On his Facebook page, Odie Gravel reveals that he is “in a relationship”—which isn’t un-usual, except that Odie is a 31-inch Miniature Donkey. And his significant other is a 16-hand Irish Sport Horse.
Odie and his pal, Rory, are the best of friends despite their differences in size, species and length of ears. Their relationship demonstrates why many horse owners have concluded that the ideal companion for their horses might not be another horse, but a donkey.
As herd animals that rely on the structure of groups to feel safe, horses are usually miserable alone, but many people who keep horses at home don’t have the desire—or money—for two. Even at boarding stables and ranches where horses are plentiful, a stallion or high-strung mare or gelding may need to be kept apart from other horses and would benefit from a nontraditional companion.
Enter the donkey, the humblest and most unfairly maligned of the Equus genus. Similar to the horse in conformation and ever ready to play, a donkey makes an ideal companion and is easier on the bank account.
That’s how Odie met Rory. Their owner, Jenn Gravel of Washington State, needed a companion for Rory, a high-spirited gelding who was boarded at a local stable, but, according to Gravel, was “harassing” the other horses, even when separated by a fence.
Gravel, a lifelong equestrian married to a rodeo rider, didn’t want the expense of boarding another horse, so she asked the barn manager if she could add a Miniature Donkey to Rory’s paddock at no extra charge. When the manager agreed, she started a search that culminated in Odie, a Mini who can fit underneath Rory without ducking. She took him on trial, uncertain of how the pair would interact.
During their first encounter, the donkey bit the horse, and the horse kicked the donkey. In pictures of that meeting, “Odie has no ears” because they’re flat, Gravel says. But within an hour, the two had worked out their differences. “Rory was enthralled with him. He was like, ‘What is this? I love this thing!’” They’ve been together ever since, Odie providing Rory with all the companionship of a horse, at a greatly reduced expense. The antics of the pair, an equine odd couple, have also given them an enthusiastic YouTube following.
The easiest of keepers
Donkeys are part of the Equidae order that originated in the rocky, dry climes of Northern Africa. They are descended from the African wild ass, which is thought to have been domesticated about 5,000 years ago. Like their ancient counterparts, modern donkeys are both feral prey and beasts of burden. “There are donkeys in every country in the world taking on the role of mechanized equipment. They’re the most important draft animal in the world,” says Massachusetts veterinarian Stephen Purdy, DVM, author of Donkeys: Miniature, Standard, and Mammoth: A Veterinary Guide for Owners and Breeders.
In Greece, donkeys provide taxi service for tourists, despite the protests of animal-rights groups who consider the practice abusive. In some countries, they are eaten—barbecued donkey is considered a delicacy in Kenya, and Walmarts in China recently had to recall packages of its Five Spice donkey meat after they were found to contain traces of fox.
To most Americans, however, the thought of eating donkeys is abhorrent. In the United States, donkeys rarely work; the need for pack animals ended with the automobile, and they are no longer used to carry supplies into mines. It’s mules, not donkeys, who carry tourists around the Grand Canyon. The most controversial work donkeys are asked to perform in the United States is to participate in fundraising basketball games. Mostly, they are pets, companions and props in church Nativity pageants. They are doted upon like dogs, and, like dogs, their numbers are increasing. Many people in the United States ride and compete with donkeys in equine or donkey- and mule-only events. Donkeys are also driven for pleasure.
The most recent Census of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, conducted in 2012, counted 292,590 mules, donkeys and burros at for-profit farms and ranches, a 8,782 increase since 2007. That figure does not include donkeys like Odie, who are at boarding stables or in backyards, only those at farms or ranches that sell animals.
Elizabeth Moore, a donkey enthusiast in New Mexico who runs a website called Eeebray.com, says there are an estimated 50 million donkeys in the world, but fewer than 500,000 in the United States, even as interest in them has increased.
The first donkeys to populate North America are believed to have come with Christopher Columbus; six were on a Spanish supply ship that accompanied the explorer on his second excursion here. Some 300 years later, George Washington would unwittingly start a new breed, the American Mammoth Jackstock, when he bred large jacks that had been gifts from the King of Spain and his French comrade, the Marquis de Lafayette, wrote Anita Gallion in her book, Small-Scale Donkey Keeping.Donkeys proliferated in early America for many of the same reasons they do now: They are calm, stoic workers that, compared to horses, cost little to feed.In fact, these days people tend to overfeed donkeys, says Purdy, who is also director of the North American Camelid Studies Program and has nine donkeys of his own. “Donkeys are much more efficient at converting their food [than horses], and so most of them never need any grain. They need to eat way less food.”
