American Donkey and Mule Society, Inc.

P.O. Box 1210

Lewisville, Texas 75067

The donkey, or Equus asinus, has been used since the beginning of recorded history as a beast of burden, packing animal, harness worker, and saddle mount. It is one of the three branches of the equine family, which is made up of horses, asses, and zebras. Domesticated donkeys are descended from wild asses, a few subspecies of which survive today. These are the Kulan, Kiang, Somali Wild Ass, and the Onager. No one is exactly sure when the first wild ass was captured and the domestication process begun, but animals resembling Onagers are depicted in Egyptian art alongside mules and horses.

In times past, the donkey was held in low esteem and earned the unfortunate reputation as the horse’s poor relation, but in fact the donkey and its hybrid offspring, the mule, have played an enormous role in the shaping of the world. Donkeys are still used in many countries as the primary means of transport, but in the United States they are enjoying a new revival as a saddle mount, companion, and pet.

The answer to the frequently asked question directed to those who own donkeys, “Why own a long ear?” is “Why not?” Donkeys are hard working, hearty, and love to be “in your pocket.” Throw away the view of the donkey as lowly and downtrodden, and the experience of their comic relief is a way to uplift spirits at the end of a hard day. They welcome with their hearty bray and a secret smile behind their inquisitive eyes. Those who love them belong to a special kind of club with a growing membership: Bitten by the long-ear bug!


Donkeys now come in a variety of types and sizes, with few pure breeds left. Most old bloodline breeds have very limited gene pools, and only a few small populations of true recorded breeds exist in the United States. In fact, the type of large donkey known as Mammoth Jackstock was created specifically to blend all of the best known breeds together into a new type.


Standard donkeys are loveable characters. Leah Patton

French Poitou: The best document of the recorded pure breeds is the Baudet du Poitou, or French Poitou ass. Less than five hundred specimens of this primitive donkey breed are left in the world, with approximately one hundred residing in the United States. This huge, dark brown (bai/brun) donkey stands 56 inches and taller and is covered in long, matted, shaggy hair. Bai/brun is the official French term for the color “bay/brown,” which is the only accepted color in the French standard for the Poitou. The breed has remained unchanged for nearly one hundred years. Since 1977 when the world population was a mere forty-four animals, dedicated U.S. breeders contributed to the efforts to bring this breed back from extinction.

Miniature: The Miniature Mediterranean breed of donkey, quite popular in the United States and growing in demand elsewhere in the world, was originally developed from small animals imported from Sicily, Sardinia, and Ethiopia. If the Italian base stock of the Miniature was a bred-down animal, it happened many centuries ago, for there is now some evidence that it may have a distinct DNA marker setting it aside from other types of donkeys. Careful selection of these tiny individuals has produced a fairly stable gene pool of animals that mature less than 36 inches at the withers.

All donkey colors are found in the Miniature, with spotted, solid black, and dark red being the most sought after. The original color, still most frequent, is gray dun, similar to grullo, with a grayish body, black mane and tail, and a distinctive dark dorsal stripe and shoulder bar, known as the cross.

The Miniature Donkey Registry was founded in 1958 by Bea Langfeld and is still maintained today by the American Donkey and Mule Society (ADMS), founded in 1967. Miniatures have increased dramatically since their separate registry first began, and their numbers continue to grow. Today, there are over fifty-four thousand registered Miniature Donkeys in the United States with an estimated population of four times that number.

They have maintained their popularity over the years and still sustain one of the higher-price ranges of donkey sales. They can be ridden by small children, are stylish in harness, can be driven by adults, and make loving pets. These small donkeys with big personalities are favored by couples who are contemplating retirement, yet do not want to leave breeding and showing entirely.

Standard: Standard donkeys can be of three sizes: small standards are less than 40 inches, medium standards range up to 48 inches, and large standards are up to 54 inches (jennets) or 56 inches (jacks). (Donkeys are usually measured in inches as opposed to hands.)

