Monday, October 10, 2016

4 Ways Donkey Behavior Differs from Horse Behavior

In order to successfully train donkeys, one must not only look at how they behave on their own and in a herd setting, but also the energy with which they express themselves. Emulating this energy, timing, and behavior so that our donkeys understand what we want, and then using it to our advantage in training these incredibly smart equines is crucial to success.

Observing our donkeys is super important, because not only does it give us clues to their personalities and how best to train them, but having a baseline for behaviors, especially at feeding time, can help us identify when an animal is "off" and may need medical help. Many times donkeys do not show that they are ill until hey are VERY ill, but if you are sensitive enough to their baseline behaviors and energy, then you will be able to catch illnesses sooner. A very sensitive donkey owner can just feel that something isn't quite right long before there are significant behavior changes. Cultivating this sensitivity can mean the difference between a serious issue and one caught in the nick of time!

Some of the things (definitely not all, as there is a whole science of the equid ethogram, and to research and properly explain all of the donkey behaviors would take a novel) that differ between horses and donkeys, that we feel are important to know for training/medical purposes are:

1. Sexual behavior: Jennets, like mares, go into "heat" or estrus after sexual maturity every 21-28 days, and can stay in heat up to 10 days. Unlike many mares, we have seen our jennets continue to cycle all throughout the winter, never going into winter anestrus, like most horses do. The most obvious difference is that jennets do something called "jawing" when they go into heat. They will squat and urinate frequently, like a mare, but also make some pretty awful noises and snap their jaws open and shut, ears laid back. First time donkey owners may be surprised by this.

Jennets will also mount one another when in heat, with the receptive jennet on the bottom. Gelded males can and will compete the sexual act with jennets, including ejaculation, although here are no spermatozoa to create a pregnancy. For that reason, we have separated our herds into two, as all males can have harmful bacteria on their penises which can cause uterine infections. Gelded horses do sometimes complete the sexual act, especially if they have been gelded late, however, it is not nearly as common.

2. Flight/Fight/ Freeze behavior. Horses evolved on the plains, where if spooked by danger, they could run and run and run to flee. Horse trainers take advantage of that fact to get the forward motion needed for movements related to riding. Donkey trainers don't have that advantage, or if so, not nearly to that degree. Donkeys evolved in mountainous regions where that type of response may take you out of the gene pool. Donkeys can and will flee danger, especially if there is room to, however, their flight response is no as finely honed as their horse relatives. Donkeys, when faced with something potentially frightening or confusing, may "baulk"--stop, stare, and analyze. Adding more pressure to the situation (like a whip or loud voice) may make your donkey freeze and shut down. You can see them retract behind their eyes. Abused donkeys who have learned that the only way out of a situation is to run, may act more like a horse. They may also find a corner to hunker down in and present their rump, so that they can be sure to defend themselves while keeping their head and neck safe. Because of the baulking behavior, and the way that donkeys will think their way out of a situation, certain training methods and timing that usually works for horses may not be effective at all on donkeys. For example, it can be VERY effective to train donkeys to come into a trailer by half hitching their lead rope to something sturdy inside, making it so that they cannot back away, and reward them profusely if they take a step forward. (Would like to interject here that probably the BEST method of trailer training donkeys is to start out by having a well chocked trailer openly available in their paddock that the donkey can chose to go into, and be fed in on a regular basis). A horse, finding themselves stuck, many times will harm themselves significantly out of terror. Donkeys, however, think through the problem, and come up with their own solution. It takes patience on the part of the handler, however, if it is the donkey's idea ultimately, they will learn it better. They will hang on the end of the rope for a good long while, and may even try things like jumping from side to side , sitting down, and laying down, but are not likely to harm themselves, and will eventually realize the logical solution is to step forward, especially if promptly rewarded with something tasty when they do. If you use the horse method of lunging a donkey into a trailer, many times the donkey will baulk at the urgency of the request (and perhaps also because it appears from their perspective as if you are not willing to go in the trailer first, and if you are not, why should they), although with certain animals it does work well. Donkeys, like horses, have individual personalities and each may respond differently to different training tools, timing, and methods.

3. Ears back. Donkeys are super expressive with their ears, and there could be books written just about how they use their ears to communicate. However, let's focus on "ears back". Ears back in donkeys does not always mean "I'm angry" or "leave my space". Donkeys do use ears back to signify "leave this space", but that is not it's only meaning. In fact, donkeys use ears back to signify many things. Especially in young donkeys, it can mean "I'm playful! Let's wrestle". I have been asked by more than a few first time donkeys owners why their donkey is following them around, making a menacing face. Usually, this gesture signifies playfulness. Should your donkey play with you? Probably not. They are way heavier and stronger. A sharp "NO" with stomp of your foot will usually be enough to dissuade them, at least momentarily. If this behavior is allowed to go on, the owner may have to escalate and use a whip to sharply rap the donkey on the upper leg or shoulder along with the "NO".  If you watch your donkeys, the dominant one will often lay back its ears and snake its neck down, biting at the less dominant donkey's hocks or stifles, driving them from behind. The energy is different when the donkey is showing dominance as opposed to asking for play or for a game of chase. My donkey Charlie, who has always been a playful character, will still follow me around with ears flat back and neck down, especially if I have the wheelbarrow. He finds it highly entertaining, and somewhat offensive if I wheel it away from him.

4. Water. All equines have issues perceiving the depth of water, and are usually reluctant to go in. Horses, however, are more easily persuaded, and some even enjoy rolling around in ponds if they are available to them. With donkeys, think African watering hole with alligators in it. That water is terrifying! This can extend even to their drinking water and tanks they have known for a long time. They might circle it, back away, walk up to it, reach out as for as they can without actually touching it or stepping forward, until finally reluctantly drinking. If you plan to take your donkeys somewhere new overnight, bring a watering container and water from the previous pace that they already will drink from, or you amy have a heck of a time getting them to drink. Getting donkeys to step through water can be a real challenge, and many times the first step is a huge "coon jump" over the offending puddle. Be prepared! Acclimate your donkeys slowly to going through water, do not expect them to go through something larger until they have mastered something much smaller. Be  very very very patient and reward profusely when they manage it. The first few times, it may take more than an hour. Be prepared. Some may surprise you and do great, but they are in the minority.

There are many many many more ways in which donkeys differ from horses in their behavior, thinking, intelligence as well as medically. What are some of the differences you have seen? The more you observe, the more able you will be to communicate well with your donkeys!


  1. Very good info...thank you for taking the time..

  2. Since the equine method of pressure while lunging a horse is not effective with donkeys, what method would recommend for getting a walking donkey to trot?

    1. You can drive them from behind. Use a larger space and make it interesting. You can usee pressure and release, you just can't expect them to do more than a little at first., and you cannot do any repetition Even if you get a few steps of trot, reward, and don't get greedy for more until the donkey understands how much you enjoy them trotting.

  3. I run Save Your Ass Long Ear Rescue. We use positive reinforcement training for all of the animals on the farm, donkeys, mules, hinnies, pigs dogs, even chickens! It's fun, it's rewarding for both trainer and subject and NEVER puts an animal over threshold which is very easy to do with donkeys as they are so stoic. No whips, no spurs, no pain or discomfort EVER associated with training....