Archive for the ‘Burros’ Category

Everyone loves a parade

December 13, 2017



Doesn’t everyone kick off the holiday season by turning their autistic teen loose with an 800-pound donkey on a busy street with hundreds of Christmas revelers and dozens of prancing ponies?

A few years ago after attending Buena Vista’s Christmas Equine Parade I got the idea for something similar here in Westcliffe. Now three years later it’s become somewhat of a tradition.

That first year Harrison and I had the only four-legged animal in the Custer County Christmas Parade of Lights, along with some motorized entries, a marching band and the high-school cheer team. The idea caught on, however, and the following year several other equine entries joined us.

I love the Christmas parade. After so many years of racing on the pack-burro circuit it’s refreshing to do something non-competitive with the animals and in the spirit of the season. We decorate the burros with garlands, bells and lights for this event. One difference between our parade and the one in Buena Vista is that ours is held after nightfall.

There had been some concerns after last year about the Amish Percheron team spooking some of the other animals. The Percherons are big and really loud and imposing. They stamp in place with their bells and huge steel shoes. So it was decided prior to the parade that they would come in from a side road at the Country Store as entry No. 8. Harrison and I — as No. 9 — would stop and let them in ahead of us.

The parade began with all the entries falling in line. When we got to the Country Store I told Harrison to stop. An Amish woman was holding onto the big horses and she let them loose. But instead of going right out onto the road in front of us, they started forward, then turned to their right — behind us — around the gas pumps at the store, and around to the driveway.  This spooked Boogie and Laredo badly. I managed to keep Boogie under control but Laredo pulled the rope right out of Harrison’s hands and bolted.

He took off at a full gallop through this big field across from the store. Boogie wanted to go with him but I circled her around. The Amish wagon pulled out of the driveway and onto the road in front of us. I watched as the blue LED lights on Laredo’s saddle got smaller and smaller in the distance, and then disappeared.

Luckily right then the entire parade stopped. I quickly reviewed the options. Should I bail on the whole thing? Should I chase after Laredo, and then if I managed to catch him try to bring up the rear? Should we just continue on with Boogie, then come back for Laredo afterward? I stood there looking off into the darkness and tried to make a decision.

That’s when I saw the blue lights bouncing way off in the distance. I watched and they appeared to be getting closer. I could see Laredo returning at a canter. Soon his shape was visible in the dim street lights. By the time the parade started moving he was right there. I caught him and handed the lead rope back to Harrison and on we went!

At first there were very few spectators, and then we encountered sparse crowds. It’s difficult to recognize people because of the lighting but occasionally I’d hear people yell out our names. Mostly they were encouraging Harrison.

By the time we reached Westcliffe’s Downtown area, which is all of about two blocks, we were illuminated by street lamps and Christmas lights. So many people offered beautiful comments about the animals and called out to Harrison.

For a few fleeting moments in this tiny parade an overwhelming and unexpected feeling of joy and sense of community overcame me. I couldn’t contain the big smile and my eyes welled up with emotion.

Co-creating authentic experiences is hard work, but somebody has to do it.


A matter of control

March 9, 2017


Sometimes we try very hard to control things and it only makes matters worse. This is particularly true when working with beings who have a streak of wildness running through them, like myself for example.

This has recently been drawn more tightly into focus with three wild souls I am working with — Zip, Jimi and my son Harrison.

Zip is an Australian Cattle Dog. These dogs are descendant from wild dingos from Down Under that were bred with English herding dogs to become what we know today as “heelers.” We typically keep Zip on a leash because he tends to run wild when off it. However, the more we keep him leashed, the more he wants to run free.

Then there’s Jimi, a burro foaled in captivity from a wild Bureau of Land Management jenny. He’s larger than most burros and spent a lot of his early existence in the open at a mustang sanctuary, and was initially “handied” in a round pen. Now he views any open range as an opportunity to bolt.

And then there is my son Harrison, The Blur. He’s my son, so the wildness is built-in. But since he’s neurodiverse — he has autism — we’ve had to keep a very close eye on him since he was very young. Since his behaviors can be quite random and range wildly, and it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen next in any given situation, we tend to hover over him, and also help him maybe too much with simple tasks.

With all three we’ve set up situations in which we’ve taught them what they can do by showing them what they can’t do. In our minds, it’s all about safety, but it’s also about control, which is really an illusion — we really don’t have as much control over things as we think we do, if any at all, and eventually the dog is going to get loose, you need the burro to be dependable out in the open, the Blur is going to be in social situations on his own, or need to complete his school work.

