Donkeys are extraordinary creatures, but they don’t get much credit for it. In fact, they have been downright defamed. To start, they have an intellect akin to that of dogs and dolphins—two animals widely celebrated for their cognitive prowess—and their limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion and behavior, is the same size as a human’s. So despite what you may have heard, donkeys are highly intelligent animals with phenomenal memories and rational minds. They grieve their loved ones, form lifelong bonds, and use logic to problem solve; they can remember where they’ve been, how they got there, and who they met along the way for up to 25 years.
They also know a thing or two about hard work. As the original beast of burden, donkeys removed the first weights off the human spine—a fact as literal as it is symbolic—modernized early agriculture, and extended the reach of bygone empires; they taxied wealth into ancient Egypt and were buried alongside its most distinguished kings. Hardier and more longevous than horses and other livestock (not to mention cheaper), donkeys throughout the ages have supplied humans with labor, food, security, transport, and companionship all for the price of one. And they haven’t gone out of style. They are still the bread and butter of many countries around the world today. Civilization has survived on the backs of donkeys for millennia, and now, so too does our mental health.
That’s right. Donkeys across the globe are replacing their Mule-Haul businesses with medical practices in a sort of reverse Dr. Doolittle twist. And looking at their history, it’s no wonder they’ve taken the art of healing by storm. As one patient put it, “[donkeys] have seen it all—like, literally including Jesus—so, that’s a lot of hindsight.” Can’t argue with that.
But how do donkeys convey their wisdom? They show us. Their unique personas—a combination of tenderness, empathy, fortitude, and grit—foster a mindfulness and self-sufficiency in the patients under their care. For one, their gentle nature and intuitive respect for personal space instills trust right off the bat. This allows a therapeutic connection to unfold naturally and at a pace controlled by the patient.
According to combat veteran Matt P., “donkeys put the ball back in your court—you don’t have to talk about your feelings or analyze the deeper meaning of your thoughts if you don’t want to or wonder what the therapist is writing down in her little book. You can think without thinking about having to think.” Donkeys gave Matt the space he needed to get to know himself again, his therapy goals, and how to achieve them, making him more proactive about his treatment and empowering him to “reclaim some of what PTSD took away.”
Donkeys by nature are also far more stoic than other therapy animals, giving anxious individuals a stability and steadiness on which to deconstruct and rebuild their thinking patterns. In fact, a donkey’s calm mood can be so infectious that our heart rhythms will actually sync with his! His presence alone thus functions like an antihypertensive, one that physically reduces our anxiety and provides the clarity of thought we need to better understand ourselves. “Everyone walks on eggshells when you have PTSD,” says Matt; “like they expect you to lose it at any moment.” But not Horace, his donkey therapist. “He doesn’t see me as a liability. He is unapologetically himself and he expects me to be the same. It’s such a weight off the back I didn’t even know was there.”
Stoic though they are, donkeys are not enablers. Someone who is overly impulsive or aloof will not stimulate the positive relationship a donkey wants, prompting him to calmly walk away from the interaction. The subtleness of his refusal is exceptionally powerful, as it gently exposes patients to the dysfunctionality of their behavior and allows them to self-adjust. This, in turn, promotes insight and accountability without inducing fear, shame, or guilt. “There’s just such a simplicity to it,” says Matt.
According to Charles C. a longtime rancher and donkey owner, “a dog sits beside you out of instinct and a therapist sticks around because it’s his job, but a donkey shows up because he wants to. Because he respects who you chose to be in that moment. And that’s really something.”
While anyone can benefit from donkey therapy, the practice has resonated most deeply with military veterans. Perhaps it is the common ground they share that has forged their strong connection. Donkeys, like veterans, are fiercely loyal and protective of their loved ones, work despite injury, and mask their pain behind a cool exterior. Donkeys are frequently mistreated, and like disabled veterans cast aside. Both are grossly underappreciated. But now they are looking out for one another, helping each other recover from their past traumas and embrace fuller, happier lives. “Donkeys are misunderstood, so am I,” says USMC veteran Daniel S. “They know history cannot be rewritten, all we can do is make our peace with it and ruck on.” Hear, hear.
Six thousand years ago, donkeys committed themselves to our welfare and have yet to let us down. So, next time you need help finding your stride, look no further than your nearest pasture. The donkeys there will help you find it. Despite all life’s uncertainties and unanswered questions, one thing is for sure: you need not ask for whom the mule tolls; he tolls for thee.