Ryan Hall, in some ways, is a “typical” teen eventer — the 15-year-old has goals of competing in the North American Junior & Young Rider Championships, Rolex, the Olympics, college in Kentucky and training in Europe. She competes in Area V, having moved up to Training level this year, and is as an active member of Pony Club.
But unlike most young, aspiring eventers, Ryan’s training resume includes a special project that under her tutelage has rapidly progressed from having never worn a halter to jumping 2’6″ verticals, banks and logs: KitKat the donkey. And while this unorthodox pair may never experience the thrill of cantering out of a start box together, their journey is proof that the spirit of eventing comes in all shapes and sizes.
Girl Meets Donkey
Ryan didn’t exactly set out to train a donkey to jump, at least not at first. She had received the ultimate Christmas present of a new horse in 2012; unfortunately, that horse proved to be too green to help her progress in her riding. He did, however, show a lot of raw natural talent in jumping out of his pasture on multiple occasions at the Halls’ cozy two-stall barn at home.
A brief parade of pony companions for the gelding proved to bond too quickly with him, making everyone’s lives difficult when the horse needed to leave the property for lessons and training. And then a friend suggested that the Halls get a donkey for a companion instead.
Enter KitKat, an unhandled young donkey jenny, purchased from a woman downsizing her herd of 30. KitKat was separated and loaded from the herd via a series of corral panels and a whole lot of rodeo; when she arrived at home, the Halls had to back the trailer into the paddock and release her right into the field.
It took Ryan and a friend from Pony Club a few weeks just to be able to slip a halter on KitKat. But that didn’t stop Ryan — she got the donkey accustomed to being touched, groomed and handled, spending all of her free time after school out in the paddock with KitKat.
As Ryan’s mother Tina jokes, “Ryan has the personality of a donkey: She’s extremely headstrong, can be frustrating to deal with and there’s NO talking her into doing anything she doesn’t want to do.”
Initially, KitKat served as a fun escape for Ryan after constantly being in “training mode” with her green gelding — she could blow off some steam playing with the donkey. As Ryan dealt with some rough periods with junior high bullies, KitKat was there as a refuge and companion. “(Ryan’s) loyal and loving underneath it all,” Tina said. “Perhaps that’s why she and KitKat get along so well — they ‘get’ each other!”
Ryan can’t argue with her mom’s assessment. “KitKat is me in donkey form, and I’m KitKat in human form,” she says. “She’s opinionated, yet if you ask her in the right way, she will do pretty much anything.”
Not Your Average ‘Eventer’
One thing led to another. As Ryan and KitKat developed a bond and she developed as a teen event rider, Ryan started riding KitKat on little trail rides around the property and teaching her to jump in-hand. The jumps got higher, KitKat’s ground handling improved, and the donkey handled every question Ryan sent her way, from verticals to oxers to ditches and logs and banks. KitKat can side pass as well as walk, trot and canter.
“Overall there aren’t any holes I’ve found in KitKat’s training,” Ryan says. “She did lots of groundwork before I ever sat on her, and she’s extremely solid.”
Ryan tells the story of one time she was walking the donkey under saddle. “KitKat took off towards this skinny and just wanted to go jump, then she jumped the ditch after. It’s hard for me to believe I got this donkey ‘wild’ a little over two years ago and everything she knows I taught her.”
Donkeys, of course, are notorious for doing only exactly what they want to do. When asked about the differences between training a donkey and a horse, Ryan says, “Everything. They don’t just move off the leg, they take a lot more convincing, they are very spunky, they can jump from a standstill, they have a very ‘fast’ trot and her canter is very long. At least right now there’s not much collecting of her, but I hope in the future there will be.”
Ryan’s legs are a bit longer these days, and with KitKat being the size of a medium pony, she recently found the donkey a new rider. “Her name is Caidyn. She’s 4 years old, and she’s an amazing rider,” Ryan says. “She’s the only person that can get KitKat to do a course by herself without me running in front. They just really fit with each other, and she loves her.”
Ryan’s other passion is photography. Her Instagram account @EventingMyDonkey is full of training photos from along her journey, as well as photoshoots she sets up with KitKat — and, with over 28,000 followers, you might say it’s pretty popular.
“To this day I don’t know how this came to be,” she says. “Whenever I first got KitKat, I didn’t set out to have this jumping donkey, which most people don’t understand. One day I just had this bright idea — let’s see if KitKat can jump — and after about 45 minutes of attempting to get over to where the jump was, I learned not only could she jump but she was scopey. The more and more I post about KitKat, the more people tag their friends.”
As Ryan mentions, no one else is doing what she does, so she’s learning everything as she goes.
“The hard thing about training a donkey is you can’t go Google how to get a donkey to move off the leg; no one writes about it,” Ryan says. “Therefore I basically have to make up and figure out everything myself (including cues).”
As for the-little-donkey-that-could’s future, Ryan says, “KitKat is going to continue working with kids at the walk, trot, and learning to canter, and one day I hope for her to be good enough to be a lesson donkey. I also think it would be really cool to do a demo at Rolex.”
Meanwhile, Ryan will continue pursuing her own eventing career with her new horse Napolean, a Welsh Cob/Thoroughbred cross. “I bought him hoping for a NAJYRC horse,” she says.
KitKat, you’re a four-star event donkey in our book. Go Eventing.