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12 Fascinating Things You Never Knew About Donkeys

Marcy's herd includes three lovable donkeys from the BLM adoption program.

Olivia the burro.

Olivia the burro.

Give the Donkeys Their Due!

They may not have starring roles in movies, nor be on posters in the childhood bedrooms of young girls smitten with horses, but the long-suffering, hard-working donkey is a lovable and fascinating creature. Even experienced horsemen are likely to be surprised by some of these facts about the equine world's less-glamorous longer-eared members.

1. Donkeys Are the Philosophers of the Equine World

They're stoical, pragmatic, intelligent, and they have astonishing memories. Although every bit as sensitive to pain and fear as a horse, they don't show it; the donkey species has evolved to mask their discomfort or anxiety as a means of survival from prey animals.

They're keenly intelligent and often learn a task the first time it's taught to them, but combine the two traits of stoicism and intelligence and you may see what is often misidentified as "stubbornness." Because donkeys are so darned smart, they have surprising reasoning abilities and must be shown not just how to do something, but why they should do it. Forcing them or bullying them into doing something will trigger that famous splay-footed, sitting-back, and resisting posture so often associated with them.

True donkey whisperers know to patiently let them learn by watching and by making their own decision about readiness to proceed. Eventually, the ever-curious, affectionate donkey will willingly take on the task.

Olivia, deep in thought.

Olivia, deep in thought.

2. Donkeys Have No Rear Chestnuts

This might puzzle you if you're not familiar with horses, so I'll explain: Horses have what are called "chestnuts" on all four legs. These are the hairless, rough-textured growths on the inside leg, set upon the cannon bone (the long, lower leg bone). Chestnuts are actually the evolutionary trace of the five toes prehistoric horses once had. Donkeys, unlike horses, are missing the rear chestnuts, but do have front chestnuts.

Odelia shows off her chestnut-free hind legs.

Odelia shows off her chestnut-free hind legs.

3. Donkeys Form Incredibly Strong Friendships

Donkeys are surprisingly affectionate. They seek out their trusted humans or other animals, whether to be petted or simply to stand nearby. They can become quite close to dogs, horses, and other pasture pals. Their fellow donkey friends, though, are extraordinarily important to them; they form such strong bonds that when a companion dies, they mourn them. The stress of their grief can cause them to become severely ill.

Donkeys are prone to a condition called "hyperlipemia." In the briefest of explanations, it's a syndrome wherein too much fat becomes present in the blood. It is a life-threatening situation, and stress is one of the common causes. Grieving for a lost companion can induce hyperlipemia in donkeys—and donkey owners must always be sensitive to that when a stablemate passes.

Being such social creatures, donkeys sometimes will quit eating altogether when deprived of a companion. That, as mentioned below, is also dangerous to their health and well-being.

Onate the burro and Ethan the McNab dog.

Onate the burro and Ethan the McNab dog.

4. Donkeys Thrive on "Inferior" Feed

Horse owners often balk at feeding their horses low-energy feeds; feed stores are filled with dozens of varieties of grains, molasses-laden blends, and rich feeds for performance horses. The stuff of dreams for horses, though, is the makings of nightmares for donkeys.

Donkeys, because of their highly-efficient metabolism, not only can survive on "poor quality" feed but will suffer many unnecessary ailments if fed energy-dense or sugary feed. From laminitis to ulcers to hyperlipemia, wrongly feeding a donkey can cause a variety of dangerous conditions.

Wrongly feeding includes overfeeding; feeding too rich a diet, and feeding "meals" rather than feeding free-choice of a low-energy forage. Donkeys should have diets rich only in low-energy bulk.

Straw—often used as a bedding for horses, many of whom won't even nibble on it— is a perfectly adequate diet for donkeys. A scrubby, none-too-lush pasture is ideal. Donkey owners should avoid feeding them grain, sugary treats, alfalfa hay, unnecessary supplements, or other feeds that can spike insulin levels or cause obesity. Donkeys are thrifty animals and flourish on what the haughtier animals in the barn would throw away.

