Adding a donkey to your equine herd

As long as their unique needs are met, donkeys and horses can coexist peacefully – and even help each other thrive!

Like most creatures, humans included, horses can get lonely, bored, and anxious. It’s comforting to know a friend is nearby. For some horses, the answer might be a donkey. “Both horses and donkeys need company,” says Lucy Robinson, who has integrated donkeys into her own equine herd. “Although different, they make good companions and will look out for each other.”

The perfect bodyguards

When a horse is put in a threatening situation, he’s likely to flee and then reassess the situation. Knowing a donkey will fight to protect the herd, horses become less skittish. They bray loudly, show their teeth, stomp and will kick at predators such as wild dogs, coyotes or wolves. Their ability to kick to the side as well as the rear gives donkeys a six-foot semi-circle of reach, making them excellent bodyguards.

Tip: Given their kicking abilities, it’s best never to approach donkeys too quietly. It’s a matter of debate whether to let pets or working dogs be around donkeys – most will recognize a familiar dog, but it may desensitize them to predators.

Potential behavior issues

Some horses may initially look at donkeys as strange creatures to be feared. A careful introduction can lead to a strong friendship. “Our donkey has been here a year now,” says Brenda Findley, Co-Owner and Designer of Findley Feather Farm in southern Illinois. “We first introduced him to our horse from different sides of the pasture. After about an hour we put them in the same pasture with plenty of room for them run. Our donkey has taught our horse better manners, to be less skittish, and he encourages the horse to play which keeps them both active.”

The stereotype that donkeys are stubborn is true – but they’re also curious, intelligent, and thoughtful creatures. Given their wary nature, it can take them time to decide about new situations. A 2013 study by The Donkey Sanctuary found they learn and problem-solve as quickly as dolphins and dogs.

Tip: Good and bad experiences will affect donkeys for a long time. Use a lot of positive reinforcement to encourage and nurture their best behavior.

Care and feeding

Historically, donkeys came from areas with limited grass, so their diet is different from that of a horse. High-fiber roughage, like late-cut grass hay and edible straws like barley or wheat are good for them. Carrots, apples, bananas, pears, and turnips can be occasional treats. If he chews on barn wood or fence posts, it’s a sign he needs more roughage.

Avoid potatoes, onions, leeks, garlic, stoned fruits, grain, anything sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, or rodenticides and limit access to lush grass. Because donkeys have a tendency to put on weight quickly, it’s also important not to overfeed them. If he gains too much weight, restricting food or a sudden change in diet could lead to hyperlipemia, a life-threatening disease that causes donkeys to use stored body fat, resulting in organ failure. For weight management, work with a veterinarian.

Tip: A donkey’s mouth structure is different from a horse, as do his hooves. Hire an equine dentist and a farrier, each with specific training to work with these animals.

With their long ears and fuzzy coats, donkeys are undeniably cute. But they’re also great bodyguards and horse trainers (see sidebar), and can make lifelong companions for your equine herd!