Donkeys come in many different shapes, sizes and colours, writes Heidi M Sands.

In fact it’s true to say that there are hundreds of different breeds of donkey around the world all doing different jobs of work. Donkeys are able and adaptable and a correctly trained donkey can be a useful addition to the smallholding and far removed from the stubborn ass he is sometimes purported to be.

Hardworkers I have an Irish family history. My grandmother used to tell the most wonderful stories of being taken to school by her uncle in a pony trap in Ireland in the early 1900s. She was lucky as most children walked to school or went by donkey cart. Once the donkey had taken the children to school, unlike the pony owned by her uncle who was allowed to go home to his stable, the donkeys each went about their daily tasks. Taking eggs to market, collecting seaweed from the shore for fertiliser or one of a myriad of different tasks might be asked of the donkey before he returned to school later in the day to take the children home.

Donkeys are well known as being beasts of burden. They are ridden, driven and used to carry goods all over the world. In some countries the donkey is still the mainstay of a transport system as old as the hills.

Close cousins

The donkey is a cousin of the horse, but in many ways he differs from horses and ponies. The biggest and most noticeable way he differs is in his bray, or the noise he makes. Unlike horses and ponies that neigh, a donkey brays - and what a noise it is! It’s loud and can carry for miles.


He also has much bigger ears than a horse and a tail more akin to a cow. He has a much more upright shoulder too and a more sloping hindquarter. His hooves are smaller than a horse and boxier and his head is generally heavier.

Choosing your helper

There is a donkey for almost every need and if you are considering a donkey on the smallholding first of all consider what you want the donkey for. Is he to be a companion, or will he be ridden or expected to pull a small cart or trap? If he is to do any kind of ridden work ask yourself what weight of rider he will be required to carry and that will determine the height of donkey you will need. If he is to pull a trap or cart he could be of any size, but if he’s going to be pulling any weight then he may need to be bigger or perhaps one of a pair of donkeys.


What’s most important is the temperament of any donkey you are considering. He should be well handled and biddable and, unless you are used to breaking horses in general and donkeys in particular, it may be better to consider a donkey that is already broken to the task you have in mind.

Donkeys are slightly harder to source than horses and ponies. If possible find yourself a local donkey breeder or expert to help you in your quest to source a suitable donkey.

Don’t give a home to a donkey that will ultimately cause problems for you, you’ll only regret it and the donkey won’t be happy either. Keep your donkey expert on-side as you may need help or guidance in the early days of ownership. Also ask around with regard to a vet with donkey knowledge, not all vets are experienced in such matters and although donkeys don’t have specific veterinary problems, it may pay to have someone in your corner who knows about donkeys.

The perfect home

A donkey will need a safe roomy shelter; two donkeys will need extra room to move about and lie down without problem. Smaller donkeys will need to be able to see out of any stable, so ensure doors are at the correct height. Proper fencing, suitable bedding, feed, water and halters, leads and grooming kit will also be needed.


A first-aid kit and a donkey rug will also be handy; donkey rugs are a different shape to horse rugs in order to accommodate the different shape of a donkey, and remember to get the right size.

If you plan to ride or drive your donkey you’ll also need tack and equipment. Ordinary horse or pony tack, correctly fitted will usually suffice. Make sure it all fits properly and if you are at all unsure consult your local donkey expert or call in a saddle fitter, remember donkeys are notoriously good at keeping pain or discomfort to themselves and may not give of their best in such circumstances.

As with most animals, donkeys each have different characters. On the whole though a well treated donkey will be amiable and less likely to be flighty than a horse. This bodes well for life on the smallholding where a quiet animal will cause few problems and fit into a smallholding life well.

Give your donkey time to settle into his new home on the smallholding especially if he hasn’t been used to living in close proximity to other livestock. Introduce him slowly to any new companions, remembering that they too may never have met a donkey or heard one bray before.

Your donkey should repay you well and with care and consideration become a valued member of any smallholding. Donkeys are generally long lived and should easily reach their third decade if treated well. For that reason, consider the age of any donkey you are thinking of giving a home to, you could have him for a very long time and although donkeys do change hands, it’s better for your donkey to have consistency in his life rather than be sold on if your enthusiasm for him wanes.


Donkeys require adequate daily care. Routine feeding, good hoof care, stabling and winter shelter are all required. Don’t forget that he’ll also need caring for when you go on holiday or away for the day; you’ll need to brief your stand-in as to his particular needs as not everyone is familiar with donkeys.

Remember that what works for a horse may not work for a donkey. A scared or frightened donkey is more likely to freeze than to bolt. He responds well to treats and will learn best when rewarded. Don’t overdo it though, as too much is as bad as too little. Donkeys tend to remember things for a long time and that includes bad experiences as well as good. Be patient with your donkey, he’ll thank you for it, but don’t let him get away with bad behaviour. Above all, enjoy your donkey.


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This article was written exclusively by Heidi for Smallhodler magazine. 

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