Odelia enjoys a walk in the weeds of springtime.

Odelia enjoys a walk in the weeds of springtime.

5. Donkeys Prefer to Face Backwards in the Horse Trailer

Horses, for the record, are generally loaded facing forward (straight-in) or at a forward-facing angle (slant-load). Donkeys travel best when allowed to travel untied in a stock trailer or a slant-load trailer with the partitions removed. For reasons of their own, they apparently feel most comfortable when facing rearward. (Cue the a** backward pun here!)

For reasons that are not quite understood, donkeys like to face rearward in trailers.

For reasons that are not quite understood, donkeys like to face rearward in trailers.

6. Donkeys Are Surprisingly Strong

Donkeys, though typically small, are disproportionately strong. A healthy, mature donkey can carry 25% of its own weight! This is why donkeys are the quintessential beasts of burden: They are, for their size, powerful creatures. They've contributed tremendously to the development of many nations by working in mines, toting packs, hauling freight, pulling carts, and carrying riders.

Young Odelia is learning basic training in hand now to prepare her for her future career in harness and under saddle.

Young Odelia is learning basic training in hand now to prepare her for her future career in harness and under saddle.

7. There's Such a Thing as "Mammoth" Donkeys

If donkeys were on the Starbucks menu, you'd get a standard donkey if you ordered a "venti." It'd be over nine hands, but not above 14 or 14.5 hands tall. If you don't speak horse, a "hand" is four inches, and the withers are the highest part of the shoulders, so a standard donkey would range from 37" to 56"–58" tall.

Order a "grande" at our hypothetical Starbucks donkey shop, and you'd get a mammoth. A "mammoth" donkey is a breed of donkey traditionally used to produce draft mules, and they range from 14 hands and up. The tallest mammoth jack (male donkey) on record is Romulus, an American jack who is a whopping 17 hands high. (Some people and associations consider mammoth donkeys to be those taller than 13.5 hands; definitions vary, and jacks are expected to be slightly taller than jennies.)

On the other end of the spectrum are the mighty little miniature donkeys. No taller than 36", they're also known as "Sicilian" donkeys. Be forewarned: They're ridiculously cute.

Not much bigger than her McNab dog pal Ethan when she was born, Onate is a standard donkey.

Not much bigger than her McNab dog pal Ethan when she was born, Onate is a standard donkey.

8. Donkeys Can Interbreed With Horses but Those Offspring Are Often Sterile

When creatures of different species mate, the offspring are hybrids. The hybrid progeny of horses and donkeys are commonly called "mules." Not so quick, though!

More correctly, the offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare) is a mule, but if the father is a male horse (stallion) and the mother is a female donkey (jenny), the offspring is correctly referred to as a "hinny."

Although it's the general rule that mules are sterile, there have been instances (though quite rare) of non-sterile horse/donkey hybrids conceiving foals. Female mules and hinnies are capable of successfully carrying embryos transplanted from mares, also. They do come into heat, as well, although they are generally irregular in their cycles.

Odelia meets Julie, the youngest horse on the ranch, for the first time.

Odelia meets Julie, the youngest horse on the ranch, for the first time.

9. Donkeys Have Two Fewer Chromosomes Than Horses

The domestic horse has 64 chromosomes, while the donkey has 62. (Even those of us who, like myself, were English majors can easily calculate that the mule, which is a donkey-horse hybrid, has 63.)

Donkeys share a lot of common features with their relatives, the horse, but such astonishing differences!

Donkeys share a lot of common features with their relatives, the horse, but such astonishing differences!

