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In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
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Albert Einstein


Understanding donkey behaviour


As with most behaviour, the differences between similar species is caused by the initial evolution of the species.  Regardless of their environment horses have evolved in herds.  Horses use home ranges which they do not defend from other bands of horses.  Donkeys however have two possible social structures depending upon their environment.  In a nutritionally rich environment donkeys do establish herds; these groups may be slightly more transient than horse herds and jacks may be more territorial.  However, if the donkeys’ environment has limited vegetation and reduced water availability then mares spend much time on their own or with a previous year’s offspring, only congregating in larger brands in the non breeding season.  During the breeding season, in order to breed successfully, donkey stallions defend a territory from other stallions.  The behavioural differences between donkeys and horses may be the result of these different social structures.

For horses, out-running the slowest herd member ensures survival.  Solitary donkeys have no benefit from safety in numbers, and this may have lead to donkeys developing more of a fight mechanism.  Such is the strength of their fight mechanism that some donkeys can be used as guard animals for herds of sheep and goats against canine predators.


The tendency for donkey stallions to be territorial also leads to differences in their behaviour in domestication.  Donkeys can become territorial over their pasture and will sometimes attack small livestock and pets.  This territorial aggressive behaviour, it is most likely to occur in young male donkeys especially in the springtime or when their environment provides little mental stimulation.  However, older donkeys both male and female could display this behaviour.  Not all donkeys exhibit this type of behaviour and some are happy to live with small domestic livestock.

Donkeys are extremely stoical, and show their pain or fear much less than horses.  They are so stoical that even in cases of severe illness often the only symptom to alert the handler is very minor changes of behaviour.  Donkeys are less expressive in their behaviour when terrified and have a reduced flight mechanism so they tend not to panic as easily as horses.  This can lead to a misreading of their emotional states, and can, as a result, make them more difficult to work with than horses.  The fearful horse clearly displays their fear, the fearful donkey may simply raise himself up a couple of inches in height, his eyes may widen slightly and may just show what appears to be increased interest in the situation.  It is equally as easy to misdiagnose the bargey donkey, as being aggressive or disrespectful when in fact this behaviour is commonly found in donkeys that are actually fearful of their situation.

As well as their behavioural differences donkeys and horses have a number of physiological differences.  The donkey has lower levels of grease in their coat making their coats less waterproof than horses.  The donkey’s average temperature range is about 1 degree lower than that of a horse.  Donkeys’ feet have a number of differences, including being more elastic, narrower in shape, and more upright than a horse’s.  Donkeys can be prone to developing very long hooves as they do not chip and breakaway as a horse’s would do.  The donkey’s digestive system is considerably more efficient than that of a similar sized pony. 

Part of the misunderstanding of donkey behaviour comes from the image of placid beach donkeys and the Christmas image of an angelic donkey.  These images make it easy to forget that donkeys have wild ancestors just like the horse and have a flight or fight nature as well.  People tend to get donkeys as pets and then discover they are every bit as individual and challenging as the horse.  Donkeys are not so prone to panic, so are less prone to injuring themselves and their handlers. 

Male donkeys can be aggressive with each other, often fighting to the point of drawing blood.  Their stoic nature and increased fight mechanism probably accounts for the reason that ‘natural horsemanship’ methods are largely unsuccessful with donkeys and mules.  Donkeys are not easily forced against their will and it is very difficult to make them perform.  Donkeys are not difficult to train if trained using the science of behaviour.  Donkeys respond very well to the use of positive reinforcement and can be clicker trained extremely well if the trainer is experienced in its use.  A donkey with a fear or phobia will respond well to systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning training. 

It is essential when working with donkeys that the trainer has a very good ability to use small steps to shape the animal’s behaviour.  However, it must be said that this should be the way that all equines are trained.  Donkeys just like horses, need sufficient time to think through the problems that they face and they need their problem solving ability developed. 

Donkeys in general have a very efficient walking pace and to be honest, in most situations it is easier to walk at the donkeys pace rather than try and make them go at ours.  Due to their generally small stature keeping the donkey’s feet underneath the animal and only 10 cm from the floor when picking out feet will help prevent kicking. 

Unfortunately, it has been common for people to use brute strength and physical force to make donkeys comply with routine treatments.  These negative methods should be avoided at all costs in favour of sound training practises and an understanding of the donkeys’ fear which is so stoically hidden.  The donkey is often misunderstood and mistreated for one simple reason; it’s not a small horse with big ears! 

By Ben Hart

Kindly reproduced with the permission of The Donkey Sanctuary

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