As Kim Porter makes the morning rounds on her northeastern Massachusetts farm—checking in on the geese, horses and ponies—the special greeting from her burro, Nacho, entices the biggest grin, his squeaky little “hees” without the “haws.”
“He stands in the back of his stall,” Porter says, “and when he sees me, he walks towards me going, ‘Hee, hee, hee!’ ”
Once near, Nacho nuzzles her face or hand with his muzzle. And when she leads him to the paddock for breakfast, he turns his head inquisitively toward the place she keeps the peppermint candies—his favorite treat. “But he’s never demanding,” she says. “He just pauses and gazes toward [them]. He’s very polite.”
Nacho’s gentle spirit soothed Porter after cancer treatment and following the death of her mother last year. She loves the way he tosses his head and bucks a little after being put in the paddock for his breakfast, and the way he runs in the pasture with the horses and then grazes quietly beside them. “Whenever I’m with him, he makes me smile,” she says. “He’s just so sweet and kind.”
Porter and her husband adopted Nacho in March through the Platero Project. An HSUS program funded by private donors and named for the main character in a book by Nobel Prize-winning poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, the project pays trainers a small stipend to tame wild burros through gentle training, with the goal of increasing the number adopted from Bureau of Land Management holding facilities.
The Porters had initially signed up to train and find an adopter for the reddish, frosty-faced burro. “But the minute my husband met Nacho, he was like, ‘He’s not going anywhere!’ ”
He never nipped or kicked during his training, but once he did act peculiar when a helicopter flew overhead. “He was so frightened,” Porter remembers. “He froze up and ducked and was just panicked.” Turns out, Nacho had been rounded up by helicopter in 2012 along with more than 300 other burros in Arizona. For more than a year, he’d lived in a government holding facility in Canon City, Colorado. Though the burros are well cared for there, their barren, dusty pens include little to keep them occupied.
Nacho’s journey is one endured by many members of his species. About 8,400 wild burros roam public lands in small, scattered herds—descendants of work animals brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers. Burros (the Spanish name for donkey) often escaped or were released into the wild.
[Burros] are programmed from Day 1 to look for a leader for answers. As long as you are a strong leader and do not cause them any harm or pain .. they'll do anything for you.
Cindy Brasfield, trainer
Take the case of Ears, whom Horton trained through the Platero Project. When she first arrived, the little burro with the slight humpback was afraid of her own water bucket. “With wild burros,” Horton says, “everything is new to them and they are terrified of everything.”
To establish those first inklings of trust, Horton spoke calmly to Ears while sitting in her stall. Techniques like that—or touching between the shoulder blades or briefly putting on a halter—are foundational in gentling equines. By the second week, Horton could touch Ears. “Once she realized we could scratch her in places where she couldn’t reach, she would actually leave her food for a scratch.”
Clover is another burro rounded up from western Arizona—just a yearling when she was transported in 2011 to a temporary holding facility in Ridgecrest, California. There, she was vaccinated and branded before being sent to a facility in Utah. In 2013, Clover was sent to Oregon trainer Shelby Bishop, who taught her basics such as being led by halter, loading onto a trailer and lifting each foot for farriering. Shelby also taught Clover to accept a saddle and even broke her tendency to nip by gently nudging her mouth with an elbow.