They’re undeniably cute, but they’re also smart and generally friendly.
But miniature donkeys are also sometimes the centerpiece of competitions at venues around the U.S., including the annual Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield.
Texas County resident Carol Dale and her donkeys have been a fixture at the fair for several years. At this year’s version in July, Dale had a banner outing, garnering 13 ribbons – including five for first-place performances.
A native of Texas, Dale has been a local resident since 1989. Her husband, David Dale, is a physician and opened Dale Family Medicine on U.S. 63 in 1994.
Dale got involved in miniature donkeys (specifically Sicilian breed) in 1993 as a means of activity for her two children. From there, her involvement steadily grew to the point where she bred, sold and competed.
“I didn’t know much about them at first,” Dale said. “I didn’t realize they were smart and could actually perform, or that there was even a market for them. I discovered all of the above.”
Dale currently has 22 donkeys at she and David’s Rooster Ridge Ranch (on Highway 17 east of Houston) and has been competing in earnest for about 15 years. She raises them for pets, performance and continued breeding, and sometimes ships them to far away places (including France and other countries).
“I’m constantly trying to upgrade the quality, and I travel the country to find the individual animals that would do that,” Dale said.
Miniature donkeys entered in competitions must be no taller than 36 inches at the withers. Events at different venues are overseen by various sanctioning bodies, and entrants must follow each body’s set of rules.
Competition includes two general categories: halter (based on the way animals are “made”) and performance (which includes cart pulling, barrel racing, obstacle courses, jumping and other forms of movement-oriented disciplines).
At this year’s Ozark Empire Fair, close to 80 donkeys competed in various disciplines. Dale’s donkeys swept the team events, taking first in pleasure driving, barrels and pole bending. Her animals also earned two other firsts, along with three seconds, three thirds and two fourths.
Unlike many competitors who send their donkeys to professional trainers, Dale trains her donkeys herself.
“With my cart donkeys, I concentrate on teaching them to do their job, which is walk, trot, back and listen to me,” she said. “Right now, I have 10 at various levels of expertise in pulling the cart, which is my favorite thing to do. I also have halter animals, but I like to give them a job to do, too, because I think it’s good discipline for them and keeps them listening to me and learning and well adjusted.”
In addition to the mini-donkeys, Dale and her husband have numerous larger livestock. She said training small donkeys isn’t much different than training big animals.
“I think the basic principles are the same,” Dale said. “You now what you need to accomplish, and you do it in incremental steps. Every animal is different, and they learn at different rates. But you start with the very basics and go from there.”
Dale employs a technique called “imprinting” in raising her donkeys, which basically means being present from the beginning of an animal’s life.
“If you’re not there when they’re born – and sometimes I am – you’re there within a few hours,” she said. “You handle the animal from the tip of the nose to its hoofs, and it’s the first step in desensitizing them and getting them used to the human touch so it’s not a foreign issue to them.
“They start out being handled and they like it.”
Dale also won in a speed event this year in Kansas, and has won in past years at other events. Good results in competitions have multiple positive effects.
“Of course, there’s a benefit to winning because you’re paid according to the place you get,” Dale said. “But it also showcases your livestock and it gives you publicity. People see how your animals behave and how they’ve been handled, and that can add value.”
Dale and a cart-pulling team have appeared in parades in Houston in the past, including one that also feature some Budweiser Clydesdales.
“I think some of the people were kind of intimidated by the Clydesdales,” she said, “but the kids just swarmed around the donkeys. They loved that.”
While winning and making money through breeding are part of the equation, Dale (who will be featured in an article in the December issue of American Livestock Magazine) said her involvement with miniature donkeys is about much more than that.
“It’s actually good mental health therapy for me,” she said. “It’s rewarding – it’s performance-based, but your best work comes after you’ve established a relationship with an animal, and that happens after you’ve spent a lot of time with them. They enjoy it, I enjoy it, and it’s relaxing even if it’s just going out in the pasture and sitting in chair and brushing one out, or walking around and having them follow you.”
Miniature donkeys – and donkeys in general – are largely misunderstood, Dale said.
“There are a lot of fables about donkeys, like they’re stubborn,” she said. “The truth is, they’re smart, and by spending time with them you learn to read their body language.”
For more information about Carol Dale’s miniature donkeys, and other animals available from Rooster Ridge Ranch, log onto www.roosterridgeranch.com.
“There are a lot of fables about donkeys, like they’re stubborn. The truth is, they’re smart, and by spending time with them you learn to read their body language.”
– CAROL DALE