Your donkey's home is very important. It will either hinder or help your animal's health and wellbeing, as well as ease of handling/training, depending on how you have it set up. There are many, many different ways to keep equines safely, and just because our way works for us, doesn't mean another way isn't correct. We at Foghorn Farm Donkey Training have a small setup, and we are constantly improving upon it as we see fit and as time allows. This is a rather longer article, because there is so much to talk about! The housing/fencing/habitat you create for your donkey depends on a lot of things:
1. How many donkeys you have and what ages, sizes, genders, physical condition they are in. Really secure inside space like large box stalls may be more important to a herd of senior donkeys who need to each be separated to eat and stay in in inclement weather. All donkeys need an indoor space to come into the it is wet out, as they do not have a double layered coat like a horse, and will not slick water off of them.
2. Your space available. The less space you have, the more creative you have to be with management of your facility, especially with manure.
3. Your budget (that being said, if you can't afford appropriate housing/fencing etc. for your donkeys, you probably don't need to own them).
4. Your environment. A donkey setup in Florida will probably look a bit different from one in Northern Canada! Drainage in wet environments is super important to donkeys since they aren't built for wet and muddy conditions.
5. The behavior and energy level of your donkeys. A herd of senior donkeys may have very different needs from a herd of yearlings.
6. Your training needs. Having things like a sturdy hitching post/rail or a round pen might be very important to someone who plans to train their donkeys (which I would encourage everyone who owns donkeys to do). Some might just need a catch pen, or prefer to work in open spaces with their donkeys. Having things like round pen or stock panels that can be moved around to create different space for different needs is important to us here.
7. Manure management. What do you do with poop? Here, we muck almost daily and spread the manure in a designated low grazing area, then use the drag to break it up. It keeps flies down. Some places get a dumpster from the city and have it hauled off. The major thing is to keep things clean!
The major things that donkeys need most, and are basic "have to's" for keeping donkeys at home are:
1. Fresh, clean water that doesn't freeze or run out. Have a way to get electricity out to your waterers if you live where it gets below freezing. We just finally got electric to our barn, before we were running chords, which was expensive and a hassle. But you do what you need to to keep your donkeys hydrated. Donkeys tend to drink less in the winter anyway, and if they find their tank frozen over, they may avoid it altogether. This can lead to dehydration and colic. Some donkeys may need electrolytes to encourage them to drink in the winter. We offer the apple flavored kind by hand for them to lick if they want to. Some do, some don't.
2. Shelter. Donkeys don't have two layers of coat like a horse, being desert animals. So water soaks directly onto their skin and can freeze there or cause fungal infections under the fur. Donkeys need a safe shelter free of sharp edges or nails sticking out, three sided, to get under in bad weather. Some donkeys may not like the sound of rain on a metal roof, so you may have to either lock them in (with water) or offer them their feed inside the shelter as incentive. For the donkeys who truly detest shelters, a good fitted rain sheet is needed. Most horse blankets and sheets do not fit donkeys well, the shoulders slope too far back and pinch. There are a few brands that fit donkeys tolerable well. With our mammoths we use Weatherbeetas with the shoulder crimps, which don't pinch. There are other adjustable brands that fit smaller donkeys out there. We use blankets sparingly, on the wettest days. I have found that the 40 degrees and raining/snowing days are the worst. Once it gets very very cold, if the snow is dry, I don't worry as much if they have good body condition and coat, but I do feed them extra. Because of the way donkeys' digestion works, the roughage causes heat to be made as they digest, so extra stemmy grasses or straw is really good for helping them stay warm when they eat it. In the dead of winter, on extremely cold nights, we get up around 2am and feed a small meal to help our donkeys stay warm. Yes, we love our donkeys. A lot. See meme below :)
3. The "best worst" hay. Depending on your donkey's age and body condition, you may need to change this and feed higher quality hay, or even grain, but in general, donkeys need very low nutrient/protein/sugar/starch hay and little to no grain. They need it mold and dust free. I feed stemmy timothy hay, and it works well for my mammoth donkeys. Feeding hay should be done in as many small meals as you can throughout the day to simulate their natural grazing and browsing tendencies. Long times without hay in the stomach actually causes the acids within the stomach to eat away at the stomach walls, creating painful ulcers that can lead to other health issues. Because in the wild, donkeys would walk many miles to graze and browse on small shrubs, the more walking you can encourage them to do as well is best. Here we feed at least 3 small meals a day, and if it isn't windy, we will sometimes spread the piles around so they can't just stand in one spot to eat the whole thing. We also use a slow feed bag for at least one meal a day (www.thehaypillow.com). The slow feed bag takes ten minute meal and can make it last hours. They push them around as they eat, simulating walking slowly while grazing. Feeding constantly from a round bale may lead to obesity unless the round bale has a slow feed net over it. Feeding just once or twice a day is not ideal, as it gives too much time for acid buildup in between eating, and also makes donkeys more anxious at feeding time, and more apt to kick or bite one another and cause injuries. We feed far apart so that one donkey can't hog all of the food from the others. Below, two jennets sharing a slow feeder Hay Pillow because they are good friends!
