Chris McDougall with Sherman. (Matt Roth)

Chris McDougall with Sherman. (Matt Roth)

A neglected donkey gets a new purpose in life: running

Sherman was rescued by writer Chris McDougall of “Born to Run” fame and his family.

Chris McDougall, author of the best-seller “Born to Run,” recently published “Running with Sherman.” It’s the story of how his family, who live in rural Pennsylvania, adopted a donkey named Sherman who had been badly neglected. Over time, Sherman regained confidence in humans and eventually in what he took on as his task in life — running.

Here, McDougall, 57, discusses that transformation. He’s scheduled to speak Thursday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

What possessed you to take in a donkey?

We live in a very rural area with open land around us. My daughter, Sophie, who is 9, said she wanted a donkey for her birthday. She saw a woman riding a donkey in the woods on a trail. The rest of us forgot about it. About a year later, Sophie said she wanted a donkey for her birthday. Just on a whim I asked around to my neighbors, “Anybody have a donkey?” They said, “We do know someone. We need to get him out of his hands.” He had been neglected by a hoarder.

Did you meet Sherman that day?

The very next day. The farmer who told me about him took me and my daughters over to take a look at Sherman. We were led to a decrepit, crumbing old barn. We saw a few goats and sheep standing on a bale of straw. The ground was too mucky. Off to the side was a small stall. We saw this gray shape leaning against a wall and in miserable condition. He could barely move. His hooves had been allowed to grow so long he couldn’t walk anymore.

How old was Sherman at the time?

After we brought him home, we had an equine dentist come in to deal with his rotten teeth. She decided he was about 8 years old.

Were any of you put off by how serious his condition was when you brought him home?

You know, not really, because the second you see this animal, you just feel pity. My wife is a real loving, kind person. My daughters and I … our first impression was this is not the cute creature we thought. Almost immediately, we thought “We’ve got to help him.”

Chris McDougall and his rescue donkey Sherman who overcame his reluctance and eventually learned to love to run. (Matt Roth)

Chris McDougall and his rescue donkey Sherman who overcame his reluctance and eventually learned to love to run. (Matt Roth)

You had other animals prior to Sherman. Were they happy to meet him?

We moved out to the country from Philadelphia and had taken in a couple of sheep and goats as a hobby farm. They really were happy to meet Sherman. A goat named Lawrence, he’s sweet but mischievous. Lawrence came running up to lie down right next to Sherman’s feet, and stayed with him. They became best buds instantly.

Did you get advice on how to deal with Sherman?

The woman we saw in the woods riding the donkey, her name is Tanya McKean. She only lived a couple of miles away. She just took over. Tanya’s husband is a farrier; he cuts hooves. He cut back the hooves enough so Sherman could start to walk again. Tanya cleaned him and took out one of his rotten teeth. She said, “You’ve got to give this animal something to do. Now he needs a purpose.”

How did you come up with the idea of him running?

I had been in Colorado about 10 years earlier and heard about burro races … the tradition in Colorado of people running long distances with donkeys. I thought maybe that’s it. That’s the thing.

How did you introduce Sherman to the idea?

We did it really amateurishly and awkwardly. The breakthrough finally clicked. Sherman had spent a lot of time alone. If we could support him with other animals, maybe he would start to run. Tanya would saddle up her riding donkey, Flower, and Sherman would follow. That’s how we began.

Chris McDougall, Sherman, and farm goat Chili Dog. (Mika McDougall)

Chris McDougall, Sherman, and farm goat Chili Dog. (Mika McDougall)

Tell me about his progress.

We built up to it fairly slowly. There were a lot of issues. He was very mistrustful, very fearful of a lot things. He had never been on asphalt before. This is one things Tanya stressed. It took her half an hour to get him to put his first hoof onto the road — the asphalt. As soon as he did it, she said, “That’s the power of a second chance. I’m talking about you. There’s no reason this donkey should ever trust another human. He’s giving you a second chance. You better live up to it.”

How long did it take to get him running?

The big breakthrough was at five months. There was an Amish running club near me for men and women. I had them come over for a group run one night. We went for a run and Sherman took off like a shot. It was the first time we took him out with other people, and he loved it.

How could you tell?

The fact he kept on running. Tanya and I looked at each other like, “What’s gotten into this guy?” Usually he’d stop and try to hide behind Flower the donkey. This time he didn’t.

What did you do to gain Sherman’s trust?

This is something Tanya used to say: Anything you start you have to finish, but anything you finish, finish on a good note. If you’re trying to get him to put his foot on the pavement, you can’t give up. If you start it, you’ve got to finish it. No matter how frustrated he makes you, when he does it, smother him with love and gratitude. That was it: The learning curve got faster and faster.

What’s the reaction the book has gotten?

Everybody likes that idea of the power of a second chance. Someone in bad shape gets a shot, and it turns out well for both of us — him and me. It’s been great.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or

If you go

Chris McDougall, author of “Running with Sherman” and the best-seller “Born to Run,” will give a talk at 7 p.m. Oct. 24 at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way NE, Lake Forest Park. Call 206-366-3333 or go to for more information.

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