The author riding Levi at the Empire Ranch Trail Ride.

What on earth are you riding? I didn’t know you could actually ride those! Why would you want to ride something like that? Isn’t he stubborn/stupid/slow/ornery/mean? These are the questions this writer has been fielding for the past 30 of her 60-odd years spent in the equine world as a rider, reinswoman, riding instructor, competitor and trainer. Those of us more ‘creative’ (some say ‘eccentric’) equestrians have discovered a little something different – the world of mules and donkeys. Sharing some of the facts about these sometimes-misunderstood cousins of the horse is the purpose of this article.

The terms ‘burro’ and ‘donkey’ are interchangeable. Some say that a burro is a small donkey and that is acceptable, but they are all the same species, ‘Equine Asinus.’ In America, donkeys are categorized by four different sizes. Mini donkeys are less than 36” at the wither (the part at the base of the neck where the mane ends). Next size up is the standard donkey. These range from over 36” up to 48” (usually the wild BLM donkeys fall in this division). The large standard donkey is over 48” up to 56” and the mammoth donkey, sometimes called ‘mammoth jack stock’ is 56” and higher. Some of these donkeys will grow as tall as 68” or draft horse height.

A male donkey that is not used for breeding is gelded (castrated) and called a gelding. A male donkey that is used for breeding is called a jack. The females are called Jennets. Donkeys can be any color from white to black and every shade in between. Many have a dorsal stripe along their spine with shoulder bars down their shoulders and stripes on their legs. This, along with the light dun color is the original markings of the wild donkeys in the Middle East and Africa. Donkeys can also have spots and splashes of color all over their hides.

Donkeys have been used by mankind for thousands of years, especially in arid countries, as beasts of burden. They came to the U.S. with the Spanish in the 1500s and have been used as pack animals and worked in the mines since then. Today donkeys are making a resurgence as trail riding and driving partners and are even shown nationwide at donkey and mule shows just as horses are at horse shows, just not quite as fancy and with a much more relaxed and friendlier atmosphere. After all, if you take yourself or your animal too seriously, donkeys and mules are not the show animal for you. Just when you think you have complete control, they find a way to show you differently. They do have a sense of humor and you had better have one too!

A mule is the product of a female horse (mare) and a male donkey (jack). Mules come in all sizes, shapes, colors and dispositions. A mare horse can be a mini bred to a mini donkey to produce a mini mule or you can breed a clydesdale mare to a mammoth jack and get an enormous draft mule. And there are all the combinations in between. Mules are stronger, smarter, tougher and generally longer lived than horses. They require less feed, can go longer without water and can carry heavier loads. Their intelligence (some say stubbornness) and sure footedness comes from the donkey and their speed and athletic ability from the horse. They can compete with horses in everything from endurance riding to cow work, jumping to dressage.

A mule will not knowingly put itself into a dangerous situation, no matter what its handler says or does. That is why some horse people dislike mules – because mules can’t be bullied. Male mules, called johns, are always gelded. Females are called Mollys. All mules and donkeys in general can be called asses and that is appropriate.

Just an additional quick note to further confuse you, one can do the reverse in breeding. That is, breed a stallion horse to a jennet donkey. That offspring is a hinny, which is very similar to a mule. Both the mule and hinny are hybrids, thus sterile and unable to produce an embryo. One time in a zillion or so there will be a news story about a mule being bred and foaling but that is rare enough to be…well…newsworthy.

Why have some equine enthusiasts made the decision to use mules and/or donkeys instead of the more beautiful, malleable and popular horse? Perhaps a look into the animal’s behavior will help. Horses can and sometimes do, panic. The results of this panicking may cause them to jump off a cliff, run through a barbed wire fence, blast through a patch of prickly pear and destroy themselves and whomever they may be toting on their backs or riding in the buggy to which they are hitched. Mules will, on occasion, also panic. One never knows when a perceived grizzly bear, a backfiring semi or a particularly sketchy plastic bag may attack. However, the mules will be careful where they panic and in so doing keep their passengers somewhat safer, if the passengers are still with the mule when the excitement is over.

A donkey, when panicked, will perhaps sidle away quickly from the source, then turn around to inspect what frightened it and determine if that object needs to be just studied and then ignored or stomped to smithereens, thereby keeping its passenger in relative safety. This writer, who is approaching her sell-by date, has come to appreciate this trait. As one ages, no matter how much riding experience one has, the reflexes, balance, coordination and general strength just don’t measure up to the former days of a hell bent, barrel racing, fence jumping, bronc riding youngster. Also, ‘mortality awareness’ becomes a bit more prominent in the maturation process, so the adrenaline rush becomes less appreciated.

Thus, the riding donkey is the perfect mount. The steady, slower paced philosophy of riding and life in general of the riding donkey allows for a more relaxed and safer equine experience. It also makes for many more years in the saddle that may not be possible if one only has a horse or even a mule to head down the trail on.

Perhaps this has given the reader a little more understanding of the ‘world of asses’, the humble equines. One just has to remember to have a sense of humor and not take themselves too seriously when aboard these long-eared riding partners.