Here are some tips that I’ve learned from others and from my own experiences. They may be helpful in working with dogs, burros and people:

  • You need to have more time than they do. Get yourself in a hurry or a frantic rush and you are setting yourself up for disastrous results. Plan ahead and start early if you absolutely have to be somewhere on time (I’ve been known to start the night before). Or be prepared to be late — I often stop, take a deep breath, and drive Harrison in to school late if I feel his getting ready on his own is more important than being there on time. Is that time on the clock just another illusion
  • Make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing. For example, in the video above you can see Jimi trotting along a road with no fenceline on the right. The rope is clipped to the halter not the bridle and he’s traveling in a straight line. However, to get this to happen, he is pointed toward home, it’s on an uphill where he can’t easily get away, and there is a very steep sidehill on the right. It’s easier for him to just run home in a straight line at my pace than it is to turn and bolt up that hill.
  • Find some way to make them think the correct behavior was their own idea. It’s difficult to get Harrison to do his school work, but he is very much fascinated with clocks these days. The other night he came home with a writing assignment about clocks, a stroke of genius on behalf of the staff at school. He did this work without any encouragement — even his handwriting was neat.
  • Positive reinforcement goes a long way. I’ve been “rewiring” Zip to run off-leash. For this, I take him over on the trails on nearby Bear Basin Ranch which is a safe environment.When I let him off the leash, I keep him in “referencing distance by sometimes whistling. Occasionally, I stop and call him. When he returns I pat his head and scratch behind the ears and praise him. This way he gets the idea that coming when called does not mean he is automatically back on the leash. He’s still a long way from running off-leash out on the county road but this goes back to the long-term version of our first point about having more time than they do. I’ve also been experimenting with taking him along with one of the burros. Having a burro along appeals to his stock dog instinct and makes him want to stay close. 

In fact, yesterday when returning from the ranch I removed the lead rope from another donkey I’m training, Teddy, and used it as a leash for Zip. Then I let Teddy run free back here while Zip herded him along on the line. Advanced animal training — they both seemed to think it was their idea.

For more insights about the parallels between helping animals and autistic people achieve triumph in life, check out my book, Full Tilt Boogie.


A visit to see the GEMS burros

November 7, 2014


Finally made the trip (and it was a trip!) out to the Great Escapes Mustang Sanctuary (GEMS) where my friend Kim Zamudio is the trainer in chief and is working with wild horses and wild burros.

The sanctuary is out northeast of Kiowa.


Kim and some of the donks she’s trained at GEMS.

Kim is an official trainer with the Platero Project, launched by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in an effort to place more wild burros captured off Western rangelands into adoptive homes. She is able to take animals directly from the BLM, train them, then offer them for adoption.

There are as many as 1,300 wild donkeys that have been removed from public lands by the BLM and are being held in captivity.

Currently at GEMS 10 of these formerly feral burros are available for adoption. Kim has them trained to various degrees. Many of them are halter-trained and broke to carry pack saddles. These are about as nice a bunch of donkeys as I’ve seen.

People often ask me where they can get a burro. If you’re considering an animal for packing, pack-burro racing, a guard or companion donk, or a pet, I would encourage your to get in contact with GEMS. Not only are these burros gentled and trained, the adoption fee is extremely reasonable.

The sanctuary also has 29 mustangs, and serves as a center for education and awareness about burros and mustangs. Tours are available and donations are appreciated. Check out their website at

‘Haulin’ Ass’ out on DVD

March 5, 2012

Over my years in pack-burro racing I’ve had the occasional good fortune to win a race and be the person someone with a video camera wanted to interview.

Sometimes it was local TV media, sometimes national networks like the Outdoor Life Channel, and sometimes it was independent filmmakers. No matter how dead-tired or brain-dead I was, I always did my best to make time for the person behind the camera after the race. I did so because I knew sooner or later someone would capture the spirit of pack-burro racing in a video that would appeal to a mainstream audience.

It turns out that I was right. One of these interviews with independent New York filmmaker Trevor Velin eventually led to the production of “Haulin’ Ass,” which recently was released on DVD.

