About the Breed
There is consensus that the most probable ancestor of the domestic donkey (Equus asinus) is the Nubian subspecies of African wild ass; however, the history of its domestication is poorly known. The earliest known remains of the domestic donkey date to the fourth millennium BC from a site at Ma’adi, Lower Egypt. The cattle-raising peoples in Nubia, in the distribution area of the Nubian wild ass, first developed the domestic donkey as a “beast of burden”. The donkey was to supplant the ox – which had the singular disadvantage of requiring a rest period in which to ruminate – as the chief pack animal. The tame donkey was easily led by any type of halter available and could be trained to follow a route on its own. Early effects of donkey domestication were increased mobility of pastoral people and perhaps true nomadism, in which whole families rather than just the men could follow their flocks from pasture to pasture.
Donkeys were vital in developing long-distance trade through the Egyptian deserts. Before the first pyramids were raised, pack trains wended their way down Wadi Hammamat from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea to trade with Arabia.
Donkeys were kept in great herds in ancient Egypt. In the tombs of the Dynasty IV (ca. 2675-2565 BC) are indications that wealthy and powerful people possessed droves of over a thousand head. In addition to their use as a pack animal, donkeys were employed to tread seeds into the fertile Nile floodplain and to thresh the harvest. Elsewhere, mares were kept as dairy animals. “Donkey’s milk, higher both in sugar and protein content than cow’s milk, was used as food, as medicine, and as a cosmetic to promote a white skin”. Donkey meat has also provided food for various people.
The donkey was dispersed out of the Nile Valley and eventually reached all habitable continents. Donkeys were in Southwest Asia by the end of the fourth millennium BC. By 1800 BC the center of ass-breeding had shifted to Mesopotamia. Damascus, known as the city of asses through cuneiform writing and a center of the caravan trade, became famous for its breed of large, white riding ass. At least three other breeds were developed in Syria: another saddle breed, one with graceful easy gait for women, and a stout breed for plowing. In Arabia the Muscat or Yemen ass was developed. This strong, light-colored donkey is still used in caravans and also as a riding animal.
The donkey was brought to Europe by the second millennium BC, possibly accompanying the introduction of viticulture. In Greek mythology the ass is associated with Dionysus, Syrian god of wine. The Greeks brought the vine and the donkey to their colonies along the north coast of the Mediterranean, including those in Italy, France and Spain. Romans later continued the dispersal in Europe to the limits of their empire.
A supply ship to Christopher Columbus on his second voyage brought the first donkeys to the New World in 1495. Four jacks (males) and two Jennies (females) were among the inventory of livestock delivered to Hispaniola. They would produce mules for the conquistadors’ expeditions onto the American mainland. Ten years after the conquest of the Aztecs, the first shipment of twelve Jennies and three jacks arrived from Cuba to begin breeding mules in Mexico. Female mules were preferred as riding animals, whereas the males were used as pack animals along the trails that tied the Spanish Empire together. Both mules and hinnies were used in the silver mines. Along the frontier each Spanish outpost had to breed its own supply of mules, and each hacienda or mission maintained as least one stud jack.
The main influx of donkeys into the western United States probably came with the gold rushes of the nineteenth century. Many of the prospectors were Mexican and the burro was their preferred pack animal. The lone prospector and his donkey became a symbol of the Old West. However, donkeys were also important in mining operations in the deserts. They carried water, wood and machinery to the mines; hauled cartloads of ore and rock out of the mine tunnels; and brought sacks of ore to the mills, where other donkeys turned the mills that ground the ore.
The end of the mining boom coincided with the introduction of the railroad in the American West. The age of the burro had come to an end. When the mines shut down and the prospectors left, their animals were of little value and were often turned loose. Having originally evolved in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, these hardy beasts had little problem in the American deserts. Populations of free-roaming burros remain to this day.
Today donkeys are becoming increasingly popular in the United States and Canada as recreation and companion animals. They are ridden or used to pull wagons and still function as pack animals in wilderness adventures. On ranches they are used to halter break calves. A new role for the donkey is developing as a guard animal, defending flocks of sheep from dogs and coyotes.
1. Donkey’s ears are much longer in proportion to their size than a horse’s.
2. The necks are characteristically straighter in the long-ears.
3. The croup and rump are also a different shape in the donkey and its hybrids, lacking the double-curve muscled haunch.
4. The back is straighter due to the lack of withers.
5. The mane is still and upright, rarely lying over and the tail is more like a cow, covered with short body hair for most of the length, and ending in a tasseled switch.
6. Donkeys do not have a true forelock, although sometimes the mane grows long enough to comb down between the ears toward the eyes.
7. Hoof shape varies as well; donkey hooves are smaller and rounder, with more upright pasterns.
8. The legs should have good bone, but many donkeys of common breeding may appear to have long thin legs with tiny feet.
9. Good legs and feet are essential for breeding mules, as a good foot is much preferable to a large body on tiny stick legs and feet.
The donkey’s voice is a raspy, brassy bray, the characteristic Aw-EE, Aw-EE sound. Jacks especially seem enjoy braying, and will “sound off” at any opportunity.
1. Colors in the donkey range from the gray shades of gray-dun to brown, a rare bay, black, light-faced roan (both red and gray), variants of sorrel, albino-white (also called cream or white-phase), few-spot white, and a unique spotted pattern.
2. The more unusual colors are the dappled roan, where the face and legs are light and the body is marked with “reverse” dapples, frosted grey (with light faces and legs and some white hairs in the coat) the pink-skinned, blue-eyed albino white, and the few-spot white. The few-spot white is off of spotted lines, and can throw either more few-spots or true spotted colts.
3. The animals are best defined as a spotted animal where the skin is spotted but the color does not necessarily show through on the coat.
4. An unusual variant of the spotting line is the “tiger spot” pattern. These donkeys vary from the typical large spots over the ears, eyes, and top line. The body will be covered with small round spots resembling the appaloosa type.
Donkeys come in a variety of sizes from the Miniature Mediterranean (under 36 inches) to the elegant Mammoth (14 hands and up). The rare French Poitou donkey, characterized by its huge head and ears, and very thick, shaggy, curled black coat, can stand 14 to 15 hands high. The types of donkeys are labeled by their sizes; 36″ and under, Miniature Mediterranean, 36.01-48″, Standard, 48.01″ to 54 (jennets) or 56 (jacks), Large Standard, and 54/56″ and over, Mammoth Stock.
Donkeys can be used just like horses under saddle and in harness, although donkeys are more laid back and self-preserving in nature. They are very friendly, and their nature makes them excellent for children. Donkeys can perform the entire gaits horses or mules do, but galloping is usually not on the program unless dinner is being served. Donkeys can also make wonderful guard animals – a donkey gelding or jennet will take care of an entire herd of cattle, sheep or goats – the natural aversion to predators will inspire the donkey to severely discourage any canine attacks on the herd.
Types of Modern American Asses
- Miniature Mediterranean Donkey.
- Standard Donkey.
- Small Standard Donkey.
- Large Standard Donkey.
- American Spotted Ass.