I found…..yes, you guessed it – ear ticks!