Not Little Horses with Big Ears

Donkeys come in all sizes,  including Holly Fisher's Mammoth Donkey gelding, Mud Flapp, a frequent show winner and trail mount. (Photo by Judy Heinrich)

Donkeys come in all sizes, including Holly Fisher’s Mammoth Donkey gelding, Mud Flapp, a frequent show winner and trail mount. (Photo by Judy Heinrich)

November’s “Donkey & Mule Day” at FENCE was a hit, with attendees coming from as far away as Atlanta and Charleston. Most had horses, many had donkeys and/or mules, and some came just to learn about these long-eared members of the equine family.

The all-day program was organized by Polk County residents Barbara Claussen and Tony Walters, who live with their horses and several rescued donkeys at a farm on Collinsville Road.

Presenters for the program included Kim Hayes, operations manager of the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada, along with one of the sanctuary’s regular farriers, Chris Gerber, and local equine veterinarian Kris Woodaman.

The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada (DSC) was established in 1992 to provide a haven for donkeys that no longer had homes. Through all those years, the DSC staff has been asked, “Why donkeys?” The sanctuary’s response is “Because it’s necessary… As one of our staff members puts it, the donkey is the forgotten equine, too often a subject of ridicule and too often considered disposable at the end of its working life.”

Donkeys seem to be a growing presence in our area, as companions for horses, for driving or riding, sometimes as guardians for other animals, or simply for the enjoyment of their gentle and often humorous personalities.

But in spite of their growing presence here, misconceptions about donkeys still persist, including that they are “stubborn” and/or “stupid.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Why donkeys and horses are different

Many people, even horsepeople, tend to think of donkeys as “little horses with big ears” and consequently try to manage and train them the same way. While they are both members of the genus Equus, they are two unique species whose physical and mental attributes are products of very different environmental and evolutionary adaptation over millions of years. Here’s a brief overview, as explained by Kim Hayes.

The ancestors of today’s horse (Equus caballus) tended to exist and evolve in parts of the world with lush forage and plentiful water, such as the grass plains of Asia. That type of habitat supported the development of large herds living and moving together. Within this herd even the oldest, youngest and most infirm horses had relative safety as they could stay within the crowd and not be as obvious to predators.

From this herd dynamic was born a social order based on a leader-follower model: the majority of the herd looked to the “alpha” horse to signal with subtle body language when and where to eat, drink, travel and, most importantly, gallop off to escape predators.

It is horses’ acceptance of the leader/follower model that has allowed humans to establish dominance over an animal many times their own size.

In contrast, the ancestors of today’s donkey (Equus asinus) lived and evolved primarily in areas such as the North African Desert, where both forage and water were scarce. That type of habitat did not support large groups of animals moving together. Instead, single Jacks (donkey stallions) would establish their own territories, through which donkey mares (jennets) would travel, usually with a foal and weanling, and sometimes with another mare and foal.

In the absence of herds and established leaders, donkeys had to think and make decisions about their own fates: where will I eat, sleep, move to, etc. They also learned to hide any signs of fear or pain that would encourage predators. And since a jennet running off from a predator would leave its foal unprotected, and a Jack running off could just be followed until it tired, both genders of donkeys learned to stand and fight against a predator, to the death if necessary, rather than try to run away. While donkeys will kick with their rear hooves, their most lethal weapons are strikes with their front hooves and clamping or ripping with their very strong jaws and teeth.

Donkey behavior today

The behaviors that evolved from their ancient histories can still be seen in modern donkeys.

• They are highly independent and used to making their own decisions based on perceived safety or benefit.

• They are extremely stoic and do not show pain or fear as readily as horses do.

• They are willing to face and even remove a perceived threat, if necessary; that’s why they can make good guardians for livestock.

• In the absence of the strict hierarchy of a horse herd, donkeys often form pair bonds but are also very accepting of an entire group of donkeys crowding around a round bale or huddling together inside a run-in shed.

• With one horse and one donkey parent, mules are harder to generalize about as their behavior may take on aspects of either parent. And while “mule” generally covers any horse/donkey offspring, the offspring of a male horse and female donkey is more correctly called a hinny.

Establishing a relationship

Because donkeys don’t understand the leader/follower model, establishing a relationship requires a different approach, according to Kim Hayes.

• Be a friend, giving your donkey scratches, pats and the occasional treat.

• Don’t try to be “alpha” – instead try to show him that what you want him to do is in his best interest.

• Don’t be a subordinate, letting him come up and rub on you or mug you for treats.

• Watch for subtle changes in posture; donkeys use their ears, neck, foot stomps and tail swishes as horses do, but are much more subtle.

• If you need to leave a halter on, be sure it’s a break-away and that it’s not too tight.

