Q: I have a 16.2-hand, 12-year-old Thoroughbred-cross gelding who had to be retired early for soundness reasons. His long-term pasture buddy recently passed away of old age and I can’t find another easy-going, low-maintenance horse or pony to replace him. I have plenty of space and wonderful grass pastures, but my time and finances are limited—and I’m not comfortable handling high-energy horses. I’m thinking of adopting a donkey to keep my horse company, but I don’t know anything about donkeys. Do you have any advice?
ERIN GOODRICH, DVM: I’m a huge fan of donkeys! They make great companions for horses and are wonderful creatures for humans to spend time with. But they’re very different from horses in many ways. The more you understand about their specific health requirements and general nature, the better home you can provide for one if you decide this is an appropriate choice for your situation.
Donkeys are characteristically very sweet and wise. Some aspects of their natural temperament, however, are frequently misunderstood. For example, their fight-or-flight response differs from that of horses. Instead of running away from predators, they instinctively tend to stand their ground and try to protect themselves by striking out with their front feet. Although their behavior toward dogs may sometimes appear aggressive, it’s actually a form of self-defense. Because they perceive dogs as predators, they chase them out of their pastures and try to stomp them with their front feet.
Donkeys are very inquisitive animals who need time to think things over and examine new scenarios carefully. They require less repetition than horses to learn new lessons. They also remember things for much longer, so bad experiences can be hard to overcome. Their cautious and thoughtful approach to situations can sometimes be mistaken for stubbornness. The best way to train or retrain a donkey is with plenty of positive reinforcement. If you plan to adopt a wild burro or a rescued donkey with a troubled past, find a donkey expert to help you address any behavioral problems.
Another often unappreciated characteristic of donkeys is their stoicism. They are very good at concealing fear, pain and other signs of illness. You must be in tune to very subtle signs to catch serious health problems in time. In fact, if you wait to see the type of signs you’d expect a horse to exhibit, for example, in an animal suffering from colic—which donkeys can experience as well—it may be too late. If a donkey is showing obvious signs of discomfort, he’s very sick.
Like many horses, donkeys develop very strong attachments to their companions. If a donkey’s companion passes away, it can be traumatizing—to the point of making him physically ill.
One of the most challenging donkey management issues in this country is diet. These animals evolved in arid climates with limited access to grass. As a result, their systems are designed to digest roughage more efficiently than horses’ systems. Access to grain or rich forage (high-energy grass or hay) leads to obesity and other metabolic problems, such as laminitis. For this reason, it’s essential to avoid feeding donkeys grain, to limit their access to lush grass and to feed them only high-fiber roughage, such as late-cut grass hay and edible straws, like barley or wheat. If you notice your donkey chewing on the barn or fences, he’s probably lacking roughage.
One metabolic ailment most horsepeople won’t be familiar with is hyperlipemia. This is a life-threatening disease that occurs when donkeys mobilize body fat during times of decreased feed intake, leading to lipid deposition in the liver and kidneys and organ failure. This can occur as a complication during stressful events, illness or disruptions in a donkey’s diet or routine, so avoid making sudden changes in his diet. For example, never restrict his calories dramatically to combat obesity. Instead, ask your veterinarian to teach you how to monitor his body condition score carefully to prevent hyperlipemia and other metabolic problems.
Like horses, donkeys require routine hoof trimming and dental care. Their mouth structure is prone to certain conformation defects and their hooves have slightly different conformation than those of horses, so be sure to employ an equine dentist and farrier who have specific training with donkeys.
Finally, be aware that donkeys in developed countries like the U.S. can live for 30 to 50 years. So if you’re considering adopting a donkey, realize that this may be a long-term commitment. If you take the time to understand his unique nature and needs, you’ll be rewarded for this commitment many times over.
As an undergrad at Cornell University, Dr. Erin Goodrich rode on the equestrian team and grew to love donkeys while doing a work-study job at a research barn. Since then, she has adopted two donkeys and learned firsthand how to manage them alongside horses. After graduating from veterinary school, she spent six years in a mixed-animal practice, working with dairy cows, horses, donkeys and small animals. For the last two years, she has been an extension veterinarian for the Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where she is developing a new elective course about donkeys for veterinary students. Now busy with two young children, Dr. Goodrich still has a horse of her own—a Suffolk Punch draft horse—for whom she, too, is currently seeking a donkey companion.
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.