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‘They recognize us’: A herd of miniature donkeys is bringing NH comfort and joy

A closeup of a dark brown miniature donkey, in an outdoor courtyard.
Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR
Nutmeg, a miniature donkey, during a visit to Pine Rock Manor in Warner earlier this month.
Sara Plourde
/
NHPR

On a bright June morning on a farm in Newport, Katherine Ryan is giving directions to a miniature donkey named Pepper.

Pepper is 17 years old, and about three feet tall. She’s got floppy bangs and a glossy dark brown coat, newly shorn for summer. Ryan’s trying to lead her around a series of obstacles set up in the driveway.

“Walk on!” she says.

But Pepper has other ideas. She’s distracted – looking around at a trailer parked nearby, or maybe the field of thick green grass just a few feet away. It’s like ice cream to a donkey, Ryan says.

Pepper isn’t your standard farm animal. This farm is the home of Road to Independence, a nonprofit that works with people with disabilities. Participants learn to groom donkeys, put on their halters and lead them around as a way of developing skills that transfer to other areas of life.

Ryan, who lives in Lebanon, is here with a group from Visions for Creative Housing Solutions, an organization providing residential services for adults. They come to the farm most weeks.

Tune in this summer for more stories about animals in New Hampshire in NHPR's series, Furry. Scaly. Slimy. Winged.

Katherine Ryan (center) and Pepper, a miniature donkey, during a visit to Road to Independence this month
Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR news
Katherine Ryan (center) and Pepper, a miniature donkey, during a visit to Road to Independence this month

Ryan’s known Pepper for three years now, and senses she needs to be eased into things today. Holding the donkey’s lead rope, Ryan guides her to the end of the driveway, then takes her through the obstacles on the way back.

It’s important to listen when donkeys give you that kind of feedback, Ryan says. When Pepper hesitated at the obstacles, Ryan understood it was her way of saying, “I’m not ready for this.”

But Ryan says you also have to be direct.

“If you’re not entirely focused, they know that,” she says. “And they will give you a hard time.”

Katherine Ryan (center) leads Pepper, a miniature donkey, during a visit to Road to Independence earlier this month.
Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR news
Katherine Ryan (center) leads Pepper, a miniature donkey, during a visit to Road to Independence earlier this month.

After the pair finishes the obstacle course, Ryan talks softly to Pepper in the driveway. Pepper rubs her ear against Ryan’s wheelchair, like a housecat. Ryan, who’s an animal person, says the best part of coming here is just hanging out with the donkeys.

“They recognize us. They know when we’re here,” she says. “It’s nice to be recognized.”

These sessions at Road to Independence are chances for participants to bond with the donkeys. But looking after the animals can also help people improve things like balance, motor skills and communication, said Margaret Coulter, the executive director at Road to Independence.

And donkeys are well-suited to that work. They don’t get spooked and bolt like horses, Coulter said. They’re calm, sensible animals.

“We do have some folks who are not confident walkers,” she said. “And so if they sense that someone is unsteady, they’ll stop on their own, wait for them to rebalance, and then walk forward.”

Cameo, a miniature donkey, during a visit to
Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR news
Cameo, a miniature donkey, during a visit to Pine Rock Manor in Warner in June

Where the tale begins

Nearly two decades ago, Coulter met a woman named Penny de Peyer, who had a herd of 17 donkeys on her farm in Goshen.

Coulter and her family began tagging along for regional donkey and mule shows, where handlers show off their animals and compete on qualities like presentation, obedience, jumping and navigating obstacles.

Coulter says her brother Richard, who has a disability, felt welcomed by the other donkey enthusiasts – and took pride in competing at shows.

“He could compete on an equal basis,” she said.

A job coach working with her brother suggested others might benefit from spending time with donkeys, too. So Coulter, de Peyer and a group of other volunteers partnered with a local agency for people with developmental disabilities and started bringing a few people out to the farm.

“And then we realized we probably needed insurance!” Coulter said with a laugh. So the nonprofit was born.

Miniature donkeys Pimpernel (right) and Pepper on their way to visit the residents of Pine Rock Manor in Warner in June.
Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR news
Miniature donkeys Pimpernel (right) and Pepper on their way to visit the residents of Pine Rock Manor in Warner in June.

After de Peyer’s death in 2021, the herd moved to Coulter’s farm in Newport.

Today, they have four miniature donkeys – Pepper, Pimpernel, Cameo and Pepper’s mother Nutmeg – along with one standard donkey, Piñata, and a pony mule named Leonard.

“Pepper is overall the star of our show,” Coulter said. “She's the most willing to do most things.”

A donkey’s many assignments

Coulter’s herd doesn’t just work with people on the farm. They also go on the road. They walk in local parades, and they’re regulars at the Newport Farmer’s Market.

They were such a hit, they started getting invited to senior living facilities from Concord to the Upper Valley. A couple times, they’ve ridden elevators upstairs to visit residents in their rooms. Coulter says it’s especially meaningful for people who grew up on farms. The donkeys bring up fond memories.

The herd also visits schools and libraries for “reading to the donkeys” programs, which aim to encourage reluctant readers.

On a recent afternoon, a couple dozen residents were soaking up the sun in a courtyard at Pine Rock Manor, an assisted living facility in Warner. Coulter and three other volunteers led the miniature donkeys from table to table.

The residents, surprised and delighted, gave them plenty of affection and head scratches. One asked if he could feed them cookies. Another told Coulter about her daughter’s horses.

“You can tell her that a donkey came to visit you today,” Coulter said. “See if she believes you!”

“She’ll be jealous!” the woman responded.

Alyssa Tarleton directs community relations for Pine Rock Manor. They do regular pet therapy with the residents, but she said she’s always looking for something new. This was the donkeys’ first visit, but they’re already booked to return next month.

“With dementia, you get to a point where you break down and you don’t have the communication skills,” she said. “But they can feel everything – and they can feel the sincerity of the people with the animals, and the calm that the animals bring.”

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.