Joël Lacey meets a bunch of award-winning donkeys and their latest guardian, Melanie Rush
Published in May ’11
It is a beautifully-sunny Sunday morning in early spring. At the western end of Weymouth beach, a small chain hangs loosely between two eighteen-inch-high posts across the entrance to a small enclosure. At the chain’s lowest point, its links are barely above the golden sand, yet it is sufficient to stop the eight donkeys inside from leaving. In the thirty seconds since being unloaded from the lorry that brings them to the beach, three donkeys have managed to untie themselves, so one can only assume that it is less the chain that keeps the donkeys inside, than that they are happy to all be in there together.
Although it is nearly an hour until the rides start, a group of excited children and their parents have already started petting the donkeys, giggling when one of them, Sooty, starts sticking her tongue out, and laughing uproariously when one of the donkeys decides to relieve itself.
Donkeys have been a part of Weymouth’s beach life for over a hundred years. For practically the whole of the 20th century, successive members of the Downton family ran the rides, until John Downton retired in 2000. After a five-year hiatus, Maggie Aldridge restarted the rides in May 2005 and continued until March this year, when she announced her retirement and revealed that her donkeys would, henceforth, be looked after by Melanie Rush who, for four years, had been operating a trampoline concession on the beach.
This is not Melanie’s first experience of donkeys, though. As a small child, she rode donkeys both on the beach and on the seafront; there was a donkey and cart ride at the time, which she kept bullying her mother into paying for, and then complained bitterly each time because she was not allowed to take the reins.
Melanie rode horses competitively when she was younger and has a clear, life-long commitment to the well being of donkeys and horses; she has had both in her life from the age of three. The feeling seems mutual, as she prepares her donkeys and talks me through the different personalities of each animal and the characteristics of the whole group:
‘Daisy is the youngest of the group, a bit of a brat and longs for human company. She would,’ Melanie reveals, ‘like to get into your lap if she could. Fortunately she doesn’t, but will put her head in your lap for a bit of pampering.’
Dainty, the newest member of the group, is a bit shy, the fastest walker, and feels a bit left out if there aren’t enough children to need all of the donkeys at once. Sparky, no believer in nominative determinism, is shy and retiring, Jasmine and Stumpy (who is relatively small), like to work together, PeeJay is a mixed breed and is the biggest of the group and finally there is BeeJay, the origin of whose name is shrouded in mystery – although Melanie hastens to add it was Maggie who named her – is the bossiest in the group. The eight jennies (female donkeys) do share one vital characteristic, though, as Melanie explains: ‘Donkeys are very gentle and tolerant, which is why I think they are good for people who have never ridden before. They also seem to sense when they are among children.’
This tolerance seems to come easier to the donkeys than to humans, as evidenced by a boy, at the end of the line of tethered animals, deliberately kicking sand in their faces. His parents eventually have a quiet word as other parents bristle with outrage, but the donkeys remain unperturbed. This disinclination to react is confused with stubbornness and stupidity, but Melanie is quick to disabuse anyone of this notion: ‘Donkeys are reflective and intelligent; if they don’t want to do something for the first time, it is because they are thinking the idea through.’
This is not to say that they can always tell the difference between fingers and carrots when proffered at mouth level nor, as shown by Melanie’s shouts of ‘Don’t touch her bum!’, does it mean that there is nothing that will annoy them.
However, as the first riders of the day are seated, with emotions on their faces ranging from abject terror to hysterical delight, it is clear to see how calm and reliable the donkeys are; this is not simply because they do not react to the heightened emotions of the children they are bearing, but also as they are utterly unmoved by the incredible boom of a field gun being fired – twice – about four hundred yards away.
It is instructive to see how the children’s demeanours change as the ride progresses; one boy who virtually had to be stapled into the saddle is now beaming with joy, his first experience close to an animal of this size having filled him with the desire to do it again. Meanwhile, a little girl who had practically dragged her parents by main strength to the donkey enclosure, is now so calm as to appear almost serene – a transformation that is somehow more powerful than that of the little boy.
The donkeys have one leader per two donkeys, with Melanie’s daughter and son, Bethany and Toby, helping out as well as Jess and Alyce, who came to Melanie from Maggie with the donkeys, as it were. The donkeys appear to enjoy the work and the camaraderie and, as Melanie says, ‘donkeys really don’t like being bored’. There are limits, though; in addition to a seven stone limit for the rider, no donkey works for more than four hours at a stretch. In spring, the donkeys work from noon until 4.00, in summer, from 11.00 to 1.30, have a one-hour break and then resume at 2.30, working up until 6.00, if it is a really lovely and busy day. Melanie’s day is rather longer. Living near Sherborne, she first has to drive to Preston, where the donkeys currently stay, muck them out and let them out, get them ready for the beach and then onto the lorry in time to arrive at the beach at 11.00 in spring, and a bit earlier in summer. After a full day at the beach, the process of taking the donkeys home, seeing they are settled in and have food and water, has to be completed before she can head for home.
As far as treats at the beach are concerned, some of the girls prefer carrots, others apples, but donkey-lore has it that: ‘if a donkey ever refuses a ginger biscuit, it is time to call the vet’. It is not just their interest, weight-bearing and food that is key to the donkeys’ happiness, though. Another element of the team that Melanie has continued from Maggie’s tenure is their association with farrier, Colin Deeney. This is not surprising, either for the fact that a donkey’s feet are key to it being able to lead a pain-free life and to work, but also because Colin’s work has allowed the donkeys to pick up awards for having the best-tended feet: one of many rosettes pinned to the hut at the donkey enclosure on the beach.
So is there any element of the job that Melanie doesn’t enjoy? ‘The paperwork can be a challenge: there are CRB checks, licences for the beach and the business, insurance certificates, record keeping and donkey passports to contend with.’ Passports? It is hard to imagine these busy little beasts of burden working, or indeed holidaying, anywhere but Weymouth.