How do you resolve a midlife crisis? Margaret Winslow, an overworked college professor in New York City, answered a for-sale ad for a “Large White Saddle Donkey.” Hilarity ensued, along with life-threatening injuries and spirit-enriching insight.
In her book, Smart Ass: How a Donkey Challenged Me to Accept His True Nature & Rediscover My Own, Winslow shares her adventures with Caleb the donkey through training traumas, expert-baffling antics, and humiliating races.
In time Winslow came to an understanding of Caleb’s true, undeniable gifts: a willingness to be true to himself no matter the circumstances, to trust, and to forgive. As she and Caleb learn to thrive, readers learn the importance of being true to your own pure and powerful self.
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
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I could be astride a rhino or giraffe for all the baffled stares I receive as I ride my donkey down the busy road in the suburbs of Rockland County, New York. Commuters wrench around in their seats and slam on their brakes; teenagers honk and holler.
Few in the lower Hudson valley have ever seen a donkey, outside of Shrek’s sidekick and miniatures at the local petting zoo. And Caleb is no ordinary specimen. Pure white, he stands over a foot taller than the average donkey; even his ears are exceptionally long for his species. His shaggy coat completes the picture. According to small children we meet at horse shows and religious pageants, he looks like a giant Easter Bunny.
The question I invariably get from young and old alike is “What kind of horse is that?” Followed by a confused expression when I reply, “He’s not a horse; he’s a donkey.”
The further question — “Why would you ever get one of those?” — is loud and clear, if often unspoken.
As a geologist and a professor at an urban university, I found myself at a crossroads at the start of the new millennium. After thirty years of fieldwork in South America, Alaska, and the Caribbean, numerous back injuries had taken their toll. A heavy teaching schedule and administrative duties had all but doomed any opportunities to pursue new challenges in faraway places. With my oceanographer husband away at sea for months at a time and the prospect of starting a family no longer an option, I was looking for the perfect animal companion to help navigate the next phase of my life. Most people would choose a cat or dog. I chose a donkey.
I encountered donkeys for the first time in the Dominican Republic. One day during the winter of 2001, as my geology students and I collected rock samples from a riverbed, a long string of donkeys zigzagged down the steep canyon wall to join us. Each donkey carried one or two small children nestled among empty water cans. The donkeys wore no bridles or reins, so they must have known the route by heart. The kids laughed and shouted to each other as if they were perched on dusty carousel ponies, secure on their sure-footed, slow-moving mounts.
Just upstream from where we were working, the children filled the water cans while their faithful companions waited in the deep shade, snuffling greetings and nuzzling their long-eared comrades. Here I witnessed another side to their hardworking lives. Like the children, the untethered donkeys played their own versions of tag and hide-and-seek, chasing each other around trees and in and out of the river. I was enchanted, especially by their forbearance and playfulness in the face of an indifferent, even harsh, environment. At the same time, watching them made me smile. I thought that these homely cousins of horses resembled ponies — that is, ponies drawn by an enthusiastic child with a strong streak of whimsy: with the ears of a rabbit, the tail of a witch’s broomstick, the stand-up mane of a punk rocker.
At that moment, a long-forgotten childhood memory sprang to mind. Every Christmas, starting at age five, I had pestered my parents to buy me the “Genuine Mexican Burro” that was advertised in the Sears catalog. The brown-and-white drawing featured a small shaggy pony-size animal with rabbit ears. The first time I turned to the page and saw the burro’s huge dark eyes gazing shyly toward the viewer, I was mesmerized. I felt an intense yearning that was impossible to describe. For several years I begged my parents to get me this donkey until, finally, under the tree one Christmas morning, I found a large gray stuffed donkey. “Francis” stood watch over my dreams for years to come.
But that only partly explains why I became the owner — or should I say unwitting wrangler and straight man — of a seven-hundred-pound donkey.
When I returned home from the field in the spring of 2001, I found several donkey-and-mule organizations and affectionate, playful, smart, undervalued — struck a chord in me.
With rose-colored glasses firmly in place, I convinced myself that the side of me that had always felt underestimated as a woman in a largely male profession — the outwardly docile but tenacious striver — would resonate with a The Brayer, for a “large white saddle donkey.”
I had no idea that a young, untrained donkey named Caleb would upend so many of my assumptions about life. Or that he would challenge me to accept his true nature — and help me rediscover my own.
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Margaret Winslow is the author of Smart Ass and a field geologist with more than thirty years’ experience in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. She is also the author of two travel memoirs, and lives in Piermont, New York. Caleb boards nearby with fifty horses and ponies. Find out more about her work at margaretwinslow.com.
Excerpted from the book Smart Ass. Copyright © 2018 by Margaret Winslow.