The Donkey.....Not Just a Horse with Big Ears

cute donkey

Last week I was at the Equine Science Society meetings, staying educated on the newest research done in the equine industry. One seminar particularly sparked my interest, called "Donkeys are Different", and spurred me to write an article for donkey-lovers and to help people understand similarities and differences between donkeys and horses. Donkeys are notoriously undervalued in the United States to the typical horse person. Famed for their longevity and grit, donkeys' physical traits and behavior are markedly different than the horse.

Donkeys are descendants of African Wild Asses. They are hardy animals that are built to naturally live in semi-arid, mountainous environments. In these environments, donkeys adapted to living in small groups or solitary. Rocky and rough terrain made it so they developed more of a fight instinct compared to the flight instinct that horses exhibit. Donkeys will establish a territory, and are often used as guardians for sheep and goats. When given the choice, they prefer to socialize with other donkeys rather than horses or ponies. Donkeys will develop a strong, lifelong bond with another single donkey. If separated from their companion, donkeys can become stressed and refuse food and water.


Often misunderstood for being stubborn or stupid, donkeys are actually extremely smart. When cognitive and perseveration assessments were performed on horses, donkeys, and mules, the donkeys and mules outperformed horses. They were more accurate and faster problem solvers than horses. In addition, donkeys are less inclined to panic. Although they have a natural tendency to freeze when threatened, their quick learning ability make their easy to teach.

Everyone notices the large ears that donkeys possess. They are useful for hearing as well as heat dissipation. The jaw is more powerful than a horse's so donkeys can grind shrubs and plants high in lignin. Their hooves are more upright, to better handle rough terrain than running at high rates of speed. Evolving in semi-arid environments, donkeys' hooves have more open tubules than horses, to draw available moisture into the hoof. For this reason, in temperate or wet climates, donkeys may have many hoof issues, such as white line disease and abscess formation.

When it comes to nutrition, donkeys are hindgut fermenters like the horse. Like the horse, they have evolved as grazers. However, donkeys are browsers as well. By evolving into browsers, donkeys were able to survive in harsh environments on fibrous, low energy feeds that are high in lignin. They are highly efficient in digesting low-quality forages, shrubs, and leaves. Therefore, donkeys have considerably lower (25-50% less) maintenance energy requirements than horses. On average, donkeys consumed 1.3-1.8% of their body weight. However, vitamin and mineral requirements for donkeys are the same as horses.

Being so efficient with feeds makes donkeys very susceptible to health problems associated with excess energy consumption, such as obesity, insulin resistance, and laminitis. Donkeys' diets should consist mostly of low energy, high fibrous feedstuffs, and a vitamin/mineral supplement. High-quality hays such as alfalfa should be fed only when body condition is not optimal or workload is heavy. Very rarely, if ever, should donkeys be fed high energy grains or concentrates. Donkeys have a very low tolerance for these and many health issues such as colic, ulcers, or laminitis, are associated with those feedstuffs.

General maintenance on donkeys is sometimes overlooked. It is important that donkeys receive the same level of care in dentistry and parasites control as horses. Many parasite lifecycles are the same in donkeys as horses. However, in addition, donkeys are susceptible to liver flukes and Parascaris equorumthroughout their life. Focus on prevention, rather than treatment, should be practiced with nutrition, dentistry, and parasite control in donkeys.

Donkeys are very unique animals. They parallel the horse in many ways but are different in many ways as well. Donkeys are very useful in many different societies, and daily life could not function in these cultures without them. We here at Horse Guardsalute the humble donkey and the very important role it has played in the history of the world. We encourage all donkey owners to consider the wonderful similarities and differences the horse and the donkeys have, so all our animals can benefit from a healthy and happy life!

Del Johnson

Del Johnson

Equine Nutritionist, Founder of Horse Guard Del created Horse Guard in ’78 after noticing selenium supplementation in cattle and sheep; yet nothing was on the market for horses. Since then, Del and his wife, Lori have put their heart and soul into creating the strong brand we know today, Horse Guard. Raising their two daughters, Ty and Kelsey around horses has kept the girls intrigued in equine nutrition as well, enough so that they are both deeply involved in the business today. Del and Lori are slowly “loosening the reins” on these two and enjoying every minute of it.

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