My Life: From the A-Circuit to Donkey Rescue

Valerie Lowe, a former A-circuit hunter/jumper rider and trainer, shares the tale of how she became the founder of a miniature donkey rescue.
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Valerie Lowe and Sampson, who was born to one of the jennys rescued in November. | Courtesy, Valerie Lowe

Valerie Lowe and Sampson, who was born to one of the jennys rescued in November. | Courtesy, Valerie Lowe

How did I go from being an A-circuit hunter/jumper trainer, showing, riding, teaching, running my own business and traveling the country, to becoming the co-founder and director of a miniature donkey rescue?

Well, the answer is pretty simple. After 20 years of hard work, many nice horses and more horse shows than I can remember, I finally burned out both physically and psychologically. So, in 2010 I retired completely from making a living with horses.

In the following years, I became a realtor and got married. We bought a 15-acre horse farm in Westminster, Maryland, where I retired my favorite show hunter and a previous client’s horses. We decided to find companions for them, and my wife, Cheryl, found two miniature donkeys, Nestor and Sassafrass, for sale on Craigslist. On our visit with them, we learned that their owner had purchased them from a weekly horse auction in New Jersey. She told us about several of the auctions in the area and the animals that were sent to them.

We began to educate ourselves about horse rescue in general. Having spent my adult working life in the privileged world of the hunter/jumper industry, I am embarrassed to say that I had no idea the fate that awaits so many horses and donkeys in this country. Our research led us to the local auctions where horses are sold to dealers and buyers who have contracts with the slaughter plants in Canada and Mexico. Thousands of horses and donkeys are sold every week at auctions all over the country and a few thousand of those are shipped for slaughter. As a lifelong horseman, I was absolutely sickened by this.

Though we wished that we had the facility and financial resources to start a horse rescue, we realized that would be too much for us to take on. But Nestor and Sassafrass changed our lives. We learned about donkeys in general and discovered that there were very few rescues in the country dedicated to donkeys. While there are many donkeys being bred every year, there are simply not enough jobs or homes for them. Donkeys are, by far, the most neglected equine. 

Through our research, we discovered that there is an epidemic of overbreeding from irresponsible backyard breeders and dealers in this part of the country. We learned that breeders sell their donkeys to dealers or just bring them to the auctions. Usually, these include the ungelded jacks, the jennys who are too old to have more babies and those who are sick or lame. Many have been neglected—they are starving or have feet that obviously haven’t been trimmed in years. Most donkeys we get through the auctions have upper-respiratory infections. 

There also are many people with donkeys as pets who simply cannot care for them anymore. Sometimes it’s due to age, illness or financial issues. 

Once a donkey arrives at our rescue, Little Longears Miniature Donkey Rescue, which we established in 2014, we begin the healing process. They are put in quarantine for a month, and we take care of veterinary, farriery and dental needs. Many who arrive are scared of people and have had little handling. We work with them until they are safe and have basic ground manners and no longer exhibit fear toward people. Then they are ready for adoption. Donkeys are relatively easy keepers and make great companions for horses, can be taught to pull carts, jump in hand and even compete in a variety of obstacle courses.

This rescue is a labor of love. What started out as a small operation, handling three to five donkeys at a time, has morphed into a full-time, nonpaying job caring for about 15–20 rescue donkeys at a time. We are a registered 501(c)3 charity and are completely funded by donations and fundraising efforts. 

I wouldn’t trade my years as a hunter/jumper trainer for anything. Those years gave me the experience and education necessary to run this rescue and care for these donkeys. I’ve been to the most elite horse shows in the country and cared for very expensive horses. Now I’m scouring some of the country’s worst auction houses, looking for donkeys to save, and I’ve never been happier.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.