Recently we went walking near the Dutch city of Ommen with our friends Margo and Frits. As you know, we usually carry lightweight backpacks, but it was a chilly day so besides
a picnic, we also had flasks of tea and extra coats. Frits was kind enough to carry all our baggage. He is immensely strong. Did we mention that Frits is a donkey?
For Margo, who sometimes hikes on her own for a month at a time, a donkey is ideal. Although donkeys have a long tradition of being used as pack animals in many parts of the world, they’re not often thought of as companions. They’re strong and smart, and, like mules, they can be proverbially stubborn. (Just to keep things straight, donkeys are full members of the horse family, and a mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey).
Although Frits is still young, he was a skinny and neglected animal a year ago when he was diagnosed with an incurable intestinal problem. The diagnosing vet recommended putting him out of his putative misery. Margo chose to find a refuge where he (the donkey, not the vet) could live out his life and possibly even recover. Now he’s thriving. The vet’s dire prediction was wrong. He – the donkey – is still putting on weight and at the age of five, has many more years of health and fun to look forward to.
Frits loves to walk. One of the things Margo has done as part of his therapy, and for her own recreation, is to gradually increase his walking distances. This summer they spent a month walking 375 km together through the province of Drenthe. They had such a good time that Margo offered us a day out with Frits. Once we had him loaded up and were underway, we took turns holding his lead and getting to know him. The rope is attached to a bridle, leaving him a bit of slack. Like most donkeys, he has an impish streak, and likes to test people out to see if he can get the upper hand. He’ll pretend he’s going to take a quick bite of grass and keep going but before you know it, he’ll dig his heels in and just keep eating. You learn to give a proactive tug on the rope. After a bit of this power game, you reach an understanding.
Frits lives near a lot of large estates which were once farms. These are now large country houses with plenty of pasture for horses. It is remarkable how horses and donkeys react to one another. The horses recognise Frits as equine, Margo claims, probably from the shape of the nostrils, but they can’t quite place him. They come charging up to the fence to have a better look, and sometimes they seem hostile. You are not of our tribe. We must kill you.
The wilder they behave, stamping and caprioling about, the stiller Frits gets. Donkeys balk when spooked. You’ve got to be clever to get them moving again. Margo has got a trick for that. She keeps a spare length of rope in one of the saddle bags. She loops this around Frits’ back end, just above the ‘knees’. Then, standing in front of him, she pulls gently on the rope. Frits’ hind legs bend forward. He then has to move his forelegs to stay balanced, and presto! he’s walking.
The long rope is also handy at picnic time. The rope’s radius is just shy of our picnic spot. It gives Frits plenty of room to graze, but we don’t have to dodge and weave to keep our sandwiches out of his vast, rubbery mouth.
Margo is hoping to get more people interested in walking with Fritz or his colleagues. They’re very good with children, and can carry all you need for an outdoor party. She knows lots of attractive routes near Frits’ place, and can tell you all about the flora and fauna you see along the way. Get in touch at +31 (0)38 421 1717.