The film focuses on the lives of three pack-burro racers — myself, Roger Pedretti of LaCrosse, Wisconsin and Curtis Imrie of Buena Vista. While the movie may outwardly appear to be just about pack-burro racing, it’s really about much more than that as Trevor delves into our lives and the psychology behind our participation in this sport. This film will make you laugh and it will make you cry. It’s only an hour long but you’ll feel like you’ve physically and emotionally been to the top of Mosquito Pass with each of these characters.

Haulin’ Ass can be purchased online at

To celebrate the release of the film on DVD, I’m offering a special deal on my book “Wild Burro Tales — Thirty Years of Haulin’ Ass.” For a limited time if you buy the film and are interested in buying my book send $15 and I’ll pay the shipping on the book. Just email your information to and tell me that you ordered the movie “Haulin’ Ass” online.

A walk in the cold night air

January 5, 2012

I really don’t care for this time of year when it gets dark right in the middle of the afternoon.

Call it seasonal affective disorder, winter depression, hibernation or whatever you want. It seems all wrong when the sun goes behind the mountains before 5 p.m.

My ranchito is 35 acres, and it’s split between a flat pasture of about 15 acres, with another “back pasture” that borders an upscale subdivision where residents are mostly ranching “ag status” for their property taxes. The cattle tend to not be overly active grazers and so there’s quite a bit of forage left on the land.

The fence between my property and this subdivision is pretty much destroyed. The ancient cedar posts are rotted and the rusty barbed wire has been stretched and broken countless times by deer, elk and bear over the decades. Despite my attempts at repairs, the fence falls further into decay each year, and at this point it’s going to require considerable time and expense to fix it.

Because of the condition of this fence I’d declared this larger pasture a “wilderness area” in recent years and have not used it much for grazing. However, with hay availability low and prices soaring, I couldn’t ignore the grass, and began to experiment with letting my burros out to graze for short periods of the day. In the evening I’d whistle to call them back in with grain.

There were a few times I forgot to whistle until after dark. Generally I was lucky and the sound of hooves eventually gave way to their visages, trotting or galloping, their eyes bouncing in the flashlight beam. Once, I was already in bed when I remembered they were still out, and I had to get up, get dressed and go out looking for them. That time I found not only was my fenceline in disrepair, so was my adjacent neighbor’s. The burros had actually gone out my back fence, then crossed back onto that vacant 50-acre lot. When I arrived they took off running in the moonlight, back to the gate where I easily caught them and brought them home.

Then one night I whistled repeatedly to no response. I waited until late evening before dressing in goose down, getting out a flashlight, halter and lead rope, and heading out to search for them. It was 17 degrees, and a heavy frost had already coated the brush and grass. It sparkled in the Xenon ray as I wandered around, shining the light here and there, amazed at the dozens of eyes beaming back at me.

Unfortunately they were all eyes of deer and not burros.

Despite my disdain for early sunsets, I am somewhat a creature of the night, a trait shaped in part by years of toil as a nighttime newspaper editor. Somehow, walking around in the dark seemed a refreshing departure from the typical, with frost crystals glittering like diamonds and stars twinkling overhead. A pack of coyotes howled to a chilling crescendo in the not-so-distant distance. Deer bounded closely back and forth, confused by this strange whistling cyborg that had invaded their usually tranquil space. Their musky odor seemed suspended on the night air.

I found one burro, Redbo, on the neighboring property. I haltered and led him as I continued the search. I watched his ears for clues to his buddies’ whereabouts, but Spike, Laredo and Ace were not to be found, and it occurred to me at some point that perhaps I was out there searching for something other than burros. I finally brought Redbo home and went to bed. I had literally been out in the cold night for two hours and had found the experience way better than, say, satellite TV, Facebook and even some books I’ve read lately.

Next morning I drove the subdivision roads and spotted the other three burros carving out their own ag status about a mile as the raven flies from the back fence. However, I was not exactly free to move about the country. School was out for parent-teacher conference day, and for the parent of an autistic child, simple tasks like catching these burros can sometimes be a logistical challenge. This one, for example, involved a 30-mile U-turn to the daycare in Westcliffe.

Once back home, I left on foot through the back fence. The burros had climbed the steep, cactus-studded south-facing hillside, then taken a fairly rugged, snow-covered trail through the timber on the north side. I found them near the place I’d seen them earlier in the morning. When I approached they galloped away at high speed.

I jogged after them until they reached a crossfence and turned along it. I finally gained an angle on the critters, but there was a break in that fence and Spike and Laredo passed through. Luckily, I was able to get between them and Ace, and eventually got the paint burro stopped and haltered.

