The little donkey has been an honest friend and worker for thousands of years. In many places they are preferred over ponies and horses due to the fact that they are even hardier and more economical to feed. While ponies and horses have become primarily leisure animals; donkeys are still very much working animals and millions of people around the world literally could not manage without them.
Although donkeys look broadly similar to ponies and horses, they are, in fact, not a separate breed but a separate species. Evidence suggests that they were domesticated by about 4000BC and possibly were first used in Egypt. Although they appear to have been domesticated relatively late, well after cattle for example, once they were recognized, they quickly became invaluable in all sorts of ways. Many of those early uses continue today, for example agriculture, pack animals and wagon animals. With the animal being so useful and so economic, it is hardly surprising that they were taken further afield. Gradually they spread across Africa, Asia and eventually arriving in Europe about 2000BC. The Greeks and later the Romans took the little animals to work in the different parts of their colonies, thus spreading them throughout the continent.
It took significantly longer for the donkey to reach the Americas. In fact they arrived with Columbus in Hispaniola (modern Haiti/Dominican Republic) in 1495. Since then they have gradually spread throughout the Americas ultimately becoming a symbol of the Wild West (at least in the eyes of film-makers). Many Westerns show or make reference to people riding donkeys or mules (a cross between a male donkey and a female horse). In later years they became crucial to World Wars One and Two and were frequently used to transport wounded soldiers as well as to carry heavy loads of supplies. Today their use as riding animals is limited, in spite of the British tradition of donkey rides at beaches. Mostly they are used as pack or harness animals.
The donkeys used for beach rides may give people the impression that they are small animals. Some donkeys are small being around 8HH or so, but they can grow as large as 15.3 hands. While their faces are similar to those of horses and ponies, their ears are noticeably larger. This is because the donkey comes from a desert climate and the large ears not only help it to hear over longer distances, but also help to keep it cool. In their necks and bodies, they closely resemble horses and ponies but have a much smaller colour range, being mostly sandy or grey. Their manes and tails are nowhere near as thick and silky as those of horses or ponies.
It's interesting that the common expression is “as stubborn as a mule”, perhaps this relates to the mule's donkey parentage rather than its horse mother as donkeys are often described as stubborn or portrayed as being stupid. Neither description is fair. Donkeys have very keen survival instincts and therefore will often simply refuse to perform any action they believe to be dangerous. If donkeys are treated with respect so that they feel they can trust their humans, they are both friendly and co-operative. It's hard to know how donkeys acquired their reputation for stupidity, often of the comical sort. It was certainly portrayed in books and films long before Eddie Murphy in Shrek. In reality they are exceptionally intelligent.
The key to keeping a donkey healthy is to realize that although they look similar to horses and ponies, they aren't horses or ponies. They are a separate species with their own set of requirements. Firstly although donkeys love company, they prefer to be with other donkeys rather than horses or ponies. Ideally donkeys should be kept in pairs rather than being kept singly as companion animals for a horse or pony. In addition to their different care requirements, a single donkey may become very upset when the horse is taken away from it. Secondly their home is a desert environment, which means that when brought to relatively lush European pastures they often need to have their access to grazing strictly restricted, particularly in summer otherwise they become overweight and prone to associated disorders such as laminitis. Even hay has to be checked as some hay is full of rich legumes, which are excellent for putting condition on horses but not at all good for donkeys. Hay for donkeys should be at most one part legumes to four parts grass. Donkeys also benefit from special mineral licks.
Caring for a Donkey
There are three key points to note when comparing donkey care to horse and pony care. The first is that donkey hooves are slower to wear down than those of horses and ponies. This means that they will almost certainly need trimmed more often. Ideally you should find a farrier who understands donkey hooves or who is willing to learn about them. Neglect of a donkey's hooves is even more serious than neglect of a horse's or a pony's hooves. If the animal is shod, the feet will probably still need to be trimmed regularly. If the shoes are still in good condition the farrier will happily put them back on afterwards. Donkeys' hooves are much more porous than horses hooves which means that they need somewhere hard to stand when its wet.
Secondly whereas horses and ponies generally only need their teeth checked as they get older, donkeys benefit from regular dental check-ups.
Thirdly while donkeys can cope with extreme heat much better than most horses and ponies can, the flip side of this is that they are more susceptible to wet and cold. Unlike horses and ponies their coats have no waterproofing at all, which means they need rugs and/or shelter even in They can go outdoors in winter, in fact they enjoy it. They just need to be rugged up and brought in at night or in really bad weather.
Otherwise their care requirements are broadly similar to those of horses and ponies although usually with some variations. For example donkeys need a wormer which is suitable for them rather than one designed for horses or ponies.
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