Everyone loves a parade



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


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.


Have story, will travel

Next stop this Wednesday at Greenhorn Valley Library in Colorado City

I’m not the most natural public speaker, but one of the things I’ve enjoyed since publishing Full Tilt Boogie — A journey into autism, fatherhood, and an epic test of man and beast is getting out and talking to folks about the book, and about the autism epidemic, living with autism and parenting, burros and pack-burro racing. Believe it or not, there is a parallel.FTBcover200

I keep these things fairly low-key and informal, and seem to settle into a comfort zone by the time we get to the question-and-answer period, which I think is the most interesting part of my discussion. Frankly, I’m more concerned about what people want to know than what I have to say.

Recently I had the pleasure to talk to a fairly large audience at the Scottish Rites Foundation Dinner in Pueblo. What was really cool about this was having the chance to thank members of the organization for the assistance they provide children who might not otherwise receive important speech therapy services from The Children’s Hospital. My son Harrison received two of these speech scholarships at a time when it was critical in his development, and also when we could not have afforded those services.

More upcoming talks include:

  • Greenhorn Valley Library at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 8.
  • Pueblo West Library at 7 p.m. Monday April 13.
  • Westcliffe Library Book Club, 11 a.m. Wednesday, May 27.

If you’d like to host one of my talks contact me at jackassontherun@gmail.com. I’m good for groups of five to 100 in book shops, libraries, art galleries, luncheons, or wherever anyone wants to hear my story. Will do my best to promote it as well.

‘Full Tilt Boogie’ available as ebook

FTBcover2 copy

My new book, Full Tilt Boogie — A journey into autism, fatherhood, and an epic test of man and beast is now available as an ebook directly from me. This ebook is a PDF that can be read on most tablets or your computer.

Full Tilt Boogie is a story of endurance and perseverance in the face of adversity, and is filled with parallels and metaphors for life. The book is organized as a series of vignettes that weave together to tell the story of how I set out at the age of 53 with a jenny donkey named Full Tilt Boogie to win a seventh World Championship in one of the planet’s most obscure and difficult endurance sports, while also struggling with the challenges of raising my autistic son Harrison, financial hardships, and aging.

To get a copy simply email your email address to me at jackassontherun@gmail.com. The book is “pay what you want” — there is a button on the copyright page and on the back cover directing you to an online payment form that takes Paypal or credit cards.

The ebook is also being published by Vook, and will soon be available on all major epublishing channels — Amazon, iTunes, Barnes and Nobel and others.

Print copies of Full Tilt Boogie will be available from me in the near future, and several signing events are in the works. Stay tuned for details.

This is an exciting time to be a writer, with so many ways to get your work out there, and also to get paid for it. I thank my readers for being a part of this journey.

“Inspiring, thoughtful, humorous, pensive, honest…a must-read for parents, athletes, ranchers, farmers, animal lovers. Without question, four hooves up!” Nancy H., Colorado Springs

“In two evenings I’ve experienced more than every human emotion; loved this book , what a great job you’ve done. God bless you all.” — Chuck L., Westcliffe

Wedding ride













My friends Kevin and Emily were married in a Western-style ceremony on Bear Basin Ranch Saturday, so a few of us decided to ride on over to the event, which was about 2 miles by trail from my house. Pictured here are my neighbor Patti on her mare Mia and myself on my jack Ace as we left for the wedding. It was the first time I’ve ever ridden to a wedding, and also the first time I’ve actually dressed up to ride anywhere. The animals were a real hit with many of the wedding-goers.

Quite a few people visit this site looking for information about saddle donkeys and many are looking for animals for sale. In particular, my essay “Riding out the saddle donkey phenomonen” is one of the top-visited items on Hardscrabble Times. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have regarding these critters, their training, where to buy one or equipment, pack-burro racing or my book “Pack-Burro Stories.” My e-mail is jackassontherun@gmail.com.

And congratulations to Kevin and Emily.




Only your farrier knows for sure

I’m often asked if burros need shoes. The answer of course, is that it depends on so many things, including the animal’s foot health, training mileage and I think even the weather.hoofshoe

I had my farrier Caleb Oldendorf out today to look at feet on my burros. The first foot he picked up he set back down with a snicker. He was laughing because my burros show more wear on their feet than most of his clients’ horses.

There are many good arguments for keeping equines barefoot. Steel shoes may increase impact shock, decrease the natural action of the foot and frog, and nail holes weaken the hoof walls. For more on this see http://www.barefoothorse.com/.

The debate is not unlike the one currently going on over human running shoes.

