Donkeys are known for being extremely stubborn and sometimes aggressive if not appropriately treated. But once trained and socialized, these highly intelligent equines can excel in a wide range of areas on your farm. Depending on your plans for the future, you can find donkeys perfectly suited for milk, riding, and pets.
What kind of donkey is best for children? More than 36” tall donkeys can be used under the saddle for pleasure or trail riding by both small adults and children. They make excellent and sure-footed pack animals. Many small farms use larger donkeys for draft and plow work and small field logging.
Donkey milk is in high demand in some areas for its purported health benefits and usability in making cheese or lotions. Additionally, a variety of donkeys can make excellent pets, guardian animals or field ornaments if you just want a long-eared companion around the farm.
Regardless of your plans for having donkeys on your farm, there are a variety of types and unique breeds to suit your needs. From the smallest Miniature Donkey that makes a great pet, to the largest Mammoth Jackstock draft animal that can pull a heavy wagon, there is a donkey that is well suited for every situation.
Pleasure Riding and Donkeys Under-Saddle
In North America, donkeys are rarely separated by distinct breeds (I cover breeds later in the article) and more by their overall size. For donkeys used under saddle for both pleasure and trail riding, mammoth and standard-sized donkeys are almost exclusively used.
These donkeys are strong enough to carry both child and adult riders safely and without the risk of harming the donkey due to the weight. Additionally, the donkey’s sure-footed nature makes them an excellent choice for trail riding or canyon traversing.
Standard-sized donkeys usually measure between 36” and 54” tall. They can come in a wide range of solid colors as well as spotted, and some have unique black “cross” markings on their shoulders or zebra stripes on their legs.
Mammoth-sized donkeys stand over 54” tall, with the largest currently recorded animal standing 68” tall. When it comes to purebred mammoth-sized donkeys, the Mammoth Jackstock donkey is used for a wide range of riding activities including casual trail riding, western pleasure riding, extreme riding, vaulting, equestrian gymkhana or mounted games, and general ranch work.
A general rule of thumb for a healthy donkey of suitable age with thick bones is that they can carry up to 30% of their own body weight. Finer-boned donkeys should be limited to 20% of their own body weight. This can include either human riders or pack loads, but always be sure to include the weight of the saddle or panniers as well.
Donkeys for Draft Work, Packing, and Hard Labor
Donkeys have a reputation for being stubborn and difficult to train, but this is not always true. When treated with patience and kindness, donkeys can be trained to carry packs or wear harnesses with relative ease when compared to horses. Donkeys are calm and reliable, similar to oxen, but can thrive better on poor-quality pasture or in extremely arid climates.
Donkeys are commonly used as pack animals in canyon traversal as well as when hunting. They can be better suited to traveling over rough or steep terrain than mules or horses and can carry equally heavy loads. If supplies are packed evenly on a stout and strong donkey, it can easily carry up to 30% of its own body weight in balanced supplies. This can include general supplies, water, food items, health care items, and more.
Additionally, donkeys are extremely adept at being used under harness. Many farms around the world still use donkeys for logging and plow work, as well as for hauling utility wagons and loads of produce to and from the farmlands.
Generally speaking, donkeys can pull more than twice their own body weight when harnessed to a wagon or cart. This makes them able to move lumber, produce, other livestock, and people with relative ease. The calm steadfastness of a donkey makes them much better suited for work along busy roads or where horses and mules might spook.
In North America and some parts of Europe, pleasure driving is a popular sport that donkeys are becoming well represented in. There are not only farms that specialize in breeding and training donkeys solely for pleasure driving, but there are numerous shows that focus on donkey pleasure driving each year.
Donkeys of all sizes can be used as pleasure-driving animals, and many of the shows focus on miniature or small-standard size donkeys. That’s not to say large-standard and mammoth donkeys cannot be used as well; they absolutely can! As always, be sure your donkey has a properly fitting harness and is being driven on level ground to ensure the safety of both you and your donkey.
Using Donkeys as Dairy Animals
In many parts of the world, donkeys have been used as dairy animals for thousands of years. In the United States and Canada, many farms are realizing the health benefits donkey milk seems to provide consumers. It is arguably one of the best milk sources for people who may not be able to tolerate cow’s milk or goat’s milk.
