Donkeys on the homestead.
For a homestead, the donkey is a viable alternative energy source--far surpassing the horse.
As a baby sitter and child's mount
The donkey naturally loves children and is a far superior mount for a child than a pony is. The donkey has incredible patience and puts up well with children pushing him, climbing on him, even napping next to him. Please be sure that the donkey you acquire for a child's companion is a jennet or gelding -- a gelding is a castrated jack. You wouldn't give a young child a stallion to ride and no matter how gentle that jack may seem he can still become unruly and aggressive.
A donkey will seldom run away with a child, although he may walk away with a very frustrated young rider! The donkey is not inclined to "spook" like a horse. Rather, he will stop until certain of what has attracted his attention. The donkey is extremely cautious, but he is seldom likely to put his rider in danger. When in doubt, a donkey's motto is simply to stop.
In Europe and Britain it is the norm to start a young rider out on a donkey, then to progress to a pony, then a horse. The donkey is ideal for a child who is just learning his seat, how to rein, and the use of leg aids. Donkeys are extremely forgiving of a child and will put up with nonsense that a horse or pony will seldom tolerate. Our donkey, Coco, makes a terrific trail riding mount. He keeps up easily with the larger horses.
A donkey can also be trained to ride in the arena and compete in horsemanship, equitation, and gaming events. Some donkeys have even competed at the dressage level. However, many donkeys, our Coco included, think it is just plain dumb to go from one end of the arena to the other over and over again. This is an arena sour donkey and should be retired from the showring before you become too frustrated with him. I once spent 4 minutes and 59 seconds pushing and pulling Coco through a barrel pattern with Mike, and the crowd, alternately urging him on and laughing at me. I don't need to do that again!
Nearly any pony saddle will fit your donkey. If you are in hilly country you may need to add a britching (a harness that goes around his rear and attaches to the saddle) or crupper (this piece fits around his tail and attaches to the saddle) and a breast collar. Most children will ride a donkey bareback.
My son has spent hours in the pasture playing hide and seek with Coco, exploring the hill, splashing in the creek, practicing jumping on him, again and again and again...I have found them napping together under the spreading branches of a maple tree or my boy just lying on top of Coco daydreaming while the donkey contentedly grazes on a warm summer afternoon.
While there are a few exceptions, the donkey is usually not a biter or kicker. But please warn the children not to be cruel to him.
As a garden cultivator
If you are planting your garden in the traditional method, your donkey can be enlisted to pull a walking plow and to cultivate. A pony harness can be adjusted to fit most donkeys or a harness can be contrived of nylon webbing or cotton rope. Please use a collar for heavy work such as this.
As a load carrier
Creating a set of baskets -- trapper's baskets work well as they are flat on one side, yet light and durable -- to be placed on your donkey's back, with or without the use of the saddle, will open new avenues of uses for your donkey. He can carry in sticks and branches from the woods to be used as kindling. He can go berry picking with you, mushroom hunting, gathering walnuts, etc. Around the homestead he can pack nearly anything you can load him with.
I know a couple who live on top of a steep hill. Their only way to get groceries up and recyclables down is with their trusty Platero. A donkey can carry 15% dead weight (more if a person) of his weight, while a horse can carry only 12.5%.
A sawbuck pack saddle can be constructed from items available on most homesteads. Canvas packs can be sewn or purchased.
We hope to get around to making a sawbuck pack saddle this winter. I have some steep hills that require fencing and maintenance. With the top bucks a little longer they could easily hold steel fence posts. This would certainly make my job easier!
As a companion hiker
If you like to hike or camp off the beaten path, a donkey makes an ideal companion. He can carry in your tent, food, water, etc., and carry out everything when the fun is over. Your donkey is also the guardian of the camp and will alert you to any unwelcome guests, especially of the canine variety. A donkey makes an ideal companion on a hike, especially if you have young children who tire easily.
Donkeys will seldom stray from your side and many don't even have to be led. This is one reason that donkeys were so popular with miners in the old west. Many of today's wild burros are descendants of miners' donkeys that were turned loose.
