Affection from a four-legged animal has the power to soothe nerves and heighten spirits. When Dennis Vonderfecht comes home to his prize-winning Mediterranean Miniature Donkeys, the stressful hours spent as the president and CEO of Mountain States Health Alliance seem far away. On the Appalachian Farmstead, handshakes come in the form of nudges from warm noses and instead of coffee breaks, salty rod pretzels are distributed among the 29 small donkeys and two mammoth donkeys.
“No matter how bad of a day you have, you can have that all disappear when you come home and get down on your knees and rub those cute little faces,” Vonderfecht said of his herd, each with a name unique to its home state. “The foals that we have now are a lot of fun, but the big donkeys are too. They all like attention, they’re just like dogs really.”
There are three foals, or baby donkeys, on the farm right now, with another one set to arrive in December. The little ones do resemble dogs in both size and amount of fur, plus they’re pretty curious and aren’t a bit afraid to nudge a knee or nibble at an ankle for some attention. The foals and the adult donkeys, up to 36 inches in height, follow their fearless leader wherever he walks along their 4.5 acre farm in Jonesborough.
Vonderfecht’s been raising miniature donkeys for the past eight years and has been showing them professionally for about seven years. Earlier this month, he loaded his horse trailer with clean-cut donkeys and headed for the Great Celebration Mule and Donkey Show in Shelbyville. Out of nine entries, Vonderfecht and his donkeys took home five top prizes and several minor ones.
“This is the best year we’ve ever had there,” he said. “Every year, like anything else you learn more, about what you need to do to have your donkeys look their best when they go into the show arena.”
That includes a lot of preparation, like making sure the donkeys are completely clipped 10 days before the show and loading up all the supplies to bathe them and blacken their hooves before the big moment.
“They are very independent minded,” he said. “Sometimes they want to cooperate in the show arena, sometimes not. We happened to have a good day of cooperation.”
Donkeys at the Appalachian Farmstead travel to three or four shows each summer and are primarily shown in halter classes where judges score them based on how they measure up against the breed standard for miniature donkeys. Each donkey has the chance to place in the individual divisions split up by age and gender, or he or she can be awarded one of the highest honors— a reserve or national championship prize.
Vonderfecht came home with two national and three reserve championship awards from five of his most gorgeous donkeys. In the spotted donkey category, Tin Roof Sunday won National Champion Jack, or male. Antonia was named National Champion Jennette, or female, while Willa Cather took the reserve spotted title.
In the miniature donkey category, Red Dynamo received the Reserve Champion Gelding honor and Rusty Weir placed as a Reserve Champion Jack.
To reward the donkeys for a job well done, or maybe just because they’re so cute, Vonderfecht passes out rod pretzels for the animals to devour. They know when it’s time for a treat as they crowd around him, eagerly awaiting a salty snack. He describes them as intelligent and comforting, and as a person who spends a lot of time making decisions, Vonderfecht really admires the way they handle situations.
“Donkeys have a reputation of being stubborn, but they really aren’t stubborn animals at all,” he said. “They are very much self-preservation animals and if they ever get into a situation they’re not familiar with, their reaction is to stop, assess it and once they’re sure its safe, they’ll go forward and do whatever. All you have to do is have a lot of patience and give them time to assess the situation.”
His willingness to devote the majority of his free time to visit his buddies William Blunt, Rocky Top, Johnny Cash, Moon Pie and Andrew Jackson comes from something internal, found deep in his Nebraska roots.
“People who have horses or equine in their blood, you either have it or you don’t and in my case I’ve always had it and I’ve always liked those four-legged animals,” he said. “In this case, the donkeys have met that need.”