Taken For A Donkey Ride

A simple puzzle turned out to be impossible, and inspired an idea for a new magic trick.

Sam Loyd's "Donkey Rider" puzzle is over 150 years old. Three pieces, cut from a postcard, need to be arrange such that the riders are sitting properly on the donkeys. Deceptively simple!

Beyond cutting out the pieces from the sheet, you may not tear, fold, or cut the pieces to solve the puzzle.

I'm not going to give away the solution until you get a fair chance to give it a try for yourself. That would be like exposing a magic trick without you even getting the chance to enjoy a performance.


One version licensed to P.T. Barnum and distributed by the millions!

Donkey & Zebra Puzzles

Download a printable puzzle and give it a try! Print and cut out the pieces to try Sam Loyd's "Donkey Rider" puzzle, plus Mel Stover's Zebra puzzle.

Puzzle Hints

Give it a try first, and only read these if you're stumped.

Hint #1

Stop bucking your responsiblity and take a good run at it.

Hint #3

Flip for heads and tails. Head from one, tail from the other.

Hint #2

The donkeys will stand back to back.


Here’s the solution, courtesty of Wikipedia. (who clearly has no sense of mystery!)

View Solution

I got stumped by Mel Stover

I was familar with the Donkey Rider puzzle. One day I stumbled upon this variation by Mel Stover, featuring clowns and zebras, and thought little of it. I printed it off and set it aside for months. It wasn't until the day I cut it out and tried it, I realized... I have no idea how this puzzle works!

It's subtly different. The zebras are mirror images of each other, whereas the original donkeys are simply rotated. As a result, the original solution to the puzzle does not work.

Mel Stover is a magician and even more famous as a puzzle creator. I know he's clever enough to create a good puzzle, but part of me also wonders if he's just pulling my leg!

Is this a fake puzzle? Is it meant to trip me up, being "that old donkey puzzle" until I look like fool,unable to put it together.

If anybody can figure out how to do Mel Stover's puzzle, please let me know. Give me a hint! Tell me it is possible!

UPDATE: It can be done! See note below.

Mel Inspired a Magic Trick

Whether his con was intentional or not, it got me thinking about a puzzle which looks the same, but cannot be solved. What if you could switch one for another?

Show a person how to solve the puzzle, then slide the pieces towards them... and they are unable to do it. Like the cut/no-cut scissors, it's a solve/no-solve puzzle.

With some graphic design wizardy I turned this into a full magic trick I call "Stubborn Donkey" and made the routine, and special printable pieces, available for registered members. (see page two for details)


Thanks to a hot tip from reader Bernie Amler, I was directed to a Max Maven article, "Just For The Mel Of It" published in Genii (Sept 1999). In it Max confirms my suspicion about Mel's tricksy ways and speaks directly to this zebra creation;

Mel was especially fond of devious variants on old puzzles. The scenario would usually run something like this:

MEL: "Say, y'ever seen this one?"

VICTIM: "Um, yeah, I used to know that, years ago. Let me see, I think I sort of vaguely remember... "

And that was it. You were screwed. Because whatever you vaguely remembered, what Mel had given you was different. Oh, it looked the same — at least, you thought it did — but it wasn't.

It's nice to know, even many years after his passing, people (like me) are still falling into his mischevious traps.

So, yes, there is a solution to Mel's zebra puzzle... but I'll let you enjoy the search. It will take some work, so I suggest printing out multiple copies.

Table of Contents for Taken For A Donkey Ride

  • Taken For A Donkey Ride A simple puzzle turned out to be impossible, and inspired an idea for a new magic trick.
  • Stubborn Donkey A solve no-solve idea to make a paper puzzle which can be solved by one person, then secretly made to be impossible.

Published: March 9, 2021

Channel: Blog

Access: Public



Hi Ryan

I have a solution to the Stover Puzzle!

Hint: Sunny day. Windowpane. Backside.


Ah, clever! Thanks for shining some light on a possible solution!

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