The donkey is also a very surefooted creature in rocky terrain.
A plus here is that they impact the habitat much less than horses or mules because of their small hoof size and limited grazing needs.
As a cart or wagon puller
Make or buy a pony cart or wagon for your donkey and he can help bring in the winter's wood, haul out manure, bring in the harvest or take you on a quiet evening's ride. Only your imagination limits the use of your donkey with a cart.
Please take time to accustom your donkey to the cart's sounds and movement before hitching him up. For small carts or light loads a breastcollar-type pony harness is sufficient.
No hills for your children to slide on in the winter? Hook up your donkey to a sled and give the children a ride.
As a herd protector
Do you have sheep on your homestead? A single donkey, usually a jennet or gelding, makes a powerful impact on any canine predators. No more losses to coyotes, stray dogs or even the occasional lone wolf with a donkey around. Donkeys have also been used to protect cattle and even chickens!
This will work only if you have just one donkey. If you have other donkeys, horses or mules, the donkey will herd with them and not protect the other livestock. A bulletin is available from The Brayer magazine for a nominal fee that gives the details of introducing and maintaining a donkey for predator control.
For halter breaking
If you need to halter train young calves (polled or dehorned, please!) or yearling colts, the donkey is an ideal trainer. Equip your donkey with a sturdy collar and connect (preferably with a panic snap) the halter of the animal you wish to be taught to lead, then turn the pair loose in an enclosure, always under supervision. The donkey will naturally go wherever he wishes and the colt or calf will have no option but to follow.
One of the greatest advantages of using this technique is that the "trainee" does not associate people with the session. Often, when the colt or calf is finally released from the donkey, the animal will be very willing to follow you.
As a foal companion
The stress of weaning a foal can be lessened considerably by allowing a donkey to run with the pair prior to weaning, then kept with the foal when the weaning takes place. The donkey provides a steadying influence which helps to calm the foal, thereby reducing the trauma of separation from the dam.
Please don't have the donkey in with the mare at foaling time. Some donkeys, notably geldings and jacks, have been known to stomp a newborn colt or calf to death before the mother can get up to protect it. This seldom happens, but it's not worth the risk, to my way of thinking.
As a stable companion
Nervous or injured horses have been known to clam down with a donkey as a stall or pasture mate. Essentially, the donkey takes on the responsibility of the other animal's well-being. The miniature donkey is often used for this purpose since it does not take up much room in the stall.
As a show donkey
Showing your donkey at the local donkey and mule shows can be an enjoyable hobby. Donkeys are judged in halter classes, both western and English riding, single and double hitch, costume, jumping and games.
We began showing our donkey at the local horse shows where we were showing the horses as well. He generally competes in the pony classes.
Please don't have great expectations of your donkey, or mule, at horse shows. Horse people tend to look down on the little creatures and judges often don't know how to place them. But when Coco was younger and dumber and would still do arenas, Mike won ribbons in horsemanship, halter and gaming on him -- against horses and ponies!
Mike also shows Coco in the 4-H horse classes at the county fair. This was a problem because the 4-H club here didn't know how to place him. They actually created classes to accommodate Mike's donkey and now his mule. Don't be surprised if you get a prejudiced attitude here too. Just don't let them say no and don't have great expectations.
Donkey and mule shows are by far the most fun and informative. We have found donkey enthusiasts to be down-to-earth and helpful. Perhaps this is because donkey people realize that their animals have good days and bad days and the entire show depends upon which day this may be!
We are not really what you would call "show people." We have no fancy tack or trailer, we don't do all the clipping and grooming, the kids usually don't even practice before a show, but we have had phenomenal good fortune given our ignorance and Coco's lack of "good" breeding.
In 1990 Coco took the title of Reserve Champion Burro at the National Wild Horse and Burro Expo held in Lexington, Kentucky. Lynn Anderson, the country and western singer, was the judge and even autographed one of his ribbons.