10. Jennies Can Carry Their Foals as Long as 56 Weeks

The gestation period of a mare (female horse) averages about eleven months and a week. That's a long time for the anxious mare owner to wait for the arrival of the new foal. On average, a jenny (female donkey) carries its babies for just over a year—and can even go as long as a whopping 14.5 months! As in so many other matters, the donkey owner must have a personality about as patient as that of the donkey itself. Let me say this, though: It's worth the wait, because there is nothing, and I mean nothing, as cute as a floofy baby donkey.

Onate, Olivia's baby.

Onate, Olivia's baby.

11. Ranchers and Hobby Farmers Employ Donkeys as Livestock Guardians

Those affectionate, patient, small donkeys are fighting machines when it comes to self-preservation and the safety of the herd—so much so that they're commonly found in cattle or sheep pastures as guardians. They have an instinctive dislike for coyotes and wildcats and will fight hoof and tooth against any trespassing predators.

Even on a small ranch, the vocal donkey will alert his owners to situations requiring attention. If chosen and raised specifically to be guardians, they'll bond with the animals they are "hired" to protect and will take on aggressive dogs or wild predators. Pet donkeys, however, that familiar with stock dogs may not be effective, and—being the individuals they are—not all donkeys are suitable as guardians.

Although mature cattle, such as Ginger, can take care of themselves, donkeys are helpful protectors when cows are calving or when calves are weaned.

Although mature cattle, such as Ginger, can take care of themselves, donkeys are helpful protectors when cows are calving or when calves are weaned.

12. Donkeys Still Roam the Range

In the United States, burros—the southwestern "brand" of donkey—still freely roam the land. The 2018 burro census estimated just shy of 15,000 free-ranging donkeys in the U.S. They aren't native to the continent, though, and are a significant land-management issue.

Much as I adore donkeys, I recognize the tough decisions the Bureau of Land Management must make when contending with these hardy, oft-destructive animals. They compete with native species for foodstuff; breed vigorously, and tear up sensitive terrain with those adorable little hooves.

Each state with free-roaming burros has an estimated viable population maximum. The BLM, through a variety of programs, attempts to keep the population under control. It was through them I obtained my own burros, wanting to do my part to give long, healthy, useful, and happy lives to these three special souls who came into my life.

These burros are free-roaming members of a herd managed by the BLM outside of Parker, Arizona.

These burros are free-roaming members of a herd managed by the BLM outside of Parker, Arizona.

Questions & Answers

Question: My jenny and I are very bonded. She seeks me out, putting her head in close for a hug. She follows me everywhere, and often when we've been cuddling or during grooming, she'll parallel park next to me and put her butt in my face. She doesn't offer to kick; she just stands with her arse toward me. If I walk away, she follows and the process starts over. My three are very happy, affectionate rescues. What could my donkey resting her butt against me mean? I'm just curious. I feel as if she's giving me control or the dominant role.

Answer: This isn't unusual donkey behavior! Donkeys are very tactile, affectionate animals among themselves and their human companions. They are fond of doing what I call "wrapping" where they cling to you and wrap themselves around you. Unlike some horses, when a docile and trained donkeys puts its butt next to you, it's because they are comfortable next to you. They may be signaling that they want their rear end scratched, or they are standing as they would next to another donkey, side by side. Donkeys are also protective of their pals, and maybe assuming the "watchdog" position, much as a dog may sleep at the end of their owner's bed, facing the door, to instinctively protect against intruders.

Two of my jennies like to parallel park on either side of me and gently squish me between them. They're just seeking affection, and if I move back, they'll back up with me.

Question: Would you say donkeys are better than horses? I'm 15, and I was planning on getting an unridden horse or else a donkey, mule, or hinny until I'm older. Once I have my own job, I will then have the current animal plus I will acquire a trained horse or donkey. Does this sound like a good plan, Marcy? I'm mostly concerned about stables accepting her.