Most records indicate that standard donkeys are blends either of ancestral breeds or of Spanish origin. One subgroup within the standard donkey group is the feral Wild Burro. These animals are descendants of the gold-miners’ pack donkeys of the American West that were turned loose to run wild. Their population has remained strong, and now they are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and adopted by the public as a measure of control.

Standard donkeys are popular as livestock guardians, given the donkey’s natural dislike for members of the canine family. Some geldings and jennets (females) make excellent guard animals, but as with any type of guardian, not all perform as desired. Those not suited for guard duty can still be useful as children’s mounts, as garden workers, in harness, ridden under saddle, or just as pets. Large standard donkeys make admirable saddle mounts, and large standard jacks (intact males) are often used as mule sires.

Mammoth Jackstock: The American Mammoth Jack, also known as Mammoth Jack-stock, is a blend of many different breeds, and thus is found in many colors and body types. Solid black with white “points” or spotting are popular. Saddle jacks are often preferred to be lighter in limb and build. Draft-type jacks hearken back to the Andalusian type, and many are dappled red, gray roan, or dark red in coloration. These jacks are used to sire heavy working and draft mules.

Records for Jackstock production date back into the 1800s. The original Mammoth Jackstock registry still exists, but most common donkeys were never recorded or inscribed into any kind of studbook.

Today the ADMS operates five different registry books for donkeys and mules.

Since interbreeding between donkeys and horses produces a sterile mule, the only way a gene pool of donkeys can be improved is by adding those from other locals. As the U.S. population of donkeys is not in any danger, it is rare to bring in donkeys from other countries, but stock here is very important for export to other countries. Mammoths have been exported to many countries for use in breeding up for larger saddle donkeys, and Miniatures have been shipped worldwide as show or breeding stock.


Pound for pound, the donkey requires less feed than a horse, is more suited to harsh environments, and can carry a larger load with fewer long-term side effects. The phrase “in donkey’s years” (meaning a very long time) stems from the fact that donkeys in general can live to be elderly more frequently than horses, outliving them by ten to fifteen years. The average lifespan of a Miniature Donkey is thirty years, with some jennets producing foals well into their late twenties. Ages of 45, 47, and 50 are not uncommon in donkeys.

Some terms used in reference to donkeys are unique to these long-eared equines. Intact males are called jacks rather than stallions in the United States, and a female is a jennet. Castrated males are called the same term as their horse counterparts—geldings. A mule jack is one that is bred solely to produce mules, while a jennet jack is one bred only to jennets in order to produce more donkeys.

As the donkey evolved for life in a desert environment, several factors of conformation, as well as genetics, set it aside and made it noticeably different from its equine cousin, the horse. The donkey neither nickers nor whinnies, but instead has a loud, honking call referred to as a bray. Its ears are large and open, more than twice the size of a horse’s ear. The eyes are set into a D-shaped eye socket, and often the donkey has a look of aggrieved patience on its face. The face is straight or slightly convex, and the nostrils set low. Most donkeys have white points, such as white eye rings and belly, and a mealy muzzle. These features helped to deflect heat and cool the body.

The tail of the donkey is the other distinguishing feature. It is covered in long hair only at the switch end, while the rest has smooth, short hair as on the body. Usually, one can quickly tell the difference between a donkey and mule by first looking at the tail, as mules have a more horse-like, full-haired tail, and then by accessing the overall body shape. The majority of donkeys have stiff, upright manes with no true forelock, and very few have a laying mane over the neck.

The donkey is also narrower than the horse, with finer legs and smaller feet. Most donkeys have a very straight neck and less pronounced withers than a horse. The topline is more level, lacking the saddle dip from shoulder to hip. The shape of the pelvis also differs, as it is more angular. The haunch of the donkey lacks the full, double-muscle curve of the horse, but this does not diminish its power. Mules inherit the donkey’s unique ability to high-jump from a standing start, due to the natural conformation of the donkey haunch.

