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The Texas Poitou Donkeys

By Heath Herring

If there ever existed a perfect animal, I found it in Grandview, Texas. On my way home from Arizona in the summer of 2017, I received a message from a man named Patrick Archer. It was short. He introduced himself and said, “we raise French donkeys.” Sounded interesting, but what I didn’t know at the time was that this short message would lead to one of the the most rewarding, longest-running projects I’ve ever taken on with two of the raddest dudes I’ve ever met. After two years and more Texas road trips than I can remember, I’d like to introduce you to Patrick Archer, Christopher Jones and the Texas Poitou Donkeys.

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“Poitou. You say it like Pwah-too,” said Patrick as we looked out across a field of giant, dreadlocked, four legged creatures that looked, to me, like some beautiful cross between a donkey and a wooly mammoth. A few gnawed at the grass while others stood still as statues, like some wise, ancient beasts that drifted straight out of the middle ages onto a green Texas pasture. Ancient and wise? Yes. Beasts? Hardly. Turns out they’re giant Teddy bears with rabbit ears and shaggy hair.

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Patrick: The Poitou donkey is an ancient French breed. They look like wild, prehistoric animals. They’re huge! At least 14–15 hands (56–60") high at the withers and weigh 750–950 pounds. Long hair is their most striking feature. It hangs in cords from their entire body. Essentially Poitou donkeys are big, shaggy, lovable, social creatures who also happen to be very smart and very affectionate. They’re also extremely gentle and love attention.

Chris: The Poitou were exclusively to bred with Mulassiere mares (French draft horse). The foal was the finest of all work mules. After industrialization and two world wars in France, the donkey almost became extinct.

Patrick: Fewer than 80 Poitou Donkeys existed in 1980. Tractors came along, and the demand for mules collapsed. The breed’s limited geographic area in France also increased its vulnerability.

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Patrick: Chris and I are not farmers by trade but by choice. Before all this, I was a big box retail manager and Chris was a banker. Both careers were stressful so we purchased a small tract of land so we could escape and breathe. We both love the outdoors. It didn’t take long for me to want to populate the farm with livestock.

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Patrick: We started out small - literally. This all started with miniature donkeys. And of course ducks, geese and other barn animals. Now we have a small herd of cattle, fallow deer, goats, assorted barn yard animals, and we raise Poitou Donkeys.

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Patrick: One day while touring a friends exotic game ranch we drove past a huge, hairy donkey that was built like a tank. I immediately asked if this donkey was possibly a Poitou and if so, would they ever consider selling her?  The answer was yes and that started what is now Texas Poitou Donkeys.

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Patrick and Chris devote their lives every day to the Poitou herd and other animals, but it’s not for the money. In fact, everything they make from farming goes right back into the farm and the animals they’re working so hard to raise and protect. As random as it sounds, their day job is operating a yearly event called the Winter Park Ski-Music festival. They manage the entire operation from Texas and trek out to the Rockies every Spring to put it on. Officing from home makes it possible to manage the festival and the farm together.

Chris: Operating a farm as a secondary source of income is extremely rewarding, but still full of surprises.  Whether it’s animal health, mechanical breakdowns, or weather you never know what each day brings.  I enjoy being outside, doing whatever needs to be done, and improving the overall operation. Self-accomplishment is my fuel, and operating a farm fills my tank, even during more trying periods.  I just wish the yields of farming/ranching were more financially rewarding.

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Patrick: This is in my DNA. My mother’s parents were dust bowl survivors and scratched out a living on a farm in Kansas. It was a high point of our year to visit and shadow my grandfather as he worked the garden or tended to livestock. As a naïve kid, I thought it looked like the perfect life, free of worry.  My understanding of what it takes to be a farmer has changed, but my love of the land and all of its creatures has not. 

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Folk art, cowboy paintings, vintage hats and an array of beautifully curated oddities lead the way through Chris and Patrick’s home in Grandview, TX. “I’m glad to hear someone besides us likes it,” says Patrick. I don’t think we paid more than 10 or 20 dollars for a single thing hanging in here.”

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One of Patricks go-to hats is the Gus Crushable Outdoor . He stole it from me a couple of winters ago on my second visit to the farm.

Patrick: Since moving to the farm full time, we have amassed a collection of hats for just about every situation and season. We definitely have our favorites. I’m always going to reach for the well-worn felt and Chris is definitely a straw hat guy.  We have been collecting vintage cowboy hats for years. There’s something about a well worn/beat up cowboy hat that speaks to me…much like a great pair of broken in boots or leather gloves. From our work on this farm, I can appreciate the blood, sweat and tears that go into managing land and livestock. When I have one of these old hats on, I try to do it justice. 

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Patrick: Once we educated ourselves on just how precarious the Poitou population was, we felt it was a natural step to play an active part in saving the breed.

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Patrick: We take our commitment to the Poitou very seriously and want them to be ambassadors for not only Poitou worldwide but all heritage breeds that unfortunately are diminishing in numbers.”

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Patrick: Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would be lucky enough to own a Poitou, let alone 30.

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The first image was taken in February of 2018. The second was in May of 2019.

Patrick: If they’re left ungroomed, many Poitou form a heavy, dreadlocked coat, called cadanettes, which hang in cords. In some, the cords can reach the ground. While instantly recognizable and amazing to see, we groom our Poitou due to the Texas climate and for the overall health of the herd.  

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Patrick: Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would be lucky enough to own a Poitou, let alone 30.  One of our next goals is to establish a genetic database for all US Poitou so that we will know what Poitou are in the states and who they are related to. It will be a starting place for pulling all US Poitou owners together.

Chris: Right now, few know most of the background and ancestry of the Poitou in the US. As time goes on, several of these persons have already passed.  Hopefully, the US Poitou population will increase. A source for animal lineage will be needed. The goal is compiling as much information about each Poitou as possible. 

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The first image is of Chris in July of 2017. Again in May of 2019.

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Patrick: It has taken us 10 years to acquire/build the herd we have today. We drove to Canada to buy the only breeding pair in that country. So far, we have purchased Poitou from WA, GA, KS, CA and TX.  

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Patrick: We strive to be a source of information for folks interested in the breed. My favorite thing is to educate anyone who will listen about the Poitou.

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This handsome devil’s name is Heath. As the Poitou registry goes, foal names begin with a particular letter according to the year they were born. It just so happened that I arrived at the farm for the first time in 2017, which was the year for the letter H. After striking an instant friendship with these guys, Patrick said, “I think we should name the next boy Heath.” I can tell you one thing for sure, I didn’t argue! It’s one thing to tell a story, but there’s something incredibly special about becoming a part of it. This little guy is my namesake. Humbling, to say the least.

Patrick: We also strive to produce the best example of the breed by careful breeding practices that result in a strong, healthy foal. We’ve had great success and hope to be a genetic resource for Poitou worldwide. 

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Patrick: We continue to meet amazing folks from all over the world that share our passion in saving this incredible breed. We have so many goals with the Poitou. Most importantly, we are trying to save a breed from extinction through education, awareness and careful breeding. Here’s the thing about Poitou donkeys…once you have been around one, you never forget how majestic, soulful and gentle they are. At times the responsibility seems overwhelming but the journey has been incredible.

To learn more about the Texas Poitou Donkyes visit: https://m.facebook.com/TexasPoitouDonkeys/

To see more of Heath’s work visit: HeathHerring.com or Instagram.com/Heath_Herring