I view shoes for my burros as a necessary evil. Since I’m training for a long-distance race (the World Championship Pack-Burro Race is 29 miles and the Leadville race is 22 miles) up and back down a rocky mountain pass, I tend to put some hard miles on these animals in training, and then expect a lot from them in the race.

There’s an old saying: No foot, no horse. It applies to burros as well.

I’ve run burros barefoot in several races, and have even won races with barefoot burros. But the results have been mixed. The compromise I’ve come to, and my farrier agrees, is to put shoes on the front feet only. Equines carry 60-65 percent of their weight on their front quarters, and also tend to get footsore on the front feet more often than the backs.

And so for now, that’s what Caleb did — just fronts. It’s cheaper that way too. You can shoe two burros for the price of one!

‘Wild Burro Tales’ in the works

519kg6y4jtl_sl160_aa115_Back in 1998 I put together a collection of 11 stories I had written about my pack-burro racing adventures and published it as a 106-page book that I called “Pack-Burro Stories.” It wasn’t exactly Ken Kesey’s “Last Go Round,” which was a fictional account of the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up rodeo based on real-life characters and events, but my little book did serve to introduce a number of people to pack-burro racing, some of the characters involved, and burros in general.

Over the years I’ve been surprised at the continued interest in “Pack-Burro Stories.” From time to time people still contact me looking for a copy. As the number of these books dwindle to about 50, I’m putting together a new collection of burro essays that will be published under the title “Wild Burro Tales” in the spirit of the old Ben Green books. What I’m planning to do is keep the original 11 essays from “Pack-Burro Stories” and add several more that I’ve collected over the last nine years. I’m also arranging some new artwork to help make the book more interesting.

When the book is out, hopefully in the next couple months, you’ll be the first to know. In the meantime, check out “Last Go Round,” and any of the Ben Green books such as “Horse Tradin’,” “The Village Horse Doctor,” “Wild Cow Tales,” and “A Thousand Miles of Mustangin’.” All these books are great reading for those who love animals and the West.

And if you want one of the last few copies of “Pack-Burro Stories” get in touch with me at jackassontherun@gmail.com.

Striking a chord

I’ve been truly stunned by the number of visits to Hardscrabble Times since writing this past week of my impending layoff from The Pueblo Chieftain. Apparently this has struck a chord with folks as 2.6 million people, a fair number of them journalists, lost their jobs in the past year.

I probably have the world record for quitting the Chieftain, having left on my own at least four times. So it’s somewhat ironic that I would also be the first person laid off. But the decision was based on seniority and I didn’t have any because it starts over when you quit and come back.

I intend to finish my final two weeks with the dignity of hard work and set an example for others who will surely follow me out the door. But I also want to have a little fun with it too.

Burros on the Web

A number of people also have come to the site looking for more information on burros and burro training, as well as equipment. Look for more information on this subject in the near future as well as a longer essay on the saddle donkey phenomenon that recently appeared in Colorado Central magazine. In the meantime, here are a couple of great burro links that everyone should check out:

The art of packing firewood on burros

A whimsical riff on the bookmobile

Saddling donkeys for riding

Redbo in a Steve Edwards Trail Rider Light saddle. Note the breast collar goes with the saddle but the britchin' is not Steve's design.
Redbo in a Steve Edwards saddle.

A favorite old rancher once told me: “It’s better to get where you’re going on a slow horse than to go to the hospital on a fast horse.” Frankly, I won’t ride anything with ears that short.

When I first started riding my donkeys it was purely bareback. Back then I didn’t really ride often enough to make buying a saddle worthwhile. Over time, however, I became more interested in my donks as riding animals.

Thus began my great saddle search. First was an old McClellan infantry saddle that I found in the corner of a local saddle shop and had jury-rigged to make it easier and quicker to saddle my animals. In many ways, this was one of the best choices I made. It was light and fit the donkeys well, but it was hard as a rock and not very comfortable for me.

I went through a series of other saddles, all of which I bought, rode for a while, and then sold when I found them to be less than ideal. These included an Australian saddle, a treeless saddle, and a synthetic Western horse saddle.

My most recent saddle has been a Steve Edwards Trail Rider Lite, and this saddle has by far been the best. Steve designed this saddle around mule bars that he also developed. I like the way it fits my animals and also the way it fits me. It’s light at just 18 pounds. The breast collar rigging is unique and does not fall down around the donkey’s chest. I’m sure Steve’s Britchin’ is nice too but I’m still saving my pennies to completely outfit my rig.