Some of these features in the donkey’s build make tack-fitting more of a challenge. Narrower saddle trees, breastplates, and cruppers are common parts of donkey gear. In fitting a bridle, a larger overall headstall may be needed, while the noseband and bit may need to be adjusted. The larger head and deeper jaw of the donkey often look deceivingly smaller when it is the size of a pony, but donkeys take full horse halters or bridles.

The white patterns are different in donkeys than in horses. Dapples are reversed in donkeys, which is called roan, and is not like a dapple-gray horse. There are no dark-headed roan donkeys. Roan donkeys are light-faced and light legged with dark-centered dapples, which is somewhat like a horse roan, but also like a horse gray. Since it really is not either, it is not called a gray.

Tobiano and appaloosa spotting are just not in the donkey genetics. There are some that look a little similar to a frame overo and hint of sabino, but the white often crosses the topline and stockings are involved. While it suggests tobiano type markings, those types do not breed like tobianos or have the tobiano pattern.

There are over fifteen years of research behind what is currently known about donkey color genetics, but more understanding is needed on some of the nuances. Lab testing to produce DNA color tests began in 2007 and continues on today.


Head: The head should be in proportion to body and not overly large. In Miniatures, face may be straight or slightly dished. Coarse heads and extreme Roman noses should be avoided. No more than one-fourth inch of bite deviation is allowed in breeding stock.


This is a donkey jack, an intact male donkey, used for breeding to other donkeys or to horses. Courtesy American Donkey and Mule Society

Neck: The neck should be straight and set well into shoulder. Extreme ewe or swan neck is penalized. Fat rolls are allowed, but are unsightly.

Forelegs: They should be set on well, with clear projection of chest in front. Shoulders are often straight and a gentle slope is preferred. Legs should be square and straight when viewed from the front and side.

Barrel: The barrel should be deep with plenty of heart girth and should not be long and weak. Smooth level topline and slight wither rise are preferred.

Hip: A shallow hip with no angle should be severely penalized. Gentle slope and deep pelvis are preferred.

Hind limbs: The donkey should stand square without being stretched. The hind legs should be set well under without being sickle-hocked. When viewed from behind, the hind legs should be straight with a small degree of cowhocks allowed. Severe cowhocks or crooked legs are to be penalized.

Hooves: Pasterns are more upright, but pastern and hoof angles should match. Club foot and long, broken angles are severely penalized.

Movement: The donkey moves with a short, flat-kneed action at the walk or trot. Exaggerated high-stepping action is not found, partially due to the upright angle of the shoulder. The hocks are the powertrain and should be well engaged. At the canter, many donkeys will move with the head lowered and neck slightly outstretched. A few donkeys will perform an interim gait similar to the single-foot or rack; these are prized as saddle animals and for use in breeding gaited mules. The true pace is rarely seen, but can occur.

Color: Any color is acceptable. The ancestral donkey color is gray dun (similar to grullo) with brown, black, red (sorrel), spotted, roan, frosted (aged gray/roan), brindle, and ivory (recessive blue-eyed white) also occurring. A newly documented color still under investigation, called “cameo,” has been found in Australia. These dilute donkeys with light eyes are descended from a single jack. Horse colors of tobiano, appaloosa spotting, and cream dilutes (palomino) are not found in donkeys. Dark dorsal bar and cross are evident in most cases, even on very dark animals.

Regardless of size, the donkey should be balanced and not coarse. The head, while larger in proportion the body, should not be so heavy as to make it appear oversized. A very thin swan or ewe neck is a fault. Overshot or undershot jaws should be faulted. The hip should be gently sloped and full with dipped loins. Weak hindquarters are a severe fault. The hindquarters are lighter in general, but should not have a severe shallow croup or weak, high-set tail.

Credit: American Donkey and Mule Society, Inc.

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