Donkeys are not horses; they’re the ancestors of the African wild ass, E. africanus.  Their species are members of the horse family, or Equidae, the taxonomic grouping of horses and related animals which includes zebras and other four-legged creatures known only from fossils. As beasts of burden and trusted companions, donkeys have worked with humans for a millennia. There are over forty four million such partnerships today, all over the world.

Bob Langrish photo

African wild asses were domesticated thousands of years ago, and the resulting donkey skeletons have been found in Lower Egypt in archeological digs dating to 4,000-3,000 BC.  The beasts were no doubt used for long-distance trade and would have been valued for their milk and their meat.

Romans brought donkeys into Northern Europe where they were used as transport and in agriculture.  Roman farmers used donkeys in their vineyards which they planted as far north as France and Germany. Donkeys came north to England with the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD, but they remained relatively rare on the British Isles until after the 1550s. Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in 1649 and royalist forces used donkeys as beasts of burden. Following this, large numbers of donkeys were introduced in Ireland which allowed poorer agricultural Irish communities to keep a cheap, working draft animal. Spain was another story; donkeys were common in the Iberian peninsula and came to North America with Christopher Columbus during his second voyage in 1495.

African wild asses are now a critically endangered species. These wild donkeys are found in savannahs and deserts in northern Africa from Somalia to Morocco.  The donkey is the only domesticated farm animal to have evolved from Africa.


Are donkeys dangerous?

Donkeys are intelligent and can be both devious and devoted. They should be watched carefully before being trusted around pets and children. Like humans, they’re individuals with preferences and peeves and sometimes they’re just plain mean.  Because of their good reputation for self defense and their vicious two-hoofed kick, donkeys are frequently employed by Canadian cattle ranchers to protect against wild dogs and wolves. But just like humans, they don’t always do their jobs.

Donkeys are not natural guard animals, but they will defend themselves against coyotes, dogs and wolves if they feel threatened. Interestingly, they’ll only guard other livestock if they’ve bonded with the creatures, and they’re less likely to feel affinities for other species. If a donkey is simply placed with a flock of sheep for example, it probably won’t protect the sheep against predators; but if the same donkey was raised among sheep then it probably will guard them.

A donkey with both ears bent forward can mean they’re tuned into something around them. One ear forward and one back means they’re curious, whereas both ears flat to the side means they’re resting. If the donkey has both ears bent backwards then something is wrong; do not approach.


What are donkeys used for?

Donkeys are quick learners and intelligent and while characterized as being stubborn, they actually just prefer to observe each situation carefully before proceeding. They’re quite versatile and can be ridden, driven, and used as pack animals. In our modern times they’re used as predator control animals on farms, and of course they’re faithful companions.donkeys, mules in Colorado gold rush era

The picture above shows a prospector and his donkey and was taken during the 1890’s gold rush at Grant’s Pass, Oregon. During the Gold Rush era in the Old West, the donkey was a popular beast of burden for the prospectors in these mountainous areas. When the boom ended, many were abandoned or escaped, and feral herds resulted.  The donkey developed its reputation as being a stubborn animal during this time, but in fairness, the donkey is actually very intelligent, and simply must be treated differently than other animals. Rather than teach donkeys new skills, their owners must reach an understanding with them for things to go smoothly.


How are donkeys different than horses?

Donkeys and horses are completely different animal species and the most obvious difference is size. A wild donkey typically reaches up to 49 inches, but domesticated donkeys can range from 36″ (miniature donkey) to 56″ and over (mammoth jack). Their coats are often grey, brown, black, roan or broken-coloured and more rarely, white. Donkeys are known for their distinctive shoulder stripe and dorsal stripe, together called a “cross”, as well as for their large ears and loud braying voice.

Behaviorally, they’re night and day.  Unlike horses, donkeys did not evolve as herd animals. Instead, donkeys traveled in small groups and do not have a true leader like horses. While a herd of horses will run from a predator and the slowest of the herd will be killed, donkeys are likely to stay and fight. Donkeys have a notorious reputation for stubbornness, but this has been attributed to a much stronger sense of self-preservation. Because they’re more independent than horses, donkeys are considerably more difficult to force or frighten into working. If the donkey perceives something to be dangerous for whatever reason, it will just stop and stare at the issue. Once a human has earned their confidence however, they can be willing work partners and very dependable. Domestic donkeys can hold up to 20% of their weight and can live up to fifty years with good care.

donkeys are good companionsThe diet and digestion of donkeys is also different than horses. Because food is harder to find in the deserts where they originated, donkeys’ stomachs utilize 95% of the nutrients they consume. Their digestive tracts can break down vegetation that horses would consider inedible and they extract moisture from forage more efficiently than horses. Donkeys don’t need alfalfa and shouldn’t be fed any high carbohydrate, protein, or sugar feeds. In fact, donkeys do not need any grain at all unless they’re experiencing weight loss issues. Donkeys can easily become overweight and will develop fat pads along their crests, backs, and croups.

Besides being bred to others of their own kind, donkeys are also bred with horses and zebras. The offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse is known as a mule; a female donkey (jennet or jenny) crossed with a male horse results in a hinny. Both types of offspring are usually sterile and cannot produce offspring of their own. A donkey to zebra pairing will result in a zonkey, zebroid, zebrass, or zedonk.

What’s the difference between a donkey and a mule?

Mules are hybrid animals. Mule foals are the offspring of female horses and male donkeys. Let’s remember horses and donkeys are two different species and the mule is an infertile cross. Donkeys are descended from the African wild ass, a species which once lived in the wild deserts of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. They formerly had a wider range north and west into Sudan, Egypt, and Libya. Horses evolved farther north (there are some which say horses originated in North America and then migrated to Europe). Donkeys can interbreed with other members of the family Equidae, and are commonly interbred with horses. The hybrid mule is valued as a working and riding animal in many countries.  The hybrid that’s created from breeding a stallion with a jenny is a hinny, and this is less common. Like other inter-species hybrids, mules and hinnies are usually sterile.

For more information, visit:
Canadian Donkey and Mule Association

Canadian Donkey Sanctuary