PHOTO: Isamiga76/Flickr
Jeannette Beranger
February 23, 2016

Many people envision adding an equine to their farm, and a well-thought-out plan can make the difference between a dream or a nightmare. Animal ownership can come at a great cost if your choices are not a good fit for your farm’s infrastructure and your level of experience. Choosing the right species and breed will be key to your success, and it all begins with assessing the job the animal will be used for and the basics that are needed to keep them happy and healthy. Although donkeys and horses are both equines, they vary in many ways and have different needs you’ll have to meet to be successful with them.

Donkeys

Jean/Flickr
Jean/Flickr

Donkeys come in a variety of sizes from the miniature Sardinian to the impressive American Mammoth Jack with mixed varieties of every size in between. There are only a small handful of purebred donkey breeds in the U.S. to choose from, but you can find a wide choice of colors beyond the gray color most often seen in standard donkeys. With these animals plan for a long lived friend. Donkeys can live to be over 50 years old.

Uses For Donkeys

Donkeys were domesticated around 6,000 years ago from the African wild ass, which was valued by ancient people groups as pack and draft animals and for milk production. Cleopatra famously bathed in donkey milk every day as part of her beauty regimen. In some parts of Europe, donkey dairies still operate, creating beauty products with the milk.

Another important value of donkeys is in the production of mules. Male donkeys (jacks) are crossed with female horses (mares) to produce superior working animals that are strong and most often mirror the donkey’s temperament and thriftiness.

Today, donkeys are still highly valued and used broadly in developing countries and are often the only means of transportation available. Larger donkeys can excel as a livestock guardians to protect smaller farm animals, such as goats and sheep, from predators like coyotes and local dogs.

Raising Donkeys

Unlike horses, donkeys can thrive on very marginal forage, which makes them very economical to keep. Unfortunately, that means they can get fat very easily. A typical donkey does not need grain and only needs about 1/3 of a bale of hay per day when they don’t have access to foraging on pasture. If you have a rich pasture, you’ll need to monitor your donkey’s weight condition to make sure they stay fit and don’t overeat and become fat.

For average sized donkeys, 1/2 to 1 acre is sufficient space to roam. Miniature breeds may utilize less area, and larger draft breeds obviously more. Their large ears and lack of undercoat make them somewhat vulnerable in wet and cold conditions, so they need shelter in places where the weather is not in their favor. Their feet, however, are harder than horse hooves and don’t need to be shod as often. It’s worth noting that it can be a challenge to find a farrier that will work on donkeys, so make sure you have one in your area in case you need one.

Donkey Behavior

Behaviorally, donkeys differ greatly from horses. They are highly intelligent, which sometimes can translate into the famous donkey stubbornness everyone has heard about. Whether smart or stubborn, this mindset tends to make them assess situations before panicking or taking flight. They are very sure-footed and often see danger well in advance of their owners.

Recently donkeys and their mule counterparts have been enjoying a resurgence of interest from riders that would prefer a stable mount that won’t spook as easily as a horse might. It’s no wonder that they are used by the National Parks Service for trail rides in mountainous and treacherous areas such as the Grand Canyon.

Horses

Cristian Bortes/Flickr
Cristian Bortes/Flickr

Compared to the small handful of donkey breeds available in America, there is a wide variety of horse breeds to choose from. Whether you are looking for a small pony for children or pulling a cart, to a large draft breed, or athletic breeds for more adventurous riders, it’s often a challenge to choose just one. Take time to familiarize yourself with multiple breeds before choosing.

If you’re conservation oriented, there are many wonderful heritage breed horses that are phenomenal animals and give you an alternative to the common breeds that currently dominate the horse market. Horses are not quite as long-lived as donkeys, and most often live into their 30s, though there are some ponies that I’ve known that have passed their 40th birthday.

Uses For Horses

Horses were domesticated shortly after donkeys around 5,500 years ago and are thought to have descended from the now extinct Tarpan. They were also valued for packing, draft and milk production.

Raising Horses

Horses are considered by most to be easier to train than donkeys. Typically, they aren’t as feed-efficient as donkeys, though some pony breeds and strains of Colonial Spanish horses, such as the Choctaw, the Marsh Tacky and the Banker, are extremely thrifty and easy keepers.

Horses need to eat 1 to 1½ percent of their body weight in forage, which translates to a 1,000-pound horse eating about 10 to 15 pounds of hay per day depending on the age, condition and energy needs of the horse. Many owners do feed supplemental grain for horses with higher energy needs. If they’re very active working horses or if there is extreme cold, they may require more to keep up with their body’s needs.

For average sized horses 1½ acres per horse is enough space to be comfortable. They can tolerate the cold and wet better than donkeys can, but it’s always good practice to have some kind of shelter so they can get out of the elements and dry off.

Horse Behavior

Horses can be a bit more flighty than donkeys but a well-conditioned and trained horse can be a very reliable mount.

In the end, both the donkey and horse have many admirable qualities. The two species are almost neck and neck when it comes to the variety of services they can provide you, but it is in their mindset and personality that they so differ. I highly recommend spending some good quality time with both to find out for sure if a donkey or a horse should be in your future.


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