“I have people calling me and saying they want a donkey and they have 27 acres of great pasture, and I have to tell them, that’s not what they need,” says Ann Firestone, a former veterinary technician who heads the Save Your Ass Long Ear Rescue in New Hampshire. “These animals have evolved from desert-dwelling creatures that got by on minimal forage of poor quality. As a rule, they eat a lot less than a horse. They look at grass, and they blow up.”
And like horses, donkeys who eat too rich a diet are at risk for laminitis and founder. “Donkeys were made to eat sticks, basically, and we give them all this beautiful hay, and before you know it, they founder,” Moore says. “It goes to their feet really fast.”
Similarities and differences with horses
The most obvious difference between donkeys and horses is, of course, their ears. Generally about twice the length of horses’ ears, the donkey’s long ears are thought to be an evolutionary adaptation that developed for reasons similar to the bray, the donkey’s distinctive, loud call.
The earliest donkeys and their ancestors navigated sparse, rocky settings, and as such, sometimes had to separate from each other to find food. The ears and the bray (which can be heard from as far away as a mile) enabled donkeys to communicate with each other over great distances.
Donkeys and horses also differ significantly from one another in their feet. A donkey’s hoof is more upright than that of a horse. If his hooves become overgrown, a donkey seems to be walking on high heels or stilts.
The donkey’s foot allows him to more easily navigate difficult terrain. “When I first started riding my Mammoth, I was shocked at how these donkeys would plow through rocks and underbrush without even blinking an eye, where a horse would jump over it, or not want to go,” Moore says.
Donkeys don’t generally need shoes, but they do need trims every six to eight weeks, like horses. Other maintenance, too, is similar: Donkeys require regular deworming and annual shots for rabies and West Nile virus. (There are no vaccines specific to donkeys; they are given equine medication and vaccines, adjusted for proportion.) They’ll need their teeth floated every year or two, and they must have a Coggins test to cross state lines.
For most people wanting to match a horse with a donkey, a Standard donkey is often the first choice. There are three types of donkeys: Minis, which are under 36 inches; Standards, 36 to 54 inches; and Mammoths, more than 54 inches.
Mammoths are the only donkey that can safely be ridden by a large adult. For standards, the rule of thumb is that a donkey can carry 25 percent of its body weight, with tack. This precludes most adults from riding a standard donkey for any length of time without injury to the donkey’s back or legs. Most, however, can pull a cart with an adult in it with no negative effect.
Stubborn? Not really
In popular culture the notion that donkeys and their like are stubborn persists. But they really are just misunderstood. In fact, what is commonly perceived as stubbornness (hence the term “mule-headed”) is actually a good quality: Donkeys prefer to think things over before reacting.
When faced with something new or frightening, a horse will follow his ancient instinct to flee. A donkey is more likely to stop in his tracks and refuse to budge until he has assessed the situation. “For this, they’ve got a reputation for being dumb and stubborn, but they’re just thinking about things,” Purdy says. “I’m not saying they won’t run, but their first reaction is to stand still. People want to hurry them, but you have to give them time to look at things. You’ve got to be patient. There’s no way to hurry a donkey.”
On the plus side, the donkey’s stoic nature makes him an excellent therapy animal, Purdy says. “A donkey will stand there all day to be petted or groomed. In that, they’re like Golden Retrievers. They really are quite affectionate.”
They’re also extraordinarily playful. Donkeys play rough, much like dogs do. They will rear up, bite each other’s necks, and chase each other around a paddock or pasture, in behavior that looks aggressive but is amazingly gentle and rarely results in serious injury. Even Odie and Rory, the Mini and Irish Sport Horse, roughhouse together. “They play really rough, and it used to worry me a little bit, but no one has ever gotten hurt,” Gravel says. “Donkeys are great companions for playful horses. They will play with anything—balls, traffic cones, sweatshirts.”
In addition to serving as a companion for your horse, donkeys provide another valuable service: They are terrific guard animals that can deter predators like foxes or coyotes from approaching your hens, barn cats or other farm animals. This instinct comes from their natural dislike of canines.
If there’s a drawback to getting a donkey for your horse, it may be that you might soon have two donkeys. “We do adopt out donkeys as horse companions, but I encourage people to take two donkeys,” says Firestone. “They will bond with a horse, but they’re so much happier when they have another donkey. Once the donkey is bonded, and then you take the horse out, the donkey will have a meltdown. They’re herd animals, too,” she said.
And be aware that donkey fever may be hard to shake. Moore got her first donkey as a companion for her reining horse; over time, she decided that horses were too expensive, and all she wanted was donkeys. “I got rid of all my horses and got a Mammoth Donkey who satisfies my need to ride,” she says. “But a horse and a donkey—they make a wonderful couple.”
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #443.