Breed Organization Information
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. Domestication of Africa’s only contribution to the world’s major livestock species came long after the domestication of sheep, goats and cattle in Southwest Asia (eighth and seventh millennia BC). It is probable that 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 peoples 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 halterbreak calves. A new role for the donkey is developing as a guard animal, defending flocks of sheep from dogs and coyotes.
Reproduced from HORSES THROUGH TIME edited by Sandra L. Olsen with permission of Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 6309 Monarch Park Place, Niwot, Colorado 80503. These excerpts may be read only, any printing or reproduction of this material must be obtained in writing from Roberts Rinehart Publishers.
Donkeys, zebras and mules all differ somewhat from horses conformation. The most noticeable difference is of course the ears. Donkey’s ears are much longer in proportion to their size than a horse’s. The necks are characteristically straighter in the long-ears, and most donkeys and all zebras lack a true wither. The croup and rump are also a different shape in the donkey and its hybrids, lacking the double-curve muscled haunch. The back is straighter due to the lack of withers. Dipped or swayed backs are a conformation fault, unless in old animals or brood jennies who have produced many foals, and not due to genetic factors.
The mane and tail in the donkey are coarse. The mane is still and upright, rarely laying over and the tail is more like a cows, covered with short body hair for most of the length, and ending in a tasseled switch. Donkeys do not have a true forelock, although sometimes the mane grows long enough to comb down between the ears toward the eyes. Because the mane is stiff and sometimes flyaway, many donkeys, especially show stock, wear their manes clipped short or shaved close to the neck.
Hoof shape varies as well, donkey hooves are smaller and rounder, with more upright pasterns. The legs should have good bone, but many donkeys of common breeding may appear to have long thin legs with tiny feet. Larger Asses such as the Poitou or Andalusian types may appear opposite, with huge, heavy shaggy legs and large round feet. 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 vocal qualities are the frequently remembered differences in the long-ears. 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.
Although many donkeys are the familiar gray-dun color, there are many other coat shades. Most donkeys, regardless of coat color, will have dorsal stripes and shoulder crosses, dark ear marks, as well as the “light points” – white muzzle and eye rings, and a white belly and inner leg. Leg barring (“garters” or “zebra stripes” may be present as well. Small dark spots right at the throat latch, called “collar buttons” are a good identifying marking and occur occasionally. These typical donkey markings may be passed on in part or in whole to mule or hinny offspring.
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. True horse pinto, horse aging gray, horse appaloosa, palomino and buckskin do not occur in the donkey. The more unusual colors are the dappled roan, where the face and legs are light and the body is marked with “reverse” dapples (dark spots on a light background, as opposed to the horse dapple where the dapples themselves are light on dark), 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. 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. Few-spot can be identified from albino white by checking the skin around the eyes and muzzle. Albino/creams will have blue eyes and true pink skin, while few-spots will have dark eyes, dark “eyeliner” and dark spotting on the skin. Another unusual variant of the spotting line is the “tiger spot” pattern. These donkeys vary from the typical large spots over the ears, eyes, and topline. 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 hand high. (There are less than 200 purebred Poitous left in the world today.) 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 prefer to do what is good for the donkey, which is not always what the human thinks is best (especially when it comes to getting their feet wet…). They are very friendly, and their nature makes them excellent for children. Donkeys can perform all the gaits horses or mules do (yes, some are even “gaited”, exhibiting a single-foot gait), 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. Dogs and donkeys usually don’t mix, although they can be trained to leave the house or farm dog alone!
Types of Modern American Asses
Miniature Mediterranean Donkey: Originally imported from the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, and other Mediterranean areas, these donkeys must be under 36″ at the withers at maturity (after age 3). They are often referred to as Sicilian Donkeys, but this is not correct usage, nor is Sicilian the name of the typical coloration of these donkeys.
Standard Donkey: This covers the size range of most donkeys in the world. The size range is from 36.01″ to 48″ at the withers. This size donkey is often called “burro.” (Most but not all of the background is Spanish stock.)
Small Standard Donkey: A subdivision of the Standard grouping. Small standard stand above 36″ and up through 40″, often with a miniature background. This includes donkeys up to 38″ if they have no registered miniature parents or traceable miniature pedigree.
Large Standard Donkey: Donkeys from 48.01″ up to 54″ for females and up to 56″ for males. These are good riding donkeys or can be used in breeding saddle mules. Many may have Mammoth breeding in their background.
Mammoth: Mammoth Jackstock, Mammoth Ass- This is one of the largest breeds of donkey in the world. Once referred to as American Standard Jack Stock. Males must stand 56″ and up, females must be 54″ and up.
American Spotted Ass: While all asses can come in the spotted pattern (“pinto”), the term American Spotted Ass is a trademark for those donkeys (asses) registered with the American Council of Spotted Asses (ACOSA), which is trying to establish foundation stock for spotted asses.