There was a subdivision road nearby and I had the idea of trying to drive the other two burros ahead of Ace, loose-herding them homeward. This worked. For a while. Then Spike and Laredo took a sharp righthand turn off the road and struck out cross-country at a lope. The clock, it seemed, was running, too.

Clearly outnumbered, outrun and outsmarted, I jogged Ace back home, then went back after Spike and Laredo. But they had disappeared again by the time I returned. I had now run out of time and needed to get to the parent-teacher conference.

The conference followed a previous meeting about Harrison’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that had brought the usual soul-searching about geography, jobs, real estate, special schools . . . money. Tuition at the Temple Grandin School, for example, is $20,000 — multiply that by 10 or 12 years. In the final analysis, we are pretty much where we are, for now.

At the conference we were thrilled to learn Harrison got three A’s on his report card. The D in math, his favorite subject, may seem mystifying to those who don’t understand how it’s often difficult to assess his understanding of anything through conventional assignments and tests.

When I got back from the second U-turn it was nearly dark, and by now there had been a couple friendly phone calls about the free-ranging burros. Mary could now hold down the fort while I went out to retrieve them. I easily found Spike and Laredo grazing alongside the subdivision road about a mile from home. I walked right up to Spike and haltered him. We jogged home in the early evening darkness with Laredo following all the way. I stopped at the front gate and looked at the new stars.

A slight hint of sunset was still hanging on the Western sky, and a fresh breeze was on the air. It was too early for sundown but at least I was outside. In about a month the days would be noticeably longer. The back fence could wait until I get to it.

Good News

April 17, 2011

Good news today that Santa Bill Lee, who was run over by his own truck last week, is now able to breathe on his own without a respirator. With continued improvement he may be out of the ICU in a week and a half. One nurse rated his crushed chest as one of the worst ever seen at St. Anthony’s.

Photo by Miles F. Porter IV

Bill’s accident has brought a flurry of attention. Check out the spot on Denver’s 9News, and also a column by my mentor in journalism, Miles F. Porter IV in the Summit Daily with quotes from yours truly.

While Bill’s condition improves, his ranch and animals need your help. Please send a donation — even $5 will be a great help — to: Carol Lee, Laughing Valley Ranch, P. O. Box 1810, Idaho Springs, CO 80452.

On another topic, my friend Phil Maffetone has released his new music video, “Barefoot in America,” along with an article about improving the health of your feet. Take your shoes off and give it a read.

Santa needs your help

April 9, 2011

Santa Claus (Bill Lee) and Frisco Mayor Bill Pelham. Photo by Miles F. Porter IV.

My friend and fellow pack-burro racer Bill Lee had a bad accident Friday and is in intensive care in Denver. Please send positive vibes and prayers for his recovery. Also, his wife Carol is in great need of help with their ranch animals — burros, reindeer, horses, llamas, goats, cows.

If you can help out with any funds for feed, please send a check to Carol Lee, Laughing Valley Ranch, P. O. Box 1810, Idaho Springs, CO 80452.

It’s important to make the check out to Carol as Bill cannot endorse a check at this time.

A gift of just $5 from each Hardscrabble Times reader would buy many bales of hay for the animals at Bill and Carol’s Laughing Valley Ranch.

If you can board an animal please contact me through comments.

Bill is the Denver Mall “Santa Claus” each holiday season and he’s also president of the Western Pack-Burro Association. Many also know Bill as “Redtail the Mountain Man.”

I bought Spike from Bill back in the mid-90s and won four World Championship Pack-Burro Races at Fairplay and several other races with this burro.

From what I understand, Bill was taking a horse to the vet. His truck started rolling. In trying to stop the truck he was caught under a wheel and his chest was crushed.

A quick trot and plenty of go

March 22, 2011

After a disappointing pack-burro racing season last summer, I knew if I wanted to stay with the sport I’d need to do something about my animal situation. Clearly, I’d reached the limits with Laredo, who’d been my main partner these past few years. Despite winning two World Championships Laredo has some physical limitations on the long, high-altitude courses at Fairplay and Leadville. I began to think in terms of bringing Spike out of retirement, knowing that he won four world Championships, and could probably still outrun the current winning times. This is still an option. Then Vicki Livingston suggested I give a burro out of her herd a try. This burro, whom I’m calling Cash shows a lot of promise with a quick, long trot, and plenty of go. I believe him to be a great grandson of the first burro I ever ran, Moose. Cash still needs a lot of training before I could consider him race-worthy, but check out this video I made during a recent training run with him.

