Leeds man says time with donkeys helped transform his life

A young man from Leeds who spent two years struggling with alcohol and drug dependency says support from The Donkey Sanctuary in Leeds and EMERGE Leeds has given him a reason to live again.

Kaiden (20) was accepted into the care co-ordination pathway at EMERGE Leeds after being referred by his GP for interpersonal and emotional difficulties, which he was managing though drug and alcohol use at the time.

EMERGE Leeds is a specialist service covering West Yorkshire, provided by Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. The service works with young people aged 18-25 years, some of which are new to mental health services or are transitioning to adult services from child and adolescent mental health services.

After a period of intense work with his care co-ordinator, Kaiden was introduced to Occupational Therapy where he was supported by Nicola Binns (Associate Practitioner and Staff Clinical Governor). The interventions Kaiden engaged in with Nicola and the therapeutic relationship developed facilitated Kaiden’s work with The Donkey Sanctuary. Kaiden’s mental health is now stable, and his wellbeing has been significantly improved.


Before I came to the Donkey Sanctuary my life was really unpleasant. I had nothing to live for, nothing to look forward to and enjoyed no part of my life. Since working with EMERGE Leeds and the donkeys, I feel transformed.

I feel confident in myself, I feel positive I look forward to each new day.

I’m only 20 and feel like I’ve been given a second chance to live again and I’m going to grab that chance with both hands and take it.


The improvement in Kaiden’s life, achieved through his own ambition with support from EMERGE Leeds and the Sanctuary, can be seen in a video he has made that highlights his journey.


I wanted to make the video so that other people like me can be helped, so that they can see they are not alone, that they can get help and that things can get better.

Kaiden with donkey Dominic at The Donkey Sanctuary Leeds
Kaiden with donkey Dominic at The Donkey Sanctuary Leeds

Nicola, who is an Associate Practitioner and Staff Clinical Governor at EMERGE said:

Our visits to the sanctuary have helped our clients grow in confidence, engage more, and learn how to build trust in themselves and others. Many find comfort in the calm and accepting presence of the animals It’s great for slowing down and helping us be more in the present.

The sessions also provide enriching experiences for donkeys, many of which come to the sanctuary having had bad experiences. Engaging with the EMERGE service users allows them to develop skills that will be important when they journey through to guardian homes, where interactions with various people will be common.

Cathryn Hampshire, Centre Manager at The Donkey Sanctuary in Leeds said:

Donkeys are highly intuitive animals, able to sense subtle changes in their environment; they are able to share non-judgemental feedback in the way they communicate through their body language.

While individuals can reflect on their own emotions and identify how they can develop life skills, the donkeys learn to trust people again and grow in their own confidence, so these programmes are a real win-win experience for everyone involved.

Located just a few miles from Leeds city centre, the sanctuary is home to 25 resident donkeys, and is where expert guidance of the sanctuary’s facilitators like Cathryn help transform the lives of people like Kaiden.

Nicola added:

I have a heart-warming story for every time I visit the sanctuary with my service users, because something will always happen that is another positive experience.

The donkeys seem to have a natural ability to help people develop social and emotional skills. Seeing the difference in our service users who have been on a Donkey Assisted Activity Programme at the sanctuary is utterly amazing.

The Donkey Sanctuary in Leeds is one of six Donkey Assisted Activity centres across the UK that offer services for their local communities whilst providing refuge to donkeys in need. For the donkeys involved in providing DAA services, the aim is to help them gain confidence and trust, with the hope that they can eventually be placed in a ‘forever’ home through The Donkey Sanctuary’s Rehoming Scheme.

Kaiden’s Journey

Kaiden was referred to the Occupational Therapy part of the service within Emerge in August 2022 by his Care Coordinator. An Occupational Functional Assessment was carried out exploring different themes and noticing how important what we do with our time impacts on how we feel. Kaiden engaged in five different activities and reflected on how they made him think and feel. Kaiden then chose which he felt had the most positive impact on his experience and this was the time he spent with the donkeys. Kaiden reflected on how his past experiences growing up had significant impact on how he views and thinks about the world and himself.

Kaiden described life as a dark place, he lived with his dad and girlfriend at the time and would often spend all his time smoking cannabis and drinking alcohol. Kaiden described life as ‘surviving not living’. Kaiden would often find himself repeating experiences such as getting jobs and losing them which would confirm his negative thoughts about himself and other people.

Kaiden attended every session with the donkeys. Initially he turned up with his hair covering his face so that it limited the amount of eye contact he wanted / had to have, his language was limited around naming feelings and emotions, often responding with one-word answers. Kaiden would reflect after the sessions on how much he ‘liked’ being at the sanctuary and around the animals. He talked about the things he liked, such as a feeling of being ‘listened to’, of ‘people noticing him and what he wanted’, of ‘not feeling judged’ and being allowed to ‘go at his pace’. This was fed back to the sanctuary staff who were able to bring these experiences into the sessions.

Kaiden started to attend sessions dressed differently saying he wanted to ‘make an effort’, ‘feel smart’, ‘be more open’. He had his hair cut and his facial expressions changed with warm smiles, and obvious connections being made with the donkeys. Kaiden was initiating conversations with staff, choosing how he wanted to spend his time there. Kaiden described feeling more ‘confident’, ‘assertive’ having ‘choice’ that was from him and not initiated by others; his key feeling was of being ‘safe’.

Kaiden’s journey was built on months of work developing his sense of trust in others so that he could trust his own thoughts and actions which led to him being introduced to the donkeys that allowed him to open up even further.

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