Donkeys come in a variety of sizes from the Miniature Mediterranean that is under 36 inches, to the elegant Mammoth Jackstock that is 14 hands and up. The rare French Poitou donkey, characterized by its huge head and ears, and very thick, shaggy, curled black coat, can stand up to 15 hands high. Unfortunately, there are fewer than 200 purebred Poitous left in the world today. The types of donkeys are labeled by their sizes: 36″ and under, Miniature Mediterranean; 36.01-48″, Standard; 48.01″ to 54 (jennets) or 56 (jacks), Large Standard; and 54/56″ and over, Mammoth Stock.
Donkeys are healthy, hardy animals but should receive the same vaccinations and worming regimens as a horse. Their hooves also need periodic trimming. They often live for 25 or more years. They can be used just like horses under saddle and in harness, although donkeys are more laid back and self-preserving in nature. They prefer to do what is good for the donkey, which is not always what the human thinks is best, especially when it comes to getting their feet wet. They are very friendly, and their nature makes them excellent for children. Donkeys can perform all the gaits horses or mules do, but galloping is usually not on the program unless dinner is being served.
Donkeys can also make wonderful guard animals — a donkey gelding or jennet will take care of an entire herd of cattle, sheep, or goats — the natural aversion to predators will inspire the donkey to severely discourage any canine attacks on the herd. Dogs and donkeys usually don’t mix, although they can be trained to leave the house or farm dog alone.
Exercise is Important
Make sure your donkey gets exercise. If you must shut your donkey up during winter, you will need to let it out for exercise. If you can allow the donkey to wander around the barn in between outdoor outings, this would be ideal. Don’t force a donkey that hates snow to go out into the elements; provide this animal with an alternative indoor exercise area. Keep a coat on the donkey if you’d like during winter outings to prevent chills; donkeys can get pneumonia or bronchitis if subjected to rain or very cold weather.
What Donkeys Can Do
Many people own donkeys because of their easygoing personalities and their fine pet qualities. There is probably no more adorable baby in the animal world than the little donkey with its long ears, long legs, sweet face, and fuzzy coat. Donkeys also have many practical uses, listed below are just a few of them
Sheep and Goat Herd Protection
A single donkey, usually a jennet, sometimes a gelding (jacks rarely work because they can be too aggressive with lambs) is introduced to the herd and undergoes a bonding stage. After it has bonded with the sheep, it will protect them against canine predators (fox, coyote, dogs) as it would one of its own. This is beneficial in areas where the sheep herd is able to spread out over large tracts of land. The advantage of the donkey over the guard dog is that they can eat the same food as the sheep, so they don’t have to be fed separately. The donkey will also bed down with the sheep at night. When it hears a strange sound, it will voice a warning to the flock which alerts them to danger. The donkey is also willing to chase and often trample the predator. Size matters in this situation; miniature donkeys are not usually large enough to handle the coyotes, and mammoth donkeys are usually too slow.
The standard size donkey is also very adept at halter breaking young calves (polled or dehorned) and yearling horses. The donkey wears a collar that is connected to the halter of the animal that is being taught to lead. The animals are then turned loose in an enclosure, always under supervision. Where the donkey wants to go, it will go. The colt or calf has no option but to follow. By allowing the donkey to perform the unpleasant task of lead training, the “trainee” doesn’t associate people with this stressful situation. In fact, when you release the colt or calf from the donkey, they are usually very willing to follow you.
The donkey is a wonderful companion to foals at weaning time. Allow the donkey to run with the mare and foal prior to weaning, then keep it with the foal when weaning takes place. The foal gets a calm, steadying influence from the donkey and looks to it for support. This calmness is transferred to the foal and the trauma of separation from the dam is reduced. As most donkeys readily come up to people this behavior is duplicated by the foal. Not only have you reduced foal stress, but you have instilled in the foal a friendly attitude toward people.
This is very similar to the foal companion, only in this case the donkey takes on the responsibility of another animal’s well-being. Nervous horses have been known to calm down with a donkey companion as a stall or pasture mate. With horses recovering from surgery or injury or with nervous horses such as race or show horses, the donkey seems to have a calming effect. The miniature is often used for this purpose since it does not take up much room in the stall where the horse is located.
Riding Programs for the Disabled
The donkey has shown time and time again how wonderful it is with children and people with disabilities. In many areas, especially England, the donkey is used extensively in riding and animal companion programs for the physically and mentally handicapped. Their small stature, slow and thoughtful nature and affectionate disposition make them ideal for this purpose when they are properly selected and trained. Both the person and the donkey know they are special together, and the bond that develops between the two is quite unexplainable.
The donkey naturally loves children. While there are a few exceptions, the donkey is not usually a biter or kicker. They have the patience of Job and therefore are ideally suited to being around children. Use a jennet or gelding in this situation and avoid using jacks kept for breeding.