What Is A Donkey? (A Complete Guide)

What Is A Donkey? 

A donkey is a domesticated creature that is part of the Equidae family (horse family). They are found throughout the world, and their ancestor is the equus asinus (the wild ass).

Donkeys are usually used as work animals, although some are kept as pets. They are stocky and strong, and make excellent pack animals.

Female donkeys are known as jennies or jennets, and male donkeys are known as jacks.

Donkey At The Coast

History

Donkeys have lived and worked alongside humans for over 5000 years. Their ancestor is now rare in the wild. The wild asses that donkeys come from have a different build to horses, and donkeys aren’t actually very similar to horses, in spite of their looks.

Not all wild ass species have been domesticated, and donkeys specifically come from the equus africanus (African wild ass).

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when donkeys were domesticated because few historical written records contain information about them. Pnas describes how they discovered 10 ass skeletons in Middle Egypt that shared physical qualities with both domestic donkeys and with wild asses.

These skeletons also showed signs of load-bearing, indicating that they had been used by the Egyptians as pack animals in the early Dynastic period.

Characteristics

Donkeys have some extraordinary characteristics that make them preferable to horses in certain situations. 

For example, they do not startle as easily as horses, and they are also stronger than horses of the same size. This makes them excellent pack horses as they can carry large loads without issue.

They are better suited to rough terrain than horses are, which makes them suitable in many countries where getting around is difficult.

They are famously stubborn, but this is due to the fact that they have a strong sense of self-preservation and they will not be coerced into doing anything that they do not think will benefit them directly.

They are also very intelligent and have a superb memory and very good hearing. It’s thought that they can remember both places and other donkeys for 25 years or even longer.

They are also thought to be able to problem-solve as effectively as dolphins and dogs can. Despite their wariness about new things, they are curious creatures and like to investigate when they establish that something is safe.

Affection may not be commonly associated with donkeys, but they are actually extremely affectionate once they have formed a bond with a human and established a sense of safety and fellowship.

Diet

They are grazers and will browse their way through plant matter over the course of a day. They are prone to becoming overweight if they are given free access to a lot of grass. They need a lot of fiber in their diets, so barley straw is a good option for them.

They can eat hay, but this also needs to be limited to ensure they do not become overweight.

Donkeys enjoy fruit and vegetables, which should be fed in small quantities. They are a valuable offering when they don’t have access to fresh grass.

In particular, donkeys like bananas, pears, carrots, and apples. They should not be given potatoes, onions, brassicas, or any old, moldy food, as it could be fatal to them.

Breeding And Uses

Donkeys will breed with horses and zebras, as well as with other donkeys, producing offspring of various types.

Breeding with a zebra results in a zonkey, zeedonk, or zebroid.

According to LiveScience, if a male donkey (a jack) breeds with a female horse, the foal will be called a mule. If a female donkey (a jenny or jennet) breeds with a male horse, they will produce a hinny.

Hinnys are often not as strong as mules, and are not bred as frequently. It is more common to breed male donkeys with female horses, producing mules. 

There are some significant differences between donkeys and mules, and mules may be considered superior. 

Mules often combine a horse’s speed and a donkey’s intelligence. They can be taller than either parent; they are less sensitive than horses; they are stronger and can carry more weight than a donkey, etc. 

However, very few hybrids that are bred are capable of having offspring themselves. Mules must usually be bred from a donkey and a horse, and cannot continue their line.

Baby donkeys are known as foals, and wean at five months. They reach sexual maturity and can breed themselves at around two years old.

Donkeys are used for a variety of purposes, but most commonly, they are pack animals and mounts. Because they are steady, difficult to frighten, and very strong, they are highly suitable and popular for both purposes.

Size

Donkeys vary in size, and wild donkeys tend to be slightly bigger than domesticated ones. 

An average domestic donkey is usually between 36-48 inches tall, and in terms of body weight, can be up to 500 lb.

The largest domestic donkey breed can be 56 inches tall and weigh 950 lb., while the smallest domestic donkey breed will only grow to 36 inches tall, and will weigh less than 400 lb.

What Breeds Are There?

There are not very many purebred donkeys now, as they tend to interbreed and be interbred very regularly. However, there are many different breeds. These include (among many others):

  • Abyssinian
  • Algerian
  • Mammoth Jack
  • Afghan
  • Norman
  • Ragusano
  • Asno Americana
  • Australian
  • Bulgarian
  • Burro
  • Irish
  • Spotted
  • Standard

Many countries have one or more breeds that are unique to their land, partly as a result of domestication and partly as a result of natural selection. Because there are so many breeds and so few purebred donkeys, many people classify them by size instead.

According to The Donkey Sanctuary, there are two separate species of wild donkey: the Asiatic wild ass, and the African species. The African species can then be broken down into the Nubian wild ass equus and the Somali wild ass equus.