Ass: The correct term for the animal commonly know as the donkey, burro or jackstock. The term comes from the original Latin term, Asinus. The scientific term for these animals is equus asinus. The term fell into disrepute through confusion with the indelicate term “arse” meaning the human backside. The difference between asses and horses is a species difference, different species but closely related and able to interbreed to a degree.
Jack: The term used for the male of the ass species. Thus, the often used term jackass. Jacks are called stallions in the United Kingdom, but stallion is reserved for horses and zebra males in the United States.
Jennet: Pronounced JEN-et, the correct term for the female of the species. The more commonly used term is jenny, which is considered correct in non-technical use. The term mare is used for horse and zebra females in the US.
Burro: A word taken directly from Spain. It means the common, everyday working donkey found in Spain and Mexico. It came into usage in the Western United States. As a general rule, the term burro is heard west of the Mississippi and the term donkey, east of the Mississippi.
Wild Burro: These are the feral (descended from domestic stock that has gone wild over generations) asses which run wild in the western part of the United States.
Donkey: Taken from England, the derivation is uncertain, but most authorities think that the name comes from dun (the usual color) and the suffix “ky,” meaning small. Thus “a little dun animal.” In earlier England the word Ass was taken from the Roman word for animal. “Donkey” is a relatively recent variation of the species name.
Jack Stock: The term for plural of the American Mammoth Jack and Jennet. These animals are properly termed Asses and not donkeys, and never called burros. They are one of the largest of the types of the ass species.
Gelding Donkey: The proper term for a gelded (castrated) male ass. An informal term is John (a modified for of Jack).
Spanish Jack or Spanish Donkey: ADMS does not accept this terminology unless the animal has written documentation of importation of itself or its immediate ancestors from Spain. This holds for animals which people call by the breed names of foreign breeds such as Catalonian, Maltese or Andalusian. These breeds as pure strains are rare even in Spain, and are non-existent in the US. The term Spanish Donkey is found in common usage meaning a large standard donkey. The ancestry of most of the donkeys in the US is predominately a blend of all of the Spanish breeds. In any case, the term is inexact and is not good usage.
Sire: The male parent of an equine.
Dam: The female parent of an equine.
Stud: The breeding male of a species, or, the breeding farm housing a stud (stallion or jack).
Get: The offspring of a Jack or Stallion. The male is said to “get” the offspring on the female, this the collective term get for his young.
Produce: The offspring of a Jennet or Mare. The females produce the young. The term “out of” is literal in the sense that the foal was born out of that female.
Mule Jack: Not a mule, but a jackass used to breed mares to obtain mules.
Jennet Jack: A jackass used to breed to jennets (the female of the species) in order to produce more donkeys. A good breeder uses only the finest of jacks for this purpose.
The Cross: Refers to a line of darker hair darting at the tip of the head and running to the end of the tail. This is crossed at the withers with another darker line of hair (the shoulder stripe) forming a cross. The shoulder strip may be long, very short, thin, wide, fading or dashed, but nearly all donkeys have some form of this marking. The exceptions are the Mammoth donkeys, which have been bred away from this marking, and true black animals where the cross is not visible. Even spotted animals or white-appearing donkeys may have partial or faint crosses. This trait is very dominant.
Markings: In addition to the cross, many donkeys have dark markings on the ears, as “garters” around the legs, or as “zippers” down the inside forelegs. Small black spots on the sides of the throat, called collar buttons, may also be seen, as well as dark line (ventral stripe) down the belly.
White Points: When registering donkeys, white points are so universally normal that only the absence of them is to be noted. It is normal for a donkey to have short, fine, light colored hair on the muzzle, ringing the eyes, on the belly and inside the legs. A donkey that does not have these points is seen as unusual but are not too uncommon.
Mule Markings: The donkey usually passes the light points on to the mule, although they may appear brown or tan instead of off-white or pale gray like in the donkey. Many mules will have crosses and leg stripes as well. The crosses of mules usually differ from those on donkeys, with the shoulder stripe being very wide, or faded, as in shadow.
The American Donkey and Mule Society was founded in 1967 for the purpose of being a national breed society for registering donkeys and mules. Today it is still going strong, with over 22,000 donkeys and 2,100 mules registered.
The Society’s services include three main registries and two newer registries that are expected to grow quickly. The Miniature Donkey Registry of the United States is specifically for those animals of miniature breeding and under 36″ in height. The American Donkey Registry covers the Standard to Mammoth breeds of donkeys. The American Mule Registry is for all sizes and types of mules and hinnies. The newer registries are the Race Mule and Zebra Hybrid books. In addition to the Registries, the Association has lots of information available on all breeds and types, as well as a catalog of books on long-ears. The donkey, mule, and zebra are all members of the equine family. Donkeys, horses and zebras all have unique breeds within the general term (i.e. the Arabian as opposed to just Horse or Poitou as opposed to just Donkey). The mule and zebroids are hybrids, the former being a horse/donkey cross, the latter a cross of zebra/other equine.