Donkeys- A Summary

Bella and Friends

Scientific name: Equus Asinus, member of the Equine family so donkeys are closely related to horses and zebras.

  • Entire males are known as "jacks",

  • Female donkeys are "jennies" or "mares",

  • Castrated males are "geldings"

  • Baby donkeys are "foals"


Originate from: North Africa and Central Asia.

Three sub species:

  • Nubian Wild Ass- with shoulder cross, reddish summer coat, grey winter coat

  • Somali wild ass has no shoulder cross, but prominent leg stripes, yellowish summer coat

  • Asiatic wild Ass is more variable due the range of habitats in the area reaching from the Red sea to Tibet. The further East they extend, the taller and heavier they become. Asian Asses do not carry a shoulder cross but have a broad stripe that runs down the spine.

The Syrian Ass measured less than 10 HH. The fast Syrian Onager is about 12 hh and the Kulan is about 12 1/2 HH. The largest variant is the Kiang, native of the Tibetan plateau to the north of the Himalayas. Distinctive characteristics include shorter ears, and larger, more rounded feet. Syrian onagers are classed as an endangered species. Onagers are on display in The Dubbo Zoo.


Donkeys are the original draught animal and has been probably been in service of man for at least 8 000 years.


Common Donkeys as we know them, probably evolved along the Silk Road with both deliberate and natural breeding mixing and merging native subspecies.


Donkeys were introduced to Greece, Italy and Spain to work in the olive groves and vineyards where they were small enough to pass along the narrow terraces. The Roman army introduced the donkey as a pack animal throughout northern Europe including Britain. In England, donkeys became very important as a farm draught animal in the 15th and 16th centuries when the horse populations were severely reduced by successive wars. Donkeys were introduced to Ireland to replace horses sold as remounts in the many wars England waged.


Special lines were bred in France, Spain and Malta for specific roles, especially for breeding mules, which have been much preferred on the Continent for packing and as a general-purpose farm draught animal.


Mules are normally a hybrid / cross between a jack donkey (stallion) and a mare horse. The resultant animal is generally sterile due to a mismatch of chromosomes, but extremely strong (hybrid strength) which is why they are a preferred draught and pack animal. Often tasked to carry their own body weight or more. The opposite combination is known as a Hinny.


The Mammoth “Jackstock” was bred in the USA specifically to breed large mules. Selective breeding was started by George Washington after he was presented a pair of large Spanish Catalonian donkeys. Mammoths were much sought after animals and attracted prices in excess of $5000.00. Two types of mammoth were bred: lighter, riding donkeys with more speed and endurance; and heavy draught donkeys to breed heavy mules for drawing ploughs and other farm machinery.


The last record of American Mammoth Jackstock being imported into Queensland was from The Limestone Stud in 1935. Two animals arrived in Brisbane. One was consigned to Irvinebank, North Queensland.


The standard for mammoth donkeys is 14.1HH for Jennies and 16.1HH for jacks. Some exceed 17HH. (HH = hand high, a measurement of the width of a hand and roughly equals 4inches or 100mm)


The Mammoth along with many specialised donkey breeds nearly became extinct after WWII when motor vehicles became affordable and replaced draught animals. Fortunately, enthusiasts have recognised the importance and value of these distinctive lines and a revival of interest have re-established viable breeding populations.


Donkeys have evolved in a dry hot/cold dry environment and share many common traits to camels and goats including:

  • they are browsers rather than grazing animals, and will eat nearly any plant.

  • Ability to conserve water,

  • Live in small, dispersed herds to enable survival in sparse vegetation. Often develop very strong bonds between animals.

  • Long lived with individual animals reaching 60(+) years of age. Very good memories and individual thinking/ reasoning ability.


Special adaptive features:

  • Long eyelashes to assist protecting eyes from dust,

  • Very strong eyesight with panoramic vision pattern.  Strong night vision.

  • Very strong sense of smell.

  • Soft whiskers on chin guide/ identify food sources, as sight does not extend to muzzle. 

  • Long ears- signalling devices, 

    • Radiates heat

    • Good pinpoint hearing.

  • Large head- very strong jaws to eat woody plants and for defence weapons. Also acts a large resonator to assist volume of call.

  • One of very few animals that vocalise on both inward and outward breaths- hence the HEE haw Doppler effect call (Bray). Donkeys have very individual calls and a sophisticated vocabulary. The call of the Tyrannosaurus rex in the film Jurassic Park was of a Jack Donkey Bray slowed down and reversed.

  • Two arteries to each kidney- providing the ability to void toxins quickly and concentrate urine.

  • Very strong skeleton- reduced numbers of lumbar vertebrae (5) compared with horse (6).

  • Small boxy feet adapted to survive very rocky conditions- steeper hoof walls that do not catch in gaps between rocks. Able to carry very large loads for size.

  • Small muscle mass suits endurance, reduces heat build-up and aids cooling to reduce risk of overheating and heat stress.

  • Extremely energy efficient.

  • Do not grow two replacement coats as a horse does – simply sheds the winter heavy coat in summer and grow back a heavy coat next winter.

A donkey’s coat lacks a heavy grease content making it better suited to dry climates as the fur fibres separate and provide a better insulation effect. Coat also acts as an armour style of protection in time of attack.

Survival mechanism/ counter predator strategies are based on camouflage and concealment; hence natural colour patterns. Often remains motionless when threatened using sight, smell and hearing to detect and track threats rather than stampeding. 

The reputation for stubbornness results from this survival response- donkeys are very reluctant to knowingly place themselves in danger and will “freeze” and resist any external force until they are satisfied that the danger is passed or the handler can prove that the threat is removed. Soft ground is a particular fear possibly caused by the small feet that sink quickly in mud or soft sand.


Will attack predators such as dogs (Dingos) using teeth or front legs in a batting motion, then trampling with front feet to break the dog's back.


Disputes between donkeys are generally attacks using rear kicking or charges with teeth (jacks). Male (Jacks and geldings) donkeys often practice fighting by interlocking necks and rearing as a game.