Answer: I can't say that donkeys are better than horses, but that they are different and have their own special advantages (and disadvantages). They're more economical, as they can (and should) eat lower-quality forage. They can be adopted in the US for just $125 through the Bureau of Land Management. They are very easy to train if you have patience and are willing to move at their pace and let them figure things out. Once you do get a horse, your donkey will be a terrific companion and can go along on rides with you or even carry a pack or a small rider. Mules and hinnies are a bit more of a challenge to train, because they may have the horse's more reactive nature, whereas donkeys are generally quite docile once they've been handled. I'd start with a donkey, for sure! You'll be amazed at what terrific pets they are, and with a little work, you'll soon be riding or driving your donkey.

As for stables accepting a donkey, call around first and make sure you have a place lined up in advance. Not everyone appreciates the donkey's braying, even though most jennies (female donkeys) are only vocal when in distress, hungry, or greeting you or their companions. Large stables shouldn't have a problem keeping donkeys unless there are neighbors close to the barns and turnouts.

Let me know what you decide!

© 2019 Marcy J. Miller


Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on September 25, 2020:

Hi, Linda,

I'm glad to hear your donkey responded so well to the extra oil. If he is doing well on it, I'd suggest leaving him on it as long as he doesn't start to gain more fat. As soon as he starts looking a bit chubby, you'd probably be wise to take him off it until he needs that extra boost again.

Linda on September 07, 2020:

I have an older rescue donkey (24+?) he and my other 2 have always done well on just 1/2 can (coffee 13oz) of 10% feed. His coat this summer started looking really dull and his ribs were starting to show. He is wormed regularly when all the horses are. So I have increased his feed and started putting Camelina oil in his feed. He has gained weight and his cost has a shine to it! Since it is helping should I continue with this feeding routine or is long term of more feed and oil not good for him?

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on June 29, 2020:

Yes! There are two donkey books I consider essential. The first is The Donkey Companion, by Sue Weaver. Here's a link: It has excellent training, health, and behavioral information. The second is The Clinical Companion of the Donkey, by the Donkey Sanctuary. It's just a terrific, comprehensive health, medical, and care book. You'll love them both. Enjoy!

Willie on June 29, 2020:

Can you recommend any good donkey training books, methods dvds ect..

Richard Tessitore on January 25, 2020:

Didn't know anything about donkeys! When I was growing up I was taught they were stupid animals. Not the case! Thanks for sharing.

Carolyn cabe on August 11, 2019:

This young man wanted to give me a donkey because the donkey was in a field with another donkey and they fought. I a sucker for a poor mistreated animal. . Toby was brought to me. The next day. I was not prepared for the injuries to Toby. I was told he had a small cut on his neck. Wrong the poor fellow had a wound on both sides of his neck one over 6 inches long and an inch deep puncher wound. Well I've had Toby a month now and my granddaughter(6) Toby and myself are becoming good friends. That poor animal let me clean and apply a paste antibody in that wound . While my granddaughter kept telling him we won't let anyone hurt. You you will stay with us forever. Toby won her heart in no time at all .

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on January 22, 2019:

Hi, Barb, and thank you! I agree! Floofy donkeys are the stuff of happiness.

Barb on January 21, 2019:

There’s nothing like a floofy baby to make your day. Great article Marcy!

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on January 21, 2019:

Hi, Alexander! Donkeys are truly addictive. I just adore them.

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on January 21, 2019:

Thanks for your kind words, Lady Lorelei! Donkeys are a really nice addition to any barn!

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on January 21, 2019:

Thanks for commenting, Ellison! There's something calming and serene about donkeys, isn't there? I just love being around them.

Ellison Hartley from Maryland, USA on January 21, 2019:

I love donkeys! I have two miniature donkeys, both old ladies in there late 20's.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on January 21, 2019:

To me this animal is such a pleasure. I grew up on a hobby farm with the typical chickens, ducks, cows, and pigs but no donkeys or horses. I always enjoyed seeing this cute beastie when I could manage the opportunity. Loved your information and images. It was like a trip back to the country.

Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on January 21, 2019:

I love donkeys.