4. Safe, reliable fencing. Donkeys are masters of escape. We have sort of a crazy way of latching gates for this reason, the horse gate latches are easy for our intelligent donkeys to figure out! We use both small hole 6 foot horse fencing and also a line of hot wire at the top of our fence, on the inside. This discourages the fence leaning that our donkeys love to do. It also keeps them respectful and safe from getting stuck in fence. Having your fence tall enough for your donkeys is important. Make sure they can't climb over or under it easily. Because donkeys are browsers, they are likely to eat wooden fence down to nothing and break through. Any nails stuck in wooden fence will cause injury potentially to your donkeys' eyes, nose, mouth.
Now, it is time for me to get up on my soapbox, and I know not everyone will agree with me here, but I feel it is very important. Barbed wire is NOT made for equines, and we do not feel it is safe fencing. I know that many people can not remove all barbed wire from their properties, but I would strongly encourage you never to let your donkeys near it. If you can't replace it, put up a strand or two of hot wire on the inside of it to discourage your donkeys from getting near. I have seen horrific, and I mean HORRIFIC injuries from barbed wire. The animal did not survive, and I would wish that on no one's horses or donkeys or mules. I treated these injuries personally as a staff member at a barn where we boarded an injured horse because then she could be closer to her vet. I never want to see an equine go through that again. Barbed wire is not safe for equines.
Also, remember that donkeys love to scratch their bottoms, especially in the Spring, on anything good to scratch against. If your fence won't hold up to that, better get better fence!
5. Room to roam. Here, our dry lot paddocks (no grass in them) are big enough that our donkeys could get into a fast lope or slow gallop. If your donkeys can't move around freely, your paddock is too small, unless you allow frequent turnout in a larger area. We also have a small non-irrigated pasture that we let our donkeys out on to graze for short periods several times a week, although daily would be optimal. It is best to keep diet consistent on a daily basis. Our pasture is tall, and therefore not stressed, and low sugar. Still, we don't do hours of grazing time, as founder is big issue on Colorado grasses. Our paddocks and pasture are free from objects that can harm donkeys, like nails, pieces of sharp wood and metal and glass, plastic bags etc. Because our land was previously used for ranching, sometimes weird things come up out of the soil in our dry lots that are dangerous-after a rain. So after rains, I search the paddocks for anything dangerous and remove it.
6. Enrichment. Donkeys LOVE to play! Traffic cones, jolly balls, big rubber feed pans, big, tough balls to nose around, equine safe branches to much on and drag around.....the possibilities are endless. Our paddocks had a bunch of chopped wood from a large tree when we moved in, so we spread those wooden pieces around and our donkeys chew on those, satisfying their need to chew wood, for the most part. We have rubber feed pans that our donkeys love to run around with and play tug o war with, and traffic cones. We also bought the heads of push brooms and screwed them onto the edges of our barn with the bristles out so that our donkeys could rub their itches on them, and they LOVE doing so! Some people get the street sweeper rolls and set them upright on a large pole for scratching. There are a lot of fun things you can do to make your donkeys happy. A big mound of dirt is always a favorite, as they often like to be "king of the hill". I am sure there are many other enrichment opportunities for owners to give their donkeys, including grazing "tracks" that encourage grazing while moving. Research! It's fun!
7. I'm going add in water drainage, because that's a big deal with donkeys. We struggle with this during wet months, and keep adding or subtracting materials in our paddocks to help our donkeys stay dry. Because donkeys are desert animals, they don't tolerate wet feet well. They tend to get abscesses, thrush, white line disease, among other issues. If there was an easy answer, everyone would do it, but depending on how your weather and soil conditions are, this can be a very hard issue or a simple one. There are treatments you can proactively use on your donkeys' feet, but ultimately keeping your paddocks from getting super muddy (especially muddy with manure in it) is the best thing.
8 Manure management. This is a big one. Manure brings disease, parasite transfer, flies, and smells bad. Dealing with manure is a constant challenge. But keeping your paddocks clean is super important for your donkeys' health! Like I said above, we clean almost daily. You should never feed where your donkey has defecated or urinated. We spread our manure in the least grazed area of our pasture and then use the drag to break it up and keep it from breeding flies. Some people have it trucked off their property (the best way!). Some make a big pile but inevitably it causes bad fly issues. If it is wet out, manure management is doubly important. Paddocks can become cesspools easily in the wet.
9. Training area/hitching post/indoor farrier area. Not everyone can afford or create a good, safe place to train or groom etc, but it is recommended to have a smaller paddock or a way to create a smaller paddock, even just to have in case a donkey gets sick or hurt and needs to be separated or kept still for healing. Having a catch pen for wilder donkeys is a MUST so that you can get them caught for farrier, vet etc until you can get them trained to be handled. Having a spot to safely tie your donkey is really important for the farrier to enjoy safely coming to work on them, and for your vet to examine them. Here, we have a round pen, extra panels for a QT area if needed, and are working on a small arena for training and riding. We have a trailer to tie to for grooming/tacking, and also a barn isle where we have safe, strong places to tie our donkeys for the farrier or vet. (Just an inserted note: NEVER tie to anything that can move.)
That's not everything that could possibly be said on this subject, however, it is a good start. Feel free to comment with anything else you can think of that is important in housing donkeys safely and keeping them healthy in their housing! Thank you for reading.