Donkey milk is extremely high in Vitamin D when compared to other kinds of milk. It also contains less casein which is the protein people with dairy allergies react to. As such, donkey milk can often be enjoyed by individuals that have allergies to cow’s milk or goat’s milk without causing any adverse reactions.
It is also an excellent all-natural infant formula for human babies. Donkey milk contains much of the same nutrient composition and protein amounts as human breast milk. In fact, it has often been used as a perfectly acceptable dairy option for children with severe allergies to cow’s or goat’s milk.
The downside is that donkeys, and other equines, produce much less milk than traditional dairy animals such as cattle and goats since they have not been specifically bred for this trait. This leads to donkey milk being in extremely short supply as well as demanding much higher prices than dairy products from typical animals.
While there is no specific breed that can be called a dairy-donkey, most farms that collect donkey milk are using standard-sized donkeys instead of miniature or mammoth animals. The standard-sized donkeys have a much better ratio of feed to milk return. They are also much easier to find and purchase. When it comes to the milk itself, the nutrient composition is the same whether it comes from miniature, standard, or mammoth-sized donkeys.
Donkey milk is in limited supply for two reasons. The first is that a female donkey will only produce milk when she has a foal. A donkey is pregnant for 11-13 months, and the first two to three months of her milk production is reserved for her offspring. After that, donkey milk can be collected by hand for an additional 3 months to be used for human consumption.
The second reason for the limited supply is that a donkey will only produce around 1 gallon of milk per day, and they need to be milked two to three times per day or they can stop producing milk entirely. Since they have not been traditionally bred for milk production, this amount is about all a donkey can physically produce. Compared to dairy cows which can produce 7-10 gallons, or more, per day.
Donkeys for Livestock Guardians or Pets
One notable personality trait of most donkeys is their dislike of dogs and other canines. This makes some donkeys an excellent choice to use as livestock guardians. While no specific breed is uniquely qualified for this line of work, it will depend on the individual donkey as to whether or not they can be used for guardian purposes.
Donkeys with natural dog aggression and bravery can be placed in fields with sheep, goats, llamas, alpacas, and other livestock. Once bonded to their herd, they may take on the role of herd guardian. They will attempt to defend the rest of the herd from stray dogs, coyotes, foxes, and other nuisance animals.
Larger-sized donkeys should be used for this purpose. Miniature donkeys make excellent pets, but can quickly be overwhelmed by a large dog, wolf, or pack of nuisance animals. Never expect a Miniature donkey or timid donkey of any size to perform guardian duties.
Miniature is a catch-all term that includes most donkeys under 36” tall. However, there are thousands of farms and breed registries around the world focusing on improving the Miniature Donkey as a specific breed.
Known as Miniature Mediterranean or Miniature Sicilian Donkeys, minis are usually the first choice people think of when they are looking for a pet-type donkey. Miniatures are much more docile than their larger relatives and thrive on human attention. They are very friendly and loving towards humans and make especially suitable pets for children.
Additionally, Miniature Donkeys have breed-specific registries across North America and Europe, with some other registries cropping up in other parts of the world. This makes them an excellent choice for a breeding project and show prospects. Miniature Donkeys can be shown in-halter, as well as jumping in hand.
They excel in traditional pleasure driving and can make excellent single or duo carriage animals. In fact, you will find many companies that specialize in donkey-specific harnesses and cart accessories. As well as numerous shows around the world focused on showing the abilities of Miniature Donkeys in harness.
Finding the Right Donkey for You
There are an estimated 40 million donkeys or donkey hybrids alive today. However, only a tiny fraction of those are considered purebred. Donkeys of both pure and mixed breeds are most commonly found in under-developed countries and are used as pack animals and beasts of burden.
Additionally, both donkey milk and donkey meat are used to sustain a wide range of nomadic tribes in various African, Asian, and European countries. Some farms have realized the lucrative nature of donkey milk as well, which has quickly turned their once necessary herds into more of a profitable business venture.
North American Donkey Breeds
In North America, most of the standard and mammoth-sized donkeys are mixed breeds that have no specific breed registry. One of the most notable breeds in North America that does have a breed registry and solid ancestry line is the Mammoth Jackstock.
