I read a post recently on a donkey/pack mule online forum where a commenter listed various reasons why he did not care to use donkeys as pack animals. Among other things, one of the reasons he cited was that “donkeys walk too slowly.” Huh, I thought. That’s interesting. I don’t know where he would come up with that idea.
First of all, on average, a donkey walks about the same speed as a man. Of course, there are factors like the weight of the load (and how it’s adjusted), the terrain, the weather, and in some cases, the animal’s mood which could slow the animal down. In my experience, my standard burros walk at a perfect pace for my and their liking. Depending on the terrain or even the particular animal, some donkeys travel better when they are driven versus being led. It is, therefore, rather common for me to get behind my burro, toss the lead rope over her rump and let her head down the trail. I call this my “self-propelled burro.” With me following, she finds her own pace and I often have to step pretty quickly to keep up. If I am hiking with friends I will usually have them hike up ahead in case we need to stop or if we encounter other folks coming down the trail. When I am by myself I generally hold on to the lead rope as I follow her. Sometimes when it gets a little steep or I’m feeling the altitude, she will help pull ME along behind her.
I do have to admit, I am a bit puzzled by the assumption that donkeys walk too slowly, not because it isn't true in some instances, but because I rarely find myself frustrated by the speed of our trek. why anyone headed into the wilderness or anywhere with a burro would be in a hurry in the first place? Admittedly, I’m usually in a hurry to get the truck and trailer loaded and get a move on because I’m always anxious to get to the trailhead and start the journey. However, once I get the donkeys saddled and loaded and prepare to depart for my next adventure, I get into the relaxed pace of the backcountry and things naturally slow down. There is really no need to rush anymore: I am right where I want to be…on the trail with my burros headed for parts unknown. Anyone who’s spent time in the backcountry with an equine knows that when they get in a hurry, especially with a pack string, bad things can happen.
There’s also something to be said for understanding and listening to your animals. For example, if my burros are walking really slowly or they continue to stop, there’s a good chance they are trying to tell me something. I have to pay attention and pick up on the nonverbal cues my burros give me. It could be anything from the load being too heavy, the pannier or pack may have shifted, the girth might have slid forward or backwards, or something might be painful for the donkey like a strap digging into a rib. When my burros do not want to keep going, I give them a good inspection and if I can’t find the problem and they continue to resist I may stop, remove the load and repack it if necessary. If that doesn’t work I rattle the granola bar wrapper I keep in my pocket. In case you didn’t know, donkeys have a weakness for granola bars and once they associate the sound of the wrapper with a tasty treat, they are hooked!
I have followed and led my burros for many miles up steep, rocky trails here in Colorado. I can remember a lot of things going through my mind as I struggled up the side of a mountain at over 10,000 feet above sea level. Mostly I’m just taking my time and enjoying being outside in some of the most beautiful terrain in the country. I can’t really recall thinking my equines were walking too slowly, at least not for my temperament.