Handling and Training Donkeys

Owners often care for donkeys as they would horses despite distinct differences between the species. Researchers are seeking to change this.
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donkeys eating
Donkeys do best living in a herd, but they can also be used to protect other animals, such as sheep. | Photo: iStock

Although horses and donkeys both belong to the equid family, they behave and interact with humans differently. And, generally speaking, owners lack knowledge regarding donkeys’ needs and, if they do not interact with them regularly, these unique equids are often misunderstood, said Carissa Wickens, PhD, associate professor and equine extension specialist at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, during her presentation at the 2023 Equine Science Society Symposium, held June 6-9 in Grapevine, Texas.

“We acquired three donkeys at the University of Florida to protect our sheep,” said Wickens. However, the three female donkeys had experienced minimal handling and were not halter broke, and one—a rescue donkey with relatively unknown history—was not comfortable with human interaction, which made veterinary examinations and routine health management difficult for the farm crew and stressful for the donkey, she added. “Therefore, we wanted to develop and implement a plan with a small group of students to improve the donkeys’ handling and herd management.”

Wickens and Samantha Brooks, PhD, associate professor of equine physiology, also at the University of Florida, developed a course with the goal of involving students directly in:

  • Monitoring and recording each donkey’s behavior and overall condition.
  • Designing and implementing a targeted training protocol.
  • Fostering communication and teamwork among students and between students and industry experts to better understand donkey care and management.

The supervisors split the 12 participating students into three groups of four, and each group worked with their assigned donkey for approximately four hours each week over the 16-week semester. The animal-experience levels of the students in each group varied from beginner to more advanced (many had previous experience working with horses but were new to working with unhandled equids and, more specifically, donkeys). The donkeys were relatively resistant to human contact at the start of the semester and were housed in paddocks with the sheep to allow them to continue to protect the flock.

The students used positive and negative reinforcement to encourage the donkeys to accept halter training, grooming, having their feet touched, and veterinary work such as vaccine administration, said Wickens and Brooks. Students and faculty supervisors discussed goals with students during periodic in-person and virtual meetings. They used various e-learning platforms to facilitate communication and discussion within and between student groups, draft and edit an ethogram (an inventory of behaviors exhibited by an animal) for monitoring and recording behaviors, and monitor weekly accomplishments and challenges.

Both the students and supervisors noted that the donkeys bonded with their student teams, and the students noted they had an overall improved sense of confidence and comfort around their donkeys as the semester progressed. “The students also reported an increased sense of progress with their donkey as the semester went on, and their knowledge of animal handling also improved,” Wickens added.

At the end of the course, students and their faculty supervisors reported that all donkeys displayed more boldness and curiosity, had reduced flight zones, appeared more relaxed, and were easier to handle during veterinary procedures, and two of the donkeys willingly accepted haltering, grooming, and leading. “Our next steps for this project are to offer similar classes to future students and create outreach opportunities for the public,” said Wickens. These opportunities would help the greater horse industry understand donkeys and their behaviors better.

Take-Home Message

Donkeys have unique needs and might respond differently than horses to interactions with humans. If owners and handlers take the time to better understand donkeys, Wickens predicts they will have more positive interactions, leading to improved welfare for these long-eared equids.

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Written by:

Haylie Kerstetter, Digital Editor, holds a degree in equine studies with a concentration in communications and a minor in social media marketing. She is a Pennsylvania native and, as a horse owner herself, has a passion for helping owners provide the best care for their horses. When she is not writing or in the barn, she is spending time with her dog, Clementine.

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