Megan Hensley, aka, The Donkey Farrier, strives to serve donkeys in a positive and educated light. She is equal parts farrier, educator, and welfare advocate. There’s a beautiful intention to Megan that aims to improve lives, both human and donkey, through education, inspiration, empowerment and resources. Her business, Holistic Hooves takes a wellness approach that you won’t find with many hoof care providers.
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Can you tell us a little about your background with equines and how you got started trimming donkeys and mules specifically?
I was the typical horse crazy girl and by the age 12, I had convinced my mother to allow me to take horseback riding lessons. I would spend the next three years working for my trainer as her poop scooper extraordinaire, but I soon leveled up to saddle and tack cleaner, and finally, became the groom and exercise rider for all of her polo horses. I traveled to gigs and was her right hand man. I did this until I was 16.
In 2004, I was on a backcountry trail crew where I lived in the wilderness for six months in remote camps. I was restoring and maintaining wilderness trails and performing dry stone masonry. I fell in love with the mules and the packers who brought in our supplies once a week. Because I had horse experience, I was often asked to help unload and cool them off, groom them, and check their feet. I really enjoyed getting that special responsibility.
When my tour with the trail crew came to an end, I was feeling pretty confident that I wanted to become a packer myself and work for the U.S. National Forest Service. I returned to the real world and applied for a job that next season, but unfortunately, was turned down–the reason being, that I needed to have some horse shoeing experience. They asked that I seek out an apprenticeship and get about a year’s worth of experience and then reapply the next season.
I very quickly found an apprenticeship with a local farrier here in Humboldt County, California. So in 2006, I began a full-time apprenticeship Monday through Friday. My mentor happened to love donkeys, which is not very common in the farrier industry. He told me that donkeys needed us to care about them. He would say things like, “Oh, it’s no big deal, they’re just a donkey you can’t get mad at them. Just give them a kiss and come back and things will be better next time.” He was referring to the fact that donkeys are not always the easiest to handle or work with, but he genuinely cared about them, and I discovered that I did, too.
A year went by quickly, and by 2007, I was enrolled in Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School for 8 weeks, and I planned to reapply for the forest service job that spring. However, I found out while I was in horseshoeing school that my mentor had found his true love and was leaving the area. He was offering me his business.
Although there was a part of me that desperately wanted to go back to the wilderness, in that moment I decided to choose an established business, and I took it over. ‘Hensley’s Farrier Service’ was born. (I still have an old business page up on Facebook, and it’s crazy to look back at those times. I have a lot of donkey photos on that page as well.) All the donkey clients came on board with me, and I would quickly become known in my area as the farrier who loved to work with donkeys (and mules).
It wouldn’t be until 2011, however, that I would discover natural hoof care and completely reinvent my business, into what it is now: Holistic Hooves.
What are some of the main differences people should understand about horse vs. donkey feet?
So this is a fun question because there are some distinct differences, yet they are still the same in the sense that it is an equine hoof. First off, the donkey hoof is more compact, with steeper angles, the frog sits further back behind the heel buttress, and the hoof is very flexible yet incredibly strong.
A donkey’s hoof wall is uniformly thick from the toe to heel buttress, whereas a horse hoof wall is thicker at the toe. The other cool thing about the donkey’s hoof wall is that it has the same amount of horn tubules as a horse hoof, and this causes the donkey’s hoof wall to be more dense. The sole is also thicker and more concave. The frog takes up nearly half the hoof and is strong and wide. This is perfect for the aggressive terrain of rock and sand of the desert where the donkey is from, and also for digging holes to access water.
However in domesticated situations, we find when their feet are not maintained, the hoof wall is so thick and dense that it doesn’t break off very easily. That’s why when you see donkeys with slippered, overgrown hooves, they are often folded over to the medial or lateral side and the hoof wall will be growing horizontally.
Another difference is the bone to soft tissue ratio. The donkey has a larger amount of soft tissue taking up the inside of the hoof’s capsule. The digital cushion and lateral cartilages take up a large amount of space internally. The coffin bone is smaller and more concave with the apex of the frog originating farther back and the lateral cartalages wrapping around further in front of the coffin bone.
Finally, donkey hooves are excellent at absorbing moisture, and this is problematic when they are removed from their natural habitat. They are very susceptible to thrush and white line disease. It’s so important to create dry loafing areas with various rock and sand, remove areas of standing water, and do everything you can to mitigate mud and excess moisture. They must have places to get up out of the mud and standing water.
How is trimming donkeys and mules different than trimming horses?
