About the Author: Julia Everheart is a native of Hatteras Island, North Carolina now living near the mountains of north Georgia. She is a hiker and an equestrian, and she combines her two passions by hiking with a donkey named Rusty. She loves encouraging people to get outside, especially people who don’t consider themselves “outdoorsy,” and she is an advocate for a simple life lived close to animals and nature. She blogs about horses and hiking at www.simplesouthern.wordpress.com.
You probably had a girl like me in your elementary school. She would have doodled horses all over her Lisa Frank notebook pages, worn a different unicorn sweatshirt every day, and stood in line at the pony ride over and over again at the Fall Festival. She was horse crazy, and so was I. I never got over the horse crazy phase. As soon as I grew up, got a real job and made my own money, the first thing I bought was a horse. That was a gateway drug. Pretty soon I had a second one, and a trailer to take them to shows. Then I started fostering horses for a local rescue, and that’s where this story begins.
When the rescue asked if I could foster a mini horse, I was down for it. Easy, right? I didn’t have to ride it so it couldn’t buck me off- always a plus. This particular mini horse was named Stanley. He was a pinto, and he looked like a tiny version of the kind of horse you see Native Americans riding in those paintings of the Old West. Stanley was a tiny terror. He bit constantly, but he was so short he could only reach my knees. The first few weeks he was at the barn, we all walked around with shredded knee caps. He was also very amorous and mounted everyone- me, my children, the big horses. If you have never experienced being tackled by a 400 lb linebacker with hooves and teeth, I’m happy for you. I wasn’t so lucky.
I put Stanley through what I call Pony Boot Camp and before long he had quit mounting everyone and he wasn’t biting anymore. But then I didn’t know what to do with him. I couldn’t ride him and he had a lot of extra energy, so he clearly needed a job. I started hiking with him on the equestrian trails where everyone else rode their horses. I soon found out that Stanley was a fantastic hiking partner and he loved being on the trail. He was braver than my big horses. Nothing spooked him, even the normal things that put horses on edge, like dogs and mountain bikes.
I also discovered that I really, really liked hiking. I liked it as much as I liked riding, and that was saying something. I had never liked anything as much as I liked riding. While I enjoyed an occasional car camping trip, I didn’t consider myself “outdoorsy.” I was as surprised as anyone to find that I got the same soul-quenching, restorative effect from being in the woods that I got from being with my horses.
Stanley went on to find a wonderful home, and I lost my hiking buddy, but still I continued hitting the trail. I wanted to start backpacking as well, and I wanted to go longer distances into more remote places.
Then I had one of those moments where it feels like a lightbulb goes off in your head and you wonder why it took you so long to think of such a wonderful idea. I decided to teach a mini horse to carry a pack and use him as a pack animal on a backpacking trip. Pack animals are really common out west, and I had run into them on the trail when I vacationed in Colorado. In Colorado people mostly use llamas and donkeys. I couldn’t recall ever seeing a pack animal of any kind on any of my hikes in Georgia. I decided this was a problem that needed to be remedied. I would show the world what mini horses can do on the trail, and hopefully more mini horses would find homes. It was a win-win.
I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies, the only section of the AT that allows pack animals or livestock of any kind. I bought maps, researched, and planned out the route. Our longest day would be 13 miles. Never mind that I was a total newbie at backpacking and my idea of a long hike was 3 miles.
I fostered another mini horse to take on this grand adventure. Oreo was a black and white, fat little thing that, until he met me, had lived in the same pasture with some goats for his entire life. Like Stanley, he also ate up the trail. We worked up to a 5k, then a 10k. I signed up for virtual races online and took pictures of Oreo wearing the medals once we finished the distances. He got in shape quickly and soon he was trotting all 6 miles while I struggled to keep up. I trained him to wear a pack and pretty soon he was carrying water for both of us, my jacket, and both of our snacks. He enjoyed carrots and those oat granola bars with an obscene amount of crumbs.
I started learning everything I could about backpacking gear and I started tracking how many miles I hiked each month. I went from 12 miles in January to 65 in July. I bought all the gear, went on practice trips to test how waterproof my tent was (not waterproof at all), bought better gear, and started feeling legitimately outdoorsy. I wasn’t just a horse girl anymore; I was a hiker.
Oreo found a home before I could take him to the Smokies. I was a bit disappointed that my dream of hiking with an equine had fizzled out, and I really missed having a little buddy with me on the trail. When my 10 year old daughter, Elle, started asking me for a mini donkey, I agreed. She wanted a pet, but I wanted a pack animal. Thus began the search for a donkey.
Oreo on the trail.
I scoured the Facebook livestock pages, checked Craigslist, and asked around at the rescues. I finally found a donkey in Alabama listed on Craigslist for $75. I emailed and told them I was looking for a pet for my daughter. They said this little donkey would make a great pet. Perfect! We hooked up the trailer and drove an hour and a half to a little farm in rural Alabama.
When the people said that this donkey would make a great pet for a little girl, I assumed that meant he was tame. That was an incorrect assumption. One should never assume anything when dealing with Craigslist. This particular donkey had never been handled AT ALL. He had never seen a halter until I showed up with one. But my little girl had already made up her mind that this was the donkey for her, and there was no convincing her otherwise. She reminded me that I had already successfully trained two unruly equines, and I may as well make it three. After some very impressive horsemanship on my part (if I do say so myself), we drove home to Georgia with a wild donkey in the trailer.
We named our donkey Rusty and he turned out to be quite friendly and naturally curious about people. We had him halter trained in just a couple days and we started taking him on walks. I have big goals for this little donkey. He’s going to learn how to hike with me, how to camp overnight, and how to carry a pack. Like my other two tiny equines, he is exceptionally brave and curious. When I brought Rusty back to Georgia that day, he got a home and a job, and I got an adventure buddy.
Rusty the Donkey
I still want to complete the hike that I planned in the Smokies, and I also want to explore the Pinhoti Trail in Georgia. The Pinhoti is not well marked in some places and the information available online is sketchy and outdated. In the age of Google Earth and instant digital everything, the fact that there are still wild places that require a bit of an adventurous spirit is very exciting to me.
If you follow along with our journey, you’ll get to see what is involved in training an animal to be a trusted companion on the trail and in the backcountry. In my next post, I’ll explain why pack animals are a game changer for people who otherwise might not be able to access remote places in the outdoors. In the meantime, Rusty and I hope to see you on the trail!