Donkey Welfare Adviser, Ian Colton recently assisted with the Leitrim Pony Riding and Animal Welfare Project with donkeys Phoenix and Baxi on behalf of The Donkey Sanctuary.
Ask any American about the Irish and their donkeys and they will tell you about a Connemara landscape where a red headed boy and his little sister are loading turf into the creels (baskets) on the back of a donkey. What they actually remember is a famous postcard by the late John Hinde who had a post card printing business in Dublin. He was a pioneer of colour photography and at his peak he sold over 50 million postcards annually. There was no email, Facebook or Instagram back in his day, yet the popularity of his postcards led to them being posted all over the world. The card featuring the boy loading turf onto the donkey was probably one of the most iconic images of its day.
And so onto the Leitrim Pony Riding and Animal Welfare Project. This is the third year I have, on behalf of the Donkey Sanctuary, assisted with the delivery of this project. The project has been developed to integrate boys and girls aged from between 12 – 17 from a variety of cultures whilst giving them a greater knowledge of animal care. For the project, children descend on Moorelands Equestrian Centre in Drumshanbo. At the centre they receive a one hour riding lesson plus one hour’s instruction on a variety of Animal Welfare topics. Last year a total of 42 children participated in the project. When they arrive, the children are divided so that one half can ride whilst the other receive welfare instruction and then vice versa. So, in total I deliver two classes each evening for the three nights.
I loaded up my two donkeys Phoenix and Baxi in time to get them nicely settled at the centre before the children’s bus arrived. After a brief introduction I normally start by giving out two head collars and then two at a time the children go into the stable and try and figure out how they are going to put the head collars on the donkeys. Those big ears really can get in the way!
As several of the children had attended the project last year I needed something new to maintain their interest. And so I brought along with me the turf creels made especially for Baxi to carry. I explained what purpose the creels served and put the straddle on his back hoisting a creel onto each side. The real fascination for the children came when I showed them the picture take all those years ago by John Hinde. I explained that in my Grandfather’s generation, during the summer school holidays the children spent a good part of the summer with the donkey. Between them they brought home the turf, two baskets at a time on the back of their trusty donkey. The children in the picture were the same age as my young audience weren’t they? The turf baskets on Baxi were exactly the same as in the picture. They looked at Baxi and then they looked back at the picture. Suddenly the place of the donkey in the hearts of generations of Irish people began to make sense to them.
As we finished a bit early on the last evening I volunteered to join the riding instructors leading a group of beginners for a walk up the hill lane. The lane rises above the Equestrian Centre looking down on the shimmering water of Lough Allen. My charge was a small boy on the smallest of the ponies, a nice Connemara type called Joey. It was a glorious summer’s evening and it was easy to let my mind wander and contemplate the end of the era of the red headed boy and wonder who will be the next generation of donkey owners in rural Ireland.