One chilly November afternoon, my family and I had just finished hiking with some friends on Lancaster’s rugged Conestoga Trail when we heard hooves approaching from behind. Two men on draft horses emerged from the trees, followed by a woman riding a spotted donkey the size of a pony.
“Donkeys can do that?” asked my daughter Sophie, then 9, who’d barely managed to scramble up the slippery stone slope herself.
“They love it,” said the woman, our neighbor Tanya, swinging down out of the saddle and leading the donkey, Muffin, over for the kids to pet. “You know why miners always used donkeys instead of horses? Because donkeys are amazing in the mountains.”
Tanya came into our lives about a year before we adopted our neglected donkey, Sherman. Until then, we knew her only as “that carriage lady,” a stranger who lived somewhere nearby and clattered by our house once in a while in her horse-drawn coach. She’d wave her whip and holler “Hallooo!”, then disappear around a curve and down the gravel road toward the Susquehanna River.
Later, I’d realize that’s when the first domino fell. We discovered Tanya lived just over the hill from us. Sophie began visiting her for lessons with Muffin. I mentioned to a neighboring farmer how odd it was to see a donkey out here in dairy country. A few months later, that farmer pulled into our driveway with a pitiful donkey he’d liberated from a church member with a hoarding problem.
Sherman’s first few days on our tiny Lancaster farm were touch and go as we waited to see if he’d survive his years of neglect. But once his damaged hooves began to heal and he was befriended by our gentlest goat, Lawrence, he soon settled in. He mingled with his new “herd,” which consisted of a half-dozen sheep, Lawrence and four other goats, and the newest stray in the household, an odd-looking calico cat named Polly. He became so attached to Polly that, to her annoyance, he followed her whenever she entered the paddock.
Tanya, we soon found out, doesn’t discriminate when it comes to animal training; she treated me and Sherman just like her own horses. She’s big-hearted and fun-loving, but when it’s time for business, Sergeant Tanya is in command. Tanya adored Sherman, which was why she wasn’t going to baby him.
“So when is this race?” Tanya asked, after I’d told her about my idea of turning Sherman into a racing donkey and training him to run a pack-burro race with me in Colorado.
“Less than a year,” I said. “Next July.”
“Ha!” she snorted. “Well, I’m the one who told you to find him a job. But it won’t be easy. Sherman can come up with a million ways to make your life a living hell. He’s already two jumps ahead and you haven’t even started. Before you decide, there’s something you need to know about donkeys…”
Sherman’s brain, she explained, might be a bigger problem than his feet. Donkeys aren’t like horses, which can be spurred into obedience. A donkey’s reaction is the exact opposite; try to scare them and they’ll freeze.
“Their first instinct is to lock up,” Tanya told me. “That’s why they’ve got this reputation for being stubborn. If they sense danger or don’t like the way they’re being handled, they’ll just turn to stone.”
Hal Walter, the burro-racing legend, once joined some friends for a training run in the Colorado high country. On their way back, one burro balked at a wooden bridge. “For hours,” Hal said. “Even though he’d crossed it, no problem, an hour earlier.” They had to fetch a winch-equipped Jeep to pull him across one crank at a time.
For wild donkeys, going mannequin was a terrific survival adaptation. When motionless, burros are hard to spot and impossible to drive into ambush. True, they don’t have a horse’s raw speed, but when it comes to steadiness, stamina and heroic resistance to heat, cold and thirst, you can’t do better than a burro. That’s why famous adventurers and poor peasants alike made donkeys their ride of choice. Even Queen Victoria relied on donkeys to pull her carriage through narrow European streets when she traveled abroad.
On our first day of race training, Tanya made sure to let Sherman know this was going to be fun. She loaded up a fanny pack with horse treats and gave his ears a good, long scratching so he’d always associate training with pleasure. “Here we go, Shermie,” Tanya said. “Let’s go party!”
She strode off holding his lead rope, calm and assertive, and we went…
Sherman dropped his butt and locked out his front legs.
“Now we wait,” Tanya said. She held the rope firmly but didn’t pull, holding Sherman in an evenly matched tug-of-war.
“Wait for it…”
Gradually, Sherman stopped fidgeting. He took one step, then another, before suddenly walking all the way to us. “Good man!” Tanya crooned, feeding Sherman a handful of treats. She began walking again and this time Sherman followed, the rope hanging slack.
But when we reached the road, Sherman recoiled as if it was a river of lava. “Maybe he’s never seen asphalt before, maybe he thinks it’s a bottomless lake, who knows?” Tanya said. “But with a donkey, anything you start you have to finish.” She stepped into the road, looped the rope under her body and sat back on it while Sherman threw every fiber of his being into reverse. One of my neighbors rumbled past on his tractor, veering wide as Tanya smiled and waved, holding her ground in the middle of the road.
Finally, Sherman placed one foot on the asphalt.
“Sherminator!” Tanya crowed. “Good man. See? You trusted me and you didn’t die.” She fed him another fistful of treats and called it a day.
“Whispering is the only way to go,” Tanya said, referring to the technique of gently encouraging rather than bullying an animal. She led Sherman back to his buddy, Lawrence the goat, who had been patrolling the fence line nervously and watching us. “He’s had enough tough times in his life.”
Tanya said she’d be back the next day to try a special plan, but that night I began working on one of my own: I tracked down a phone number for the iron man of burro-racing himself, Hal Walter.
I’d met Hal once before, but I’m not sure if he met me. We were introduced a few years earlier when I was in Leadville, Colo., to check out my first burro race. He shook my hand, grunted and walked away. Everything about him seemed tough as old leather. Like the time he caught a bad stomach bug a week before the first race in 2014. He was too sick to run, but had to drive up anyway because he’d promised to haul burros for two friends. Just before the starting gun, Hal decided to hop in anyway even though it was starting to sleet. He hadn’t brought running clothes, so he borrowed a pair of shorts and slung on a barn coat. He and his burro trudged along in last place until, a few miles from the finish, they began working their way up through the pack.
Soon, he was hard on the heels of Justin Mock, a 32-year-old Denver runner who’d earned his own reputation for grit by finishing as the No.1 American in the 2010 London Marathon and, in the same year, breaking the Bolder Boulder 10K record for runners in gorilla costumes.
Justin was lucky; his partner was Yukon Jack, a mammoth burro as eager and experienced as any human on the course. Together, Justin and Jack galloped into the final stretch. But whenever Justin looked over his shoulder, that crazy old guy in the flapping barn coat was still hot on his heels. Justin glanced back one more time, and the madman was gone. When he turned around, Hal was suddenly in the lead. Hal had waited for Justin to look left, then scooted right and shot ahead to win. He was 55 years old.
That night, I dialed Hal’s number. I had two questions that I thought only he could answer: Could a donkey who had been through so much ever run 15 or so miles at high altitude? And at 54, could I?
Hal picked up and heard me out. “Ever done anything like this?” he asked.
“Ever train anything, like a dog?”
The line went silent — and stayed silent — and I realized Hal was figuring out how to discourage me. Just sitting there, waiting for him to break the news, made it all clear to me. It was ridiculous to think that Sherman, who was still trying to master his own legs, and me, a rookie who’d have to lead him across trails at 13,000 feet, could pull this thing off in less than a year.
Finally, Hal let me have it. “When can you get out here?”