What Donkeys Know About Autism

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Running With Sherman

Hal Walter always loved donkeys a little more than they loved him.

For over 30 years, they’ve fought, kicked, and confused him — and for that, he’s truly grateful. Donkeys have made his temples throb with fury, but they’ve also prepared him for the most perplexing challenge of his life: a boy named Harrison.

I traveled to Colorado for a tutorial from Hal in the art of burro racing, the old Rocky Mountain sport of running marathon distances alongside a trotting donkey. I became interested in all things burro by necessity, after we adopted a neglected donkey named Sherman and had to figure out what to do with him. When I heard about burro racing, I was intrigued by three mysteries: How has it survived as America’s second-oldest marathon, right behind Boston? Why do women and older runners often defeat younger men? And most of all, how do you persuade nature’s most obstinate creation that it really wants to run with you?

When I arrive at Hal’s home among the ranches of Westcliffe, Colo., a fourth item shoots to the top of the list: Why are donkeys so amazing with challenged kids?

Because as soon as I get out of the car, a curly-blond blur bursts out the door and barrels straight at me. Hal is behind him, calling “Son. Son. Harrison,” but nothing about Harrison suggests he’s about to listen or ever has.

Harrison is 12 years old and has autism, meaning on his best days he’ll sing and tell stories and charm you stupid, and on his worst… well, often that’s the same day. A few weeks ago, Harrison was doing great in a middle-school cross country race when his classmates burst into cheers. Upset by the noise, Harrison veered away from the finish line with 10 yards to go and hid in the bushes. A kind bystander used her golden retriever to lead Harrison to the finish line, which he crossed by rolling over it sideways. At another race, Harrison waded into the spectators, swinging his fists.

Harrison sprints straight past me, a kid on a mission, but that mission, I realize with a jolt of panic, might involve those three mammoth donkeys at the paddock gate. The bars are wide enough for Harrison to dive right through, and judging by his speed, that’s exactly where he’s headed. Donkeys are notoriously skittish about sudden moves, and their natural reaction is to hammer away with their hooves until the threat is pummeled into the dirt. Donkeys have fought off mountain lions, and even Hal, a seasoned and careful pro, got a nasty nip near his neck last year..

But before I can react, Harrison hits the gate. I brace for carnage —

And find Hal reaching out for a handshake.

“Good trip?” he asks. “Harrison, come on over and say hello.” The donkeys haven’t even blinked. They understand Harrison, Hal says, and always have. When Harrison is having a really tough afternoon, in fact, Hal will scoot him outside and onto the back of one of the donkeys, Laredo. Within seconds, boy and burro are ambling along, Laredo’s ears waving as Harrison sings him a Mumford and Sons song.

“I can’t explain it except that in their way, donkeys think faster than we do,” says Mary, Hal’s wife. Mary is a nurse and for years was a superb burro racer herself until she was badly hurt in a “wreck”: her legs got tangled in the lead rope during a race and she fell, spooking her donkey into dragging her through a boulder field. She’s learned firsthand that donkeys can bloody you badly without even trying, so she marvels at how protective they are around her son.

“We base our decisions on logic. Theirs are based on sensory perception,” she explains. “While we’re assembling information in our brains, they’re relying on a really keen sense of smell and hearing. Their judgment is amazing and lightning fast.”

Hal Walter takes his son, Harrison, on a donkey ride.
Video by Hal Walter

Three hours away near Denver, the parents of an epileptic boy wondered if burros could help their 10-year-old son, Ben. After Ben suffered a seizure so severe he had to hospitalized for a week, Brad and Amber Wann tracked down Hal’s mentor, Curtis Imrie, who invited them to his little ranch outside Buena Vista. “First time we get there, he takes us five miles straight the hell up Mt. Harvard,” says Brad, still a little annoyed that he had to walk while Ben got to ride McMurphy, Curtis’ most-trusted donkey. “Fourteen thousand feet!”

“Why did you name him McMurphy?” Amber asked.

“After the crazy guy in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’” Curtis replied, which didn’t alarm Amber as much as it should have.

“In my gut, I knew it was O.K.,” Amber told me. “As soon as Benjamin was on his back, that burro’s ears went up. He looked regal. Like he had a purpose: ‘I have this special package to carry.’” Amber was also thrilled to see Ben so happy. “I was this depressed mom at home with an epileptic child, and now I’m thinking, This could be it. This animal therapy is for real — ”

And that’s when McMurphy tripped.

“Craziest thing,” Curtis says. “McMurphy goes down in the dirt. I knew what was going to happen next ‘cause I’ve seen it a thousand times. Animal falls, rolls over, comes back up on its feet. That’s why so many horse riders break a leg: from the horse rolling over them. But you should have seen McMurphy. He’s about to roll and somehow he stops and fights his body back the other way. Some DNA in him to protect that child.”

“It’s like he suddenly remembered Ben and went ‘Whoops,’ and put himself in reverse,” Brad says. “I wanted to kiss him.”

“You should have,” Amber says. “I did.”

For the Wanns, that tumble sealed the deal. It’s been four years and they’ve been a dedicated burro clan ever since. They show up at every race, three generations strong; Amber’s parents even got a pair of mini-donkeys so they can hike along behind the grandkids.

“Our family doesn’t do other sports on the weekend,” Brad says. “We do this.”

Ben’s seizures have disappeared for as long as six months at a time, his parents are delighted to report. “It’s been so cool to see the joy in Ben’s face as he gets off the meds,” says Curtis. “Burros have brought a measure of sanity to that family.”

Like acupuncture and meditation, equine therapy lives in that anecdotal world where plenty of credible people are convinced it works but science can’t yet prove why.

Curtis Imrie has his own theory. “Everything about burros is rhythmic. Their breathing, their movements, all 1-2-3-4… 1-2-3-4…. Like the perfect waltz partner. They’re desert animals, so that’s the way it has to be. Keep your rhythm, keep your cool,” Curtis explains. “So Ben comes along and his heart, his breath, all slow to the rhythm. You become what you behold. How’s that for a little cowboy philosophy? It’s really Huxley but sounds like something from the range.”

To be fair, Hal Walter has to admit that the burros have helped him as much as his son. “Pack burro racing was my training for fatherhood,” says Hal, a seven-time titleholder who still wins at age 56. For years, Hal was a newspaper reporter, and he’s captured his evolution as a dad and donkey trainer in two remarkable books, Full Tilt Boogie and Endurance. Burros, he believes, led him to insights he might never have discovered.

#1: The only thing you need to do is the thing you’re doing: “Laredo and Boogie taught me the best lesson for dealing with a child like Harrison: You have to have more time than they do. If you’re in a rush, you lose.”

#2: Lead from the rear: “You’re asking a burro to do something very unnatural. Leave his buddies, leave his food and shelter, and run 30 miles into the mountains. You have to make it seem like it’s their idea.”

But just when you think you’ve got things figured out, the rope is ripped out of your hand and you’ve got an ache in your chest that feels like a kick and you realize that you — Father of the Year, Mr. Seven-Time Champion — don’t know jack. That’s when your old pal Curtis reminds you of the one you forgot:

#3: You don’t train them. They train you.

“Donkeys know their rights and they can shut you down fast,” says Curtis. “When they like you, they’ll do everything short of open the gate and jump in the trailer. They become your partner. Your buddy. They join you for the adventure.”