Finally, a veterinary guide for donkey owners

November 21, 2010

“Donkeys — Miniature, Standard, Mammoth: A Veterinary Guide for Owners and Breeders” by Stephen R. Purdy, DVM, comprises a health-care overhaul package forequinis asinus.

This 160-page book, illustrated with full-color graphics and photographs, is a handy reference for donkey owners and also should be on the shelves of veterinarians who treat these animals. Some information, like drug doses and the use of radiography and ultrasounds, is clearly intended for veterinary use only.

In my 30-year association with donkeys, I’ve noticed most vets apply horse medicine practices when treating these animals. However, while donkeys are equines, Purdy documents some genetic, anatomical and medical differences owners and veterinarians should consider. He also notes that donkeys may metabolize some drugs at different rates than horses.

Purdy opens with terminology and an overview and history of donkeys in both the U.S. and the rest of the world. While noting that most donkeys in the United States are now pets, the author makes a point of the importance of donkeys to families and economies in Third World countries. Purdy states there are 90 million working donkeys (other estimates put the figure around 44 million) in non-industrialized countries.

An entire chapter is devoted to the nutritional requirements of donkeys, which through evolution have developed a more efficient metabolism than horses. For this reason, idle donkeys generally tend to become overweight or obese when fed too much high-quality forages and feeds. A nice addition to future editions of this book would be a section about how to properly feed hardworking donkeys for performance.

The author devotes considerable attention to herd health, parasites and diseases. One refreshing aspect is the recommendation that donkey owners use sound management practices, testing and selective deworming rather than wholesale treatment with anti-parasitics, which can lead to drug-resistant parasites. Purdy also details the digestive and musculoskeletal systems, and the differences in these between donkeys and horses.

Nearly one-third of the book is devoted to reproduction, artificial insemination, pregnancy and foaling. While this information is very important for breeders and veterinarians, many donkey owners will find this material useful only as general interest or background information.

One point of reproductive health that does affect a large number of donkey owners is castration. Intact male donkeys can be aggressive and unpredictable. Unless you intend to use your stud donkey in a breeding program, or have some other specific reason to keep him intact, it’s generally advisable to have him gelded. This book details the procedure.

Moreover, Purdy notes something important about castration that I have learned with experience along with my veterinarians — it’s best for the veterinarian to ligate the vascular cord with a suture rather than using an emasculator, as is standard when castrating a horse. Donkeys have larger scrotal blood vessels than a horse and are more prone to excessive bleeding following castration. This point cannot be overstated, as I have had two donkeys bleed excessively following castration, and one friend actually lost a donkey due to blood loss after castration.

This point about castration illustrates the value in this book as a donkey-specific resource for health and veterinary care. Dr. Purdy has given us something the donkey world has been lacking — a sound guide for owners and veterinarians in caring for these wonderful and in many cases, hardworking, animals.

‘Born to Run’ author likes ‘Wild Burro Tales’

August 11, 2010

A few years ago, Christopher McDougall came out to cover the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race for Men’s Health magazine. Since then, he’s become a New York Times best-selling author with his book “Born to Run.” When I was putting “Wild Burro Tales” together I contacted Christopher and asked him to read the galleys. He provided this kind quote, which is on the back cover of the book:

You need to read “Wild Burro Tales” to discover why Hal Walter is the poet laureate of pack burros, and why pack burros deserve their own poet. For the same reason we’re lucky that Jack London went to Alaska and Hemingway took a fancy to bullfights, we got a break when a writer of Walter’s talents decided to immerse himself in the weird and wonderful world of pro burro racing. Not only does Walter capture all the drama of “the longest, highest, roughest, toughest test of man and beast” where “a big animal gets in the way of a big ego,” he also pays as much respect to the scrappy old miners who created the sport as the blazing young newcomers who are redefining it. No one knows more about this unique partnership of complex animals and extraordinary athletes than Walter, and it’s hard to imagine a writer who could describe it better.

— Christopher McDougall

Author of New York Times Best-Seller “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”

How to get a copy of “Wild Burro Tales”:

• Available at The Book Mine in Leadville, The Hand Hotel in Fairplay, the Book Haven in Salida, Candy’s Coffee and Westcliffe Super Market in Westcliffe, and The Bookery in Pueblo.

• Order a signed copy directly from me.

• Order from

• Order from Creastespace: