Burro racing is all about the animals, competitors say
June 19, 2018
FRISCO, Colo. — On the heels of Saturday's second annual Pack Burro race in Creede, Colorado, Brad and Amber Wann of the Western Pack Burro Association set up shop inside the Frisco Historic Park's log chapel on Wednesday. Inside, dozens of locals and tourists packed the pews and eagerly listened to the state's history of burro racing.
The Wanns and their two burros, Dominick and Darby, also stuck around after the hour-long presentation to chat about what factors steer successful burro racing duos.
There are integral variables such as human-burro matchmaking, rope-handling and verbal and body-language communication. However, Brad Wann believes, at the core of a successful running pair, is a human racer's ability to defer to the personality of the burro.
"We've actually had people who are great runners and are not great for the sport, not great for the critters," Wann said outside the log chapel on Wednesday afternoon. "They just didn't have the right temperament. They are like, 'Well I wanted to run and this donkey didn't want to run.' Well, there you go — your ego. This is not a human race."
In recent years, the sport has increasingly attracted high-level racers from other sports as well as international media attention. As part of their presentation in Frisco on Wednesday, the Wanns showed a video produced by the sports equipment company Salomon. In it, Salomon had elite trail runners Max King and Ryan Sandes enter last year's 29-mile world championship race in Fairplay.
Of 16 racing duos, Sandes and a provided burro named Scratch finished the race in sixth place while King and a provided burro named Earl finished the race in 16th. In speaking to the Frisco crowd, Amber Wann relayed that the trail runners were told to run together, as Earl and Scratch run best when in close proximity to each other. That didn't happen and contributed to King and Earl's poor finish.
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"That's what this sport is about," Brad Wann said. "It's not about you. It's about them. Can you navigate them through everything you need to without having almost any caution for yourself?"
Unlike most other competitive sports, burro racing is a tango between two different mammalian species. And unlike thoroughbred horse racing, human racers do not mount their burros. Rather, humans run in front of, behind or alongside their burros, often looking small in stature in comparison to their donkey counterparts.
Brad Wann is a good example of this dynamic. A Clydesdale of a man himself, Wann is an imposing 260-pound burro racer. But this will be the first season in which he runs with the same animal at each event.
Cheeto, a 900-pound, 5-year-old burro, will help Wann to scale and descend thousands of feet at such iconic races as that 29-mile 70th annual World Championship Pack Burro Race in Fairplay on July 29.
"He's a pretty good-sized donkey," Wann said, in the understatement of the 2018 Pack Burro Racing season.
Though Brad Wann is a veteran burro racer with a lifelong connection to horses — his father was an equine chiropractor in Texas — he admits he still needs to check his ego and selfish assumptions each day with Cheeto. Cheeto is a burro who wants his space. Wann maintains a "hula hoop-sized circle," as he put it, around Cheeto during all times of the race. Wann focuses on having no fast movements toward Cheeto's body and careful applications and releases of pressure on the rope.
"So if I'm running in back, I go as far back as I can and give him all the space in the world," Wann said. "You'll see me running, and there will be 5 to 6 feet between me and my donkey. But that's where he wants me."
Cheeto is effectively Brad Wann's leader. And Wann said Cheeto's specific personality stems from the following: Each burro has an inate sense of self-preservation when traversing treacherous mountain terrain such as the highlight of the Fairplay world championship: Mosquito Pass.
The Wanns also highlighted the importance of knowing how to use the course together with your burro. It's similar to a cyclist knowing they can rest soon with a downhill approaching.
"Say I've got a 600-foot climb in front of me," Brad Wann said, "I already know it's 600 feet, so I'm going to knock out half of that all on me. And then that last half it's going to be all on him. I'm going to hang on. We are already preparing for that before we even hit the peak. And so our job is to get them to the top with the least amount of stress possible and keeping them happy. Because if he's not happy, I've had donkeys at the top of a hill, even with all the skill I have, not go the extra 20 feet."
That exact situation happened to Wann at last year's inaugural Creede race, when his burro Banjo Boog refused to budge at a mountaintop. Reflecting back, it's just another reminder to the Wanns of how trust and proper matchmaking between human and burro is at the core of what separates good and bad racers in their — and High Country Colorado's — beloved native sport.
"One slight mistake can cost one unhappy person and an unhappy donkey," he said.