STAFF WRITER JARED FIELDS
Sally Armstrong and the Tri-Ass-letes win over crowds wherever they go. Whether Armstrong is showing photos of her miniature Mediterranean donkeys at the Royal Mews at Windsor Castle, competing in a carriage-pulling competition somewhere in the United States, or appearing at a local event in her hometown of Johnson City, the diminutive donkeys are a big hit.
“Number one, the cute factor, and number two, everybody loves the underdog,” Armstrong said of her donkey teams.
Miniature Mediterraneans originated on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, where they are now almost extinct. Brought to the United States in 1929, they have grown in popularity here and in the United Kingdom because of their affectionate nature and intelligence.
“They are not stubborn,” Armstrong said. “They can do anything.”
The tiny burros on Donkey Oaties Ranch in Johnson City are especially talented. These mini-conquistadors don’t tilt at windmills, however; they compete side by side in three-abreast hitches at carriage contests, a rarely seen feat regardless of class, type, animal, or carriage, Armstrong said. In 2018, the Johnson City donkeys were the first miniatures to compete in the 38-year-history of the Villa Louis Carriage Classic in Wisconsin, the largest pleasure driving show in the country with 137 entries last year.
How did they fare?
“Oh, we did terrible,” Armstrong said with a laugh. “We didn’t place.”
Winning is not the point, though.
“My donkeys make people smile and laugh. I go home a winner,” she continued. “That’s all I care about.”
Armstrong obtained her first miniature donkey as a Christmas present from her husband, Rex. On advice from his mother-in-law, he purchased Sweetie and brought her home to his sweetie in 2003. She immediately began researching her new pet and discovered that “an only donkey is a lonely donkey.” That meant she had to have another one. She came home from the donkey farm with three more.
After her husband died a year later, she went to her first carriage show and became intrigued with the driving classes. Now, she and the donkeys travel all over the United States to competitions, building a reputation that has opened doors to international travel — though the donkeys don’t go overseas.
As a member of the Carriage Association of America, Armstrong was part of the group’s delegation to the Royal Windsor Horse Show at Windsor Castle in 2017. She and the story of her donkeys left a lasting impression.
During the show, Armstrong was asked to present rosettes and trophies for the Light Trade class.
“The feeling was incredible to stand in the arena at Windsor Castle,” Armstrong said. “And I’m standing there. Me? Donkeys? This is so cool!”
After the presentation, the announcer had a couple of minutes to spare, so he decided to interview the Central Texas donkey rancher. After complimenting the quality of the show, the announcer asked Armstrong about herself. His mistake, she recalled with a laugh.
“Do you drive?” the announcer asked.
“Yes, I do,” she answered enthusiastically. “I drive a three-abreast hitch of miniature donkeys. They’re known by all as the Tri-Ass-letes. You could hear the crowd — the Brits got it.”
With a quick “Thank you very much,” the announcer swiftly ended the interview.
“That was a thrill,” she said.
The coachman at the Royal Mews at Windsor Castle had a similar reaction, mixed with a dose of skepticism, especially when she told him the three-abreast donkeys pulled a carriage that she drove. A woman. Unheard of. She had to show him a photo to prove it.
“That cracked him up,” Armstrong said. “There’s a five-by-seven (photo) of that in the Royal Mews at Windsor Palace in the coachman’s office.”
The donkeys have become her life, she said. Together, they’ve made incredible inroads for the breed and the sport of carriage driving.
“They’ve changed my life — taken over my life,” she said. “I am their maid, their social secretary, chauffeur.”
She has dressed them up in Santa outfits and had their photos taken. They visit preschools and nursing homes, where they are just as popular as they are at carriage shows. The visits, Armstrong said, are all about the donkeys, not their owner.
It was the donkeys who were invited to Wisconsin and other shows, she joked. “I just got to take them.”
She calls her herd of 16 miniature donkeys a living legacy that can always bring a smile to her face.
“I can be having the worst day, and I can come down here and kick over a bucket and they know,” she said. “They just know.”