In 1992 Coco and Mike took the Grand Champion Donkey for the State of Minnesota trophy! Mike was only ten then and it was so neat to see all the men come up and shake his hand and slap his back. There were about thirty entrants including some real show people and breeders and nearly all the animals were shown by adults. For a little wild burro and a ten year old child to win this was a real David and Goliath-type victory. Coco and Mike took Reserve Champion Donkey for 1993.
If shows aren't really your thing, but you would like recognition for your donkey and/or child, The American Donkey and Mule Society has a wonderful program called "The Hall of Fame." You can join the Society and register your donkey for the Hall of Fame Awards. Points can be accumulated for trail riding, live nativities, parades, wagon rides, etc. Coco and Mike are working on their fourth Hall of Fame Award. It is a wonderful program.
Mike's efforts in the show ring with Coco have improved his self-esteem and poise. He has also become more interested in history and culture because of our delving into donkey lore. Mike is also very proud of all his ribbons and trophies.
Live nativities, Easter, vacation Bible schools, fairs, parades...
Many people who keep a donkey find that their animal is in demand at Christmas-time for live nativities. Coco is booked solid every year by August! We also provide a sheep and goat, so it developed into a one-stop event for the church. Easter celebrations and vacation Bible schools are other activities that your donkey may be asked to attend.
Once word gets around that you have a donkey don't be surprised if the County Fair Board gives you a call and asks for his appearance at the children's barnyard. Democratic candidates have asked for Coco to appear at parades and picnics. Organizers of historical parades have asked for his appearance, as well as local nursing homes. It can become hectic!
I view this as community service work and encourage the children to participate. I honestly feel that these activities have promoted a greater sense of belonging in my children and have also allowed them to realize that people give to their community in different ways. Mike and Montana have spent many hours talking with children and adults about Coco and their other animals. They enjoy the attention and have developed a sense of poise I seldom see in other children their age.
Coco is an adopted wild burro, so we promote the Adopt-A-Horse-or-Burro program as well.
Mules (the sterile cross between a jack donkey and a mare) are rising in popularity faster than any individual breed of horse. A quality jack is the foundation of a profitable mule breeding venture. A large Standard or Mammoth Jack is usually used to cover draft or riding mares to produce a mule.
The mule is acknowledged as being an ideal work animal possessing the intelligence and strength of the donkey with the malleability of the horse. Standing a jack to outside mares can be a profitable business.
Maintenance & cost of the donkey
A Standard donkey (37" to 48", often called burro in Spanish) eats far less than a horse, perhaps a bale of hay a week, and no grain is necessary. The donkey can be tethered easily on grassy ground or turned out in the yard to ease the burden of lawn mowing. Donkeys very seldom leave home, so if you're not next to a busy road you may not even have to bother corralling him.
Please don't overfeed your donkey. They always look skinny if you are used to horses. A donkey carries its excess weight at the top of its neck. If the top of the neck becomes thick, or thickens so much that it falls to one side, your animal is obese.
Donkeys are fairly low maintenance animals. A spring and fall worming with a standard equine wormer is usually adequate. If his belly gets round and full looking you probably need to worm more often.
The only other regular maintenance is hoof trimming. We don't have any problems at all trimming our donkey's feet, but I have heard horror stories about the donkey flatly refusing to pick up his feet for cleaning and trimming. Try before you buy or use a scotch hobble if he acts up. The donkey's feet should be trimmed so that the hoof looks fairly vertical compared to a horse's, which can vary in slant from 40 degrees to 55 degrees.
The cost of a donkey is nominal compared to that of a horse. They can often be purchased for $50 to $200, depending upon sex (jennets usually cost more than jacks), color, conformation, and level of training. Donkeys can begin light work at the age of two and often live healthy work lives through forty years or more!
For the small homestead, especially one with children, I cannot recommend an animal more versatile or lovable than a donkey. For more information on donkeys and mules, I suggest contacting The Brayer magazine, the publication for The American Donkey and Mule Society, at 2901 North Elm, Denton, Texas 76207 or call 817-382-6845. The editor is Betsy Hutchins, a wonderful lady who is always helpful and full of information. Membership to the ADMS is only $15 per year and includes The Brayer, which is published quarterly.