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October 28, 2013

Don’t Let Go Of The Rope!

While it's a well-known fact that horses keep you humble, Erica Payne learned that the same applies to donkeys. Photo by Lisa Slade.

"Don’t let go of the rope!" This command flashed in my head like an alarm clock as I tumbled into the mud. I rolled, gripping that rope. The donkey’s momentum pulled me back onto my feet, and we were off again, chasing the rest of the field. Not my idea of a good start.

Donkey racing: Yes, it’s a real thing. It’s a combination trail race and pack burro trek, with roots in the Colorado mining industry. I learned about the sport in early June; it sounded fun and exotic. Two weeks and a few phone calls later, I was registered in something called the World Championship Pack Burro Race in Fairplay, Colo. The rules were simple: Human/donkey teams race for 15 miles on a high-altitude trail. The donkey must carry 33 pounds of traditional mining gear. The human must keep up or be left behind.

I met my borrowed burro the morning of the race. Thumper was a shaggy dun jenny with soft, rabbity ears. In hindsight, her size made me underestimate her. I had experience with horses, but I was totally unprepared to deal with a mastiff-sized donkey.

Pre-race, we “first-timers” gathered for a brief orientation. A grizzled race veteran instructed us on the finer points of donkey wrangling. The highlights: lean back to slow down, twirl the lead rope and cluck to go faster, and—this was important—never let go of the rope. This sport had, let’s just say, a rather cavalier approach to safety.

Thus equipped, we approached the start line. A festive atmosphere prevailed. People cheered us from the sidewalk, from saloon balconies, from the hoods of pickup trucks. About 60 teams were registered for the race. That didn’t sound like a lot, but on this tiny street in this miniscule town in this forgotten corner of Colorado, it sure felt crowded. Dogs barked; donkeys brayed. I gripped Thumper’s lead. The starter fired his gun.

Imagine being dragged by a small car. That’s kind of what it feels like to be tethered to a half-wild animal who’s just not that into you.

The crowded mass of people and donkeys surged forward. Thumper took off like a rocket. The herd was running, so she was running. I had no choice but to follow or lose her. As we hurtled down Main Street at approximately the speed of sound, two thoughts raced through my mind. One was, “Don’t fall over!” The other was, “Don’t let go of the rope!”

In the midst of this chaos, I leaned back and struggled to pull myself toward Thumper’s head, hand over hand on the lead rope. The crowd whooped. I was simultaneously sprinting, being dragged, and pulling backwards with all my strength, which was just enough to keep me upright. I reached for the halter. Just then, Thumper really kicked it into high gear. And then my legs just could not move as fast as hers anymore. I fell and rolled, still clinging to the rope. The donkey kept moving. Her momentum pulled me up, and just as fast as I’d gone down, I was up and sprinting again. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of digging in my heels and cursing, I managed to slow us to a walk.

We hadn’t even gone 200 yards.

The rest of the group rapidly disappeared over the first hill. Thumper, uninspired by the loss of her herd, was disinclined to run any farther. She contented herself with walking—leisurely and with great disdain—behind me for the next 15 miles.

Five hours later, Thumper and I re-emerged on Main Street, tied for last place with an Australian woman and her (similarly uncooperative) mule. It probably would have been a mildly exciting finish if either of us had managed anything faster than a sluggish walk. Two feet from the finish line, Thumper stopped, planted her feet and brayed.

On the plus side, we did win an award for the slowest time.

I once had a trainer tell me, “Horses will always keep you humble.” I (humbly) submit that the same rule applies to donkeys.

Erica Payne is a freelance writer and editor living in Denver. She grew up riding (and writing) in Massachusetts and moved to Colorado for the mountains, trail riding and law school. She loves dressage, hunter/jumper and endurance riding, and is seriously considering a career as a professional donkey racer. Follow her adventures, both in and out of the saddle, at about.me/ewritesShe's one of the winners of the Chronicle's first writing competition. She wrote on the subject of Most Embarrassing Moment. 

 
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