Historically, these massive donkeys were used to produce draft-sized mules for hard labor logging or pulling cargo wagons. Having first had a variety of larger-than-usual donkeys imported from different parts of Europe which included Andalusian, Catalan and Majorcan breeds, the selective breeding of Mammoth Jackstock began.
Mammoth Jackstock an Endangered Breed
The Mammoth Jackstock breed as it is known today was somewhat common to see in the mid to late 1800s and remained relatively easy to find for many years afterward. The most desirable color in the early 1900s was black with a frosted nose, ears, and stomach. Today, however, this color is all but gone with only a few dozen of these traditionally-colored animals remaining.
The Mammoth Jackstock breed as a whole is considered extremely rare and under-represented in North America. Many farms are selectively working with these donkeys to preserve the breed and provide large and sure-footed saddle, pack or draft donkeys to fill a unique niche in the market
Additionally, Mammoth Jackstock donkeys are highly sought after for the production of draft mules. These large donkey stallions are paired with a draft horse mare to produce very large and stocky mules. These mules are excellent for heavy logging, draft work, and plowing. They can also be perfectly suited for carrying large riders, packing extremely heavy loads, and serving as guardian animals against large predators such as wolves and bears.
In Europe and Asia, multiple purebred donkeys can still be found, though they continue to remain in extremely low numbers. The most notable pure breed donkeys found in Europe and Asia include:
This extremely rare French donkey is easily noticeable by its thick corded or dreadlocked coat. Unfortunately, it is critically endangered with no more than 500 individuals estimated to be left in the world as of 2020. Less than 80 of those can be found in the United States, with the entirety being kept in preservation breeding programs, zoos, and at select animal sanctuaries.
Historically, the Poitou donkey was used in France to pull cannon carts in war. During World War II, the Poitou was used to produce strong draft mules for use as pack animals by the soldiers. After the war, the Poitou became more expensive to keep than it was worth and huge numbers of these animals were slaughtered with very little regard to preserving the breed. Roughly 80 purebred specimens remained in the world after that time and huge attempts have since been made to repopulate their numbers.
These unmistakable donkeys can stand 58 inches (147cm) tall and weigh up to 950 pounds (431kg) when mature. This puts them in the mammoth size category for donkeys, making them not only unique in looks but impressive in size as well. They are currently the only donkey breed to display corded coats, though even Poitou hybrids can display the cords due to it being a very dominant genetic trait.
Grand Noir du Berry
Still found in France today but extremely uncommon in other parts of the world, this unique donkey breed is often used for draft work on small farms and vineyards. In 2020, their worldwide population was just over 1,100 which makes this donkey an endangered breed. Many farms in France are working to restore the breed’s numbers.
The Grand Noir du Berry is similar in size and body shape to the Poitou, but their coat is much more normal in comparison. They do, however, sport extremely large and shaggy ears giving them a very unique look especially when they are juveniles. These attractive donkeys can reach 55 inches (140cm) tall, and weigh up to 900 pounds (408kg) at maturity.
Historically, these large and hardy donkeys were used to haul barges along several canals in the region. Today, in addition to being used for draft work, they are also used under harness for pleasure driving.
Still bred and used by nomadic families in Gujarat India, the Halari donkey is an excellent pack animal. Able to pull more than twice their own body weight on a cart, or carry balanced packs of up to 35% of their body weight, Halari donkeys are almost exclusively used for hard labor. These solid white-colored donkeys are easily recognizable and somewhat common in some parts of India, with additional Halari donkeys making it to other countries around the world.
These donkeys can stand up to 42 inches (107cm) tall and weigh roughly 440 pounds (200kg). They are not commonly used to produce mules, but in addition to being used for hauling supplies and pulling carts, they are equally valuable in some parts of the world for their milk production and meat.
Donkeys are generally quite affordable to purchase and keep. They are hardy and can be very resistant to diseases that horses are prone to. They make great companions or pets for people of all ages and will put in a hard day’s work under the saddle or in harness once they trust you.
Additionally, donkeys can be kept on poor pasture and still thrive as well or better than other livestock. Regardless of what breed or size of donkey you decide to add to your farm, you will soon find they can meet or exceed your expectations when it comes to work, utility, or simply their charm.