• Always bring three things: patience, persistence and a sense of humor.

Training your donkey

Even the basic things we ask equines to do have no equivalent in their natural world: holding them with a rope, tying them to something, loading them into a moving box, etc. Because of their unique mindset, working successfully with donkeys requires a different approach.

In training horses, we act like teachers – another form of leader. We perceive ourselves as “in charge” and can get frustrated when another creature doesn’t get that.

Dealing with donkeys is more like dealing with a spouse: there are two independent beings, each with their own idea of what is in their best interest. To come together for a “common purpose” with a donkey, you have to help them answer their own questions about safety and benefit.

• Try to determine the motivation driving a donkey’s behavior before trying to modify it.

• Use positive reinforcement rather than punishment, which can cause a donkey to think you are no longer safe.

• Avoid physical restraint and reward with a release; when training to lead, for example, apply steady pressure on the lead rope and if the donkey steps forward, release the pressure and praise.

• Clicker training is often successful with donkeys; they see the “click” or accompanying treat as a benefit. (Note: salted roasted peanuts in the shell make good non-sugary treats.)

• Once donkeys or mules learn something, they have it and don’t require repetitive schooling. You can teach a donkey to longe and change gaits on cue, for example, but having demonstrated that ability they will be less accepting of repetitive longeing than a horse will.

• As renowned horse trainer Ray Hunt preached, “Make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy.”

Nutrition and health

Kim Hayes and local veterinarian Kris Woodaman shared these basics for caring for and keeping a donkey healthy:

• Donkeys in our area can get fat and suffer from laminitis/founder just as horses can.

• Make forage the basis of your donkey’s diet and have salt with trace minerals available. Slow feeders for hay are recommended.

• Donkeys have very efficient guts and can eat roughage that is harder to digest, like twigs and straw. DSC uses barley, wheat or oat straw – always in dried form – as its main feed for donkeys.

• Fortified feed concentrates and grains are not recommended unless a donkey has a special health need, in which case a “high fat/high fiber/low carb” option is best. Soaked timothy pellets can be a better choice than most concentrates.

• For vital signs like pulse, respiration rate, temperature and some enzyme levels, your vet should be aware that donkey norms can differ from horses’. (The Professional Handbook of the Donkey [4th edition] is available free to vets from the Donkey Sanctuary of the UK –

• Vaccinations are essentially the same as for horses, but for Injections and drawing blood, the donkey’s skin is thicker and the vein is located higher on the neck.

• If tubing is needed, your vet should use a foal tube because donkeys have narrower nasal passages.

• Anecdotally there have been reports of donkey deaths with Quest (Moxydectin) wormer; Ivermectin and Strongid may be safer options.

• Because of a donkey’s stoicism, an owner who pays attention will be most likely to recognize subtle signs that something is not quite right: lethargy, dull appearance, changes in eating, drinking, urine and feces. If you notice any signs, encourage your vet to “go to the next step, do the next test.”

Hoof care

The most frequent question the DSC staff hears is, “How do I make my donkey easier for the farrier to work with?” The best way is to get your donkey used to having his feet handled by regularly using a hoof pick on them yourself. If your donkey isn’t used to that already, clicker training can be used quite successfully here, too.

We will leave the specifics of hoof problems to the farriers and veterinarians, but here are some general differences that DSC farrier Chris Gerber pointed out between donkey and horse hooves.

• Donkeys tend to have stronger, thicker hoof soles than horses, and the soles grow down along with the hoof wall. (It’s thought that this may carry over from ancient donkeys “running around on sand paper” in their desert environments.)

• Donkeys have a very thick, bulbous frog but it doesn’t typically extend as far forward as on a horse.

• The coffin bone of a donkey does not extend as far toward the back of the hoof as a horse’s does, meaning laminitis treatment may differ.

• The digital cushion is much larger on a donkey, acting as a shock absorber to tamp down vibration.

• Donkeys can be prone to both abscesses and white line disease; unlike horses, donkeys don’t appear to need an easy entry for bacteria/fungus for either problem to develop.

• Because donkeys are so stoic, they typically won’t start to limp until abscesses or white line disease have progressed significantly.

• The common “founder stance” – front feet stretched forward, rear feet tucked under – is not as prevalent in donkeys as they are usually more evenly affected with pain on both front and rear hooves.


There are many excellent books about donkey care and training, as well as websites with links to a wide range of resources. Check out both and for the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada and the Donkey Sanctuary of the UK, respectively.

If you’d like to try clicker training for your donkey – it worked for me! – the DSC recommended Ben Hart Horsemanship ( And you can also learn from local donkey fans – including Barbara Claussen, who has years of donkey rescue experience. She can be emailed at

Photo and story by Judy Heinrich


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