One of the differences is making sure to trim the sole when needed. Due to the thickness of the sole that is designed to withstand the impact and wear overaggressive rock and sand of the desert, when we keep donkeys and mules in soft environments in domestication, the sole will quickly overgrow.
It’s important to not leave the heels of a donkey too high as the frog can overgrow and become very tall. There is generally a ‘line of exfoliation’ that you can see on the frog. Trimming down to that and removing any bits that look to be funky or experiencing thrush is a good idea.
I have found that once I address the frog, it’s easy to see where my heels need to be. I like to keep the heels slightly above the frog so that they are forward of the heel bulbs. But low enough that the frog is making contact with the ground when the hoof is loaded. A long toe or long heel are common issues I see with donkey hooves.
Are donkeys and mules prone to any unique hoof problems (that horses don’t experience)?
I wouldn’t say that they experience anything unique that horses don’t experience. However I see far more cases of white line disease and abscesses. As mentioned above, they absorb moisture and hooves can become waterlogged. Then add the fact that many donkeys are in a state of chronic low-grade laminitis; they are extremely sensitive to sugars and carb overload. Most donkeys I meet are slightly fat and many are downright obese. This is a major health issue for them, and it really stems from the lack of education being available to donkey owners. Donkeys have very specific dietary needs, being desert animals.
Since donkeys and mules can develop laminitis, just like horses, are there any tips that apply specifically to them to prevent this problem?
Yes, this really ties into the above question because I feel that donkeys and maybe even mules experience laminitis at a higher rate than horses do. Like I said, I believe many donkeys are in a state of chronic low-grade laminitis. They are also very good at hiding pain, so it could be easy for an owner to miss some of the signs. Being very strict when crafting your donkey’s diet and being very aware of how susceptible they are to sugars and carb overload can really help an owner keep their donkey as healthy as possible.
I go into donkey’s dietary needs more in depth in my online courses but here is a very basic donkey diet overview:
Limited pasture, preferably no green grasses. Dry lots are a good option, but I prefer Donkey Track Systems, which are based off the Paddock Paradise concept.
Barley & Wheat Straw (yes the stuff that is sold as bedding) is an excellent forage that mimics the low calorie, high fiber course grasses & shrubs of the desert.
Barley and Wheat straw can and should be offered free choice 24/7. (No grain tops, must be straw– not 3 way grain hay)
I find the biggest challenge with this is it’s hard to find a source for barley or wheat straw, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there about straw being safe for equines to eat. It should be noted that the Donkey Welfare Symposium and the Donkey Sanctuary, both who are leaders in donkey education and care, recommend feeding straw to donkeys.
Next up, you want to do your best to find low sugar grass hays. To know if it’s low sugar for sure, it would need to be tested. Either way, always purchase grass hays, no grain hays, and no alfalfa. (A few alfalfa pellets as treats is okay, it just cannot be fed as a forage.) Grain hay is high in carbs and sugar, and alfalfa hay is too high in protein for donkeys.
A suitable grass hay can be offered in small amounts as a supplement to the straw, but if you have a donkey that is incredibly obese, you may want to eliminate the grass hay and only feed straw.
Now that you have the main forages sorted, we can dive into vitamin mineral supplements, omegas, and salt. It’s simple really.
Using grass hay pellets as a carrier, you can choose ONE of these mixes below:
Ca Trace Plus
AZ Copper Complete
Then for omegas you can add something like Horseshine or other flax/omega that does not have added sugar or carbs.
Finally, feed plain white loose salt and no red blocks of any kind. And that is a great foundation for your donkey.
Anytime you can exercise them with hiking, walks, or driving, that is great to do.
I know you’ve recently become a team member for Cavallo hoof boots. Can you tell us how and when hoof boots benefit donkeys and mules?
Yes I did! I am now their resident donkey and mule expert. I’ll tell you, I am so excited to be part of the Cavallo team. What an incredible group of people! I’ve been using hoof boots since I made the switch from traditional hoof care to natural Hoof care in 2011.
Hoof boots are really great because they’re a very simple alternative to steel shoes. Your equine stays barefoot in the pasture/paddock and then when you want to go riding on harder surfaces you just pop a boot on like you would your own tennis shoe.
For donkeys and mules, they are great for trail riding, hiking, and driving. They also serve as a therapeutic option when we’re dealing with abscesses, laminitis, or white line disease. Basically anytime the donkey is experiencing some lameness or discomfort, we can generally provide them some very quick relief with a hoof boot and a thoughtful pad option.