Wild No More: How An Ex-Offender Tamed My Donkey and Taught Me About Humanity

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I met Thomas four years ago when he was in South Carolina visiting his ailing mother and sister. He had come to town to spend several weeks with them, but knew that sitting bedside all day every day would be impossible. To relieve some stress and fill the hours, he needed to find something else. 

Thomas answered an ad for farm help that I had placed in the local paper. A year prior, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of owning a farm and bought a twenty seven acre horse farm just outside of Columbia, SC for our three horses and rescued donkey, Gatsby. We arranged a time for Thomas to come see the farm and talk about the job. 

When he arrived that morning, I was in the barn mucking stalls. Gatsby brayed, letting me know there was a stranger afoot, and I turned to see an imposing man—more than 6 feet tall—with long black braided hair and a red bandanna tied around his forehead. We introduced ourselves, and I told him I need some fences repaired. When I asked him about his experience, he filled me in on his background. 

Thomas was a graduate of the Saddle Horse Training Program at Stewart Conservation Camp in Carson City, NV, a minimum security facility next to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center. He explained that he had gotten into trouble as a young man, mostly alcohol abuse related, and ended up in prison. He seemed to have a knack for taming the wild mustangs and became a prominent figure in the program. He talked about the partnership between horse and man and how the process of “gentling” the horse was life changing for both. 

He was happy to fix fences, but as I listened to his story it occurred to me that perhaps he could help with the cantankerous Gatsby. The donkey was unaccustomed to being handled. He had previously lived outdoors with a couple of horse pasture mates, and when his owner was no longer able to care for him they gave him to a large animal rescue. 

One day my daughter and I decided to visit the rescue with no intention of adopting a donkey, but “Buster” as he was called back then was irresistible. We changed his name to Gatsby once he came to our farm, and I quickly learned that I knew little about donkeys—other than he had to have his feet trimmed and be vaccinated. However, Gatsby  would have none of that. He ran in the opposite direction when I approached him. I figured if Thomas could train a wild mustang, he could certainly manage an adorable but recalcitrant donkey. 

Thomas was not as sure as I was, but he agreed to try. While horses and donkeys are both equids, they have different temperaments. Over the next few weeks, he spent time with Gatsby. At first it was just about being in the same paddock, but he increased proximity until Gatsby could tolerate that closeness. After many hours, Thomas put a halter on him, then a lead rope. Eventually, they were fast friends and I enjoyed looking out the window of the house to see Thomas and Gatsby strolling around the property. When Thomas taught me how to put a halter on my donkey, Gats and I both took great pleasure in our walks around the farm. 

Photo courtesy of Andrea London

Thomas’ work with Gatsby was a revelation to me. While he was teaching the donkey to trust, partner and to accept authority, he taught me what patience, kindness and humility look like. He epitomized redemption. He is a remarkable man. Thanks to Thomas, when someone asks me how Gatsby is doing, I proudly reply “Great!. After all, he is now The Great Gatsby. 

Thomas went back home to South Dakota, where he continues to work with wild horses. His story is inspiring. If you have the opportunity, check out the movie “The Mustang” you’ll see Thomas in it, playing himself. Watching it, you’ll see what I mean about humanity and patience. 

Andrea London is a retired psychotherapist and avid equestrian.  She resides in Florida and New York City with her husband and two standard poodles.