Timely respect for the longears

Contrarians unite. If you prefer wine to mint juleps and wouldn't be caught dead in a hideous hat, much less at a horse track, skip the Kentucky Derby parties tomorrow and spend a family day at the Donkey and Mule Festival at Bishop's Orchards in Guilford.

"We're kind of the outcasts of the equine world; donkeys and mules are cousins of horses, so we put on our own shows," says Kim Brockett, show organizer and active member of the New England Donkey and Mule Group. She and husband Michael Capelli raise the longears on their Tripledale Farm in Guilford.

The show, one of the first of the season, offers hand or halter classes, riding and cart-drawing, plus a costume class. So there will be some hideous hats, only on the donkeys and trainers. Spectators also can take free wagon rides through the apple orchards, of course drawn by donkeys.

"There are a lot of misnomers about donkeys, the most common one being that they are stubborn," says Brockett. "Donkeys are actually the opposite, they are extremely intelligent animals, much more than horses. A balking donkey is thinking about what you've asked it to do, figuring out what course of action is going to get them into the least amount of trouble."

Deb Finco of Beech Brook Farm Equine Rescue in Mystic, agrees. The operation, which started in 2007 and was recognized as a non-profit in 2010, has taken in and placed out about 20 mules and donkeys across New England in the last four years, as well as many horses. Another baby donkey arrived this week.

Donkeys are classed in three sizes. Miniatures are up to 36 inches tall at the shoulder, and standards, up to 54 or 56 inches. Between overbreeding, the slumping economy and the fact that donkeys can live to be 40 years old, Finco says there have been increasing numbers of the animals in need of rescue and new homes.

"People get them for a variety of reasons," Finco says. "They are pretty easy keepers, especially the miniature ones don't eat a lot."

Some people get them to be a companion for a horse, others get them to help protect hobby farm type animals, such as sheep.

"Most asses are pretty protective, they'll charge predators and chase them away, they don't quite have the flight instinct of a horse," says Finco, who keeps a couple of them guarding her chickens from coyotes and such; one recently kept an egg-napping skunk at bay, getting sprayed in the process. "They are pretty fearless critters."

Other people just love their personality, she says, and a miniature donkey or mini mule is a good, less expensive alternative to a horse, especially with younger children. Given their stocky build and strength, donkeys usually can carry a bit more than the 20 percent of body recommended for horses, including tack and rider, Finco said. Cart-pulling also is popular.

Brockett raises and rides American Mammoth Jackstock, the largest of the donkeys. She discovered them in a children's book about disappearing domestic stock or heritage breeds.

"George Washington was the instigator of this breed," she said. "When he became president, he knew that he was going to need big mules for the military, for farming and to establish this country. Mate a male Mammoth with a female horse and you get a mule. You get the brains and intelligence of the donkey and more of the speed and agility of the horse. You get a four wheel drive animal that is very smart."

As combustion engines replaced hoofed horsepower, the herd dwindled. There are now about 3,000 American Mammoth Jacks left, most in the U.S., she said.

"You can do anything with them that you can do with a horse, it's just a little slower and calmer," says Brockett. "If you want safe, quiet trail rides, if you want a nice driving animal, they are just wonderful."

About 30 animals are expected at the show, from big mammoths and donkey-draft horse crosses to miniatures.

"It's a super family event, very low-key, it has donkeys and mules, everyone is very friendly," says Finco, who expects to see a number of her adopted-out charges at the festival, including Cinnamon and Nutmeg, two standard donkeys Brockett adopted from her. One of the top breeders in the country, Deb Kidwell of Lake Nowhere Mule and Donkey Farm in west Tennessee, is show judge.

The free show is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and includes pony rides, a moon bounce and kids crafts run by the Connecticut Agricultural Education Foundation; a wine tasting for adults; and displays and vendors. See www.bishodsorchards.com.

Beech Brook's big event of the year is its Hike for Horses, a combined open barn and two-footed hike of adjoining wilderness trails, is June 30. For details and registration, go to beechbrookfarm.webs.com.

Suzanne Thompson lives in Old Lyme. Catch her weekly radio show, "CT Outdoors," on WLIS 1420/Old Saybrook and WMRD 1150/Middletown. She can be reached at suzanne.s.thompson@sbcglobal.net.

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