All modern donkeys come from the African species, not the Asiatic species.

Colors

Donkeys, like horses, can come in several different colors. Gray is the commonest, and most people think of gray when they think of a donkey. Brown donkeys are the second most common. 

You will also see donkeys that are roan and black, or donkeys that combine white and brown or white and black markings. These are known as broken donkeys.

On occasion, domestic donkeys may be pure white, but this is rare.

Their coats also come in a variety of textures, from shaggy and rough to smooth.

What Do They Look Like?

Donkeys look similar to horses, but they are more stockily built and not quite as graceful. They also have large and long ears, which they evolved to help them detect other donkeys’ calls in the vast arid regions they live in.

Handsome Donkey

Horses have longer noses, while donkeys have wider foreheads, and their eyes are further apart. Donkeys’ hooves tend to be small, with a square shape suited to rough terrain.

A donkey’s tail is also different; it is not made up of individual hairs throughout, but resembles the tail of a cow, with just a tuft of hair at the end. In general, a donkey’s hair is stiffer and coarser than a horse’s mane and tail.

What Are They Used For?

Donkeys are particularly good for two purposes: they can be ridden, and they can carry things.

Because donkeys do not readily bolt, they are excellent for riding. They make good mounts for young children to practice on, as they are smaller than horses and steadier than horses.

When a donkey encounters something that it is uncertain about, it will usually stand still and investigate it, rather than running away as a horse might. This makes them safer to ride.

They do have a reputation for being stubborn because they are not as easily coerced as a horse is. This means that they need careful handling and patience.

They are usually obedient unless they feel under threat; their unwillingness to move can be handled easily by allowing them to investigate whatever frightens them and determine that it is safe.

Donkeys are also able to shift great weights. Many can pull up to twice their own weight on good ground and can bear about 50 kilos on their backs. 

On challenging terrain, this ability is obviously lessened, but they still make excellent pack animals.

Where Do They Live?

According to LiveScience, donkeys live all over the world, at least as far as domesticated donkeys and feral donkeys are concerned. Wild donkeys are found in North African savannas and deserts, in the Middle East, and in the Arabian Peninsula.

Many breeds that are specific to one country will only be found there (unless deliberately exported), but otherwise, donkeys are found across the globe. They tend to prefer hot conditions, without too much rain.

How Long Do They Live?

Wild donkeys often live for about 30 years. Domesticated donkeys average around 27 years, but can live as long as 40.

How Fast Are They?

A donkey’s speed will depend on how much weight it is carrying and how long its legs are, but on average, most can reach a maximum speed of about 15-20 miles per hour

According to AnimalMom, the fastest donkey, the onager, achieved a speed of 43 miles an hour.

However, most donkeys prefer to move at slower paces, and it can be difficult to encourage them to move fast. While some donkeys may be able to rival horses for short bursts of speed, they are not keen to run.

How Much Do They Cost?

As with many animals, the cost of a donkey can vary enormously depending on a number of different factors, such as the animal’s age, history, breed, family, condition, health, size, look, etc.

If you want to rescue a donkey, you are likely to be able to find one for free or very little money, as these animals are often badly treated and end up in neglectful circumstances. However, if you want a donkey to work or ride, you will need to pay more.

According to FarmAndAnimals, the cost of a donkey could be between $300-$3000. Special breeds, training, and good character will have a major impact on the price.

It is worth noting that donkeys are often unhappy when kept alone; they form strong bonds with other donkeys, and prefer to be in pairs. If you are considering costs, make sure you take into account both the purchase and living costs for two donkeys.

Are They Good For Beginners?

Donkeys are beautiful animals, and they require a better understanding than many people have of them. Their tendency to freeze when faced with danger is often interpreted as stubbornness, rather than fear and careful assessment of the threat.

However, this can make them good for children learning how to ride. Where a horse will bolt, a donkey will stop and assess, reducing the chance of the rider being thrown off and injured.

A beginner who is patient and keen to work with the donkey and understand its behavior will likely benefit from its nature, and will also be able to form a strong bond with it. 

However, a beginner may also find it challenging to work with a donkey who is afraid, as they will have fewer ideas about how to overcome the fear and encourage the donkey. 

They will need to spend time learning how to work with the donkey, and how to help it overcome anything alarming it encounters.

Conclusion

Donkeys are beautiful, amazing creatures that have been misunderstood by many. They are highly intelligent and affectionate animals, with superb memories and great problem-solving abilities.

They are also full of character and owners often fall in love with individual quirks. They do not carry all of the benefits of horses (e.g. many adults are too heavy to ride them), but they make up for that with many other characteristics.

It is easy to see why these animals have been so popular across the world, and why donkeys are still a major part of human society today.

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