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John Lubbock


Taking the Mickey

Taking the Mickey    



When someone was recently describing a problem that they had observed with two donkeys, they informed me that a friend had succinctly described the behaviour of the donkeys, as ‘they were taking the mickey’ and they felt this described their behaviour quite well.


The donkeys in question have a dubious history of behavioural problems, not aggressive or difficult but niggling problems with bringing their behaviour into line with what is expected of a domesticated donkey.  The problem now appears to be that the donkeys are required to walk up a steep hill in their paddock to get back to their stables; it can currently take the owners over an hour to get them up the hill and into the stable.  Clearly, this is a very unacceptable situation for the owners who have their own business to run and spending an hour a day catching donkeys and trying to drag them up a hill is less than a pleasurable experience in any relationship.


This caused me to ponder, what exactly do we mean when we say ‘they are taking the mickey’?  It seems to me it is some derogatory statement about the deliberate nature of the donkey’s behaviour conflicting with what the owner requires.  More than that, it seems to imply a direct wilfulness on the donkey’s part to win or to make the owner suffer or perhaps just deliberately to not do what they should do.  I suspect for each person the definition of ‘taking the mickey’ would clearly be different but generally it would seem that the most important elements of the donkey’s behaviour in this statement are that they are not doing what they are asked to do when they are asked to do it and in the time scale that is suitable for the owner.


The first question I ask myself as an equine trainer is, why should they?  It seems to me that we humans are under the delusion that all domesticated animals should do what they are asked to do when they are asked to do it, by any human being.  The clear intention of superiority in the human condition demands that we should believe that other animals should submit to our will regardless of our abilities, motivations, situations, environment and their own free will.


Perhaps I am thinking too deeply and it is just a statement of our confusion and a loss of understanding as to why a behaviour occurs.  I choose to believe that deep down each of us knows that our general labelling of the animal as ‘taking the mickey’ is really the nature of humans passing the buck. The complex thought processes of humans and donkeys, environment, situation and experience, makes it extremely difficult to understand the motivations in the donkey’s behaviour.  Sometimes we may never know, why a behaviour occurs. So, in order to deflect this lack of knowledge it is easier to blame the animal, to put the responsibility for the behaviour entirely upon them.


If we ask ourselves for a moment about the true nature of equines we soon discover that horses, donkeys and mules can kick harder than us, run faster than us, bite harder and generally are stronger, they don’t have to do anything that we puny humans wish them to do.  However, they are generally compliant and fulfil our wishes.  The true nature of equines is to definitely adapt and to do what is required of them, but there are instances and circumstances when it does not benefit the donkey to unquestioningly perform what the human handlers might require.  Perhaps these two donkeys who were required to walk up a steep hill to get back to their paddocks are merely communicating to their owners that donkeys prefer to walk in a zig zag up a steep hill rather than straight up it as two legs tend to do.  Perhaps the rewards or benefits of the walk to the stable are not sufficient to motivate or encourage the donkeys willing participation in this human activity, or perhaps pain is involved and walking up steep hills is uncomfortable or difficult.


We often believe that donkeys, horses and mules should do exactly as we tell them, when we tell them and the ‘taking the mickey’ scenario really relates to the fact that we think that they should not question our leadership and human superiority.  I am of the opinion that donkeys have every right to question our leadership skills and our ability to deal with the situations in which we find ourselves.  Their natural instincts are to challenge the leadership of the herd to ensure that the leader is the best animal for the job, and without questioning their survival could be put at risk.


So perhaps what we mean by this particular phrase is that these donkeys dare to question our human superiority, quite clearly, in my experience the donkeys have every right to question our leadership as often we are not good leaders of people, let alone another species.  If we are nervous, unsure, inconsistent, impatient, lacking in direction or confidence in our own abilities this is easily picked up by the animal through our body language and our reactions to their behaviour. 


Similar to a man standing in the middle of a burning building, mumbling ill-conceived, ill-advised , unconfident direction orders to people who are trying to escape, the donkey owner who displays similar traits is unlikely to be listened to by the donkey.  However, if the man in the burning building is confident, has an air of authority and direction and is clearly giving good advice his directions are likely to be followed by the majority of people.  It is the same for donkeys, good training skills, coupled with an ability to empathise, confidence and understanding the donkey will lead to a donkey’s willingness to perform all manner of tasks.


The next time you hear an animal being described as ‘taking the mickey’, change the focus of your attention from the animal to the human.  You will often see someone who is frustrated, upset, perhaps at a loss as what to do and clearly someone who doesn’t understand the motivations and mental capacities of an equine.  If they really could take the mickey then they would do nothing that we required them to do so their lives would be entirely their own and we would never have domesticated equines.

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