Stubborn as a Donkey?

One behavior expert explains the differences in behavior between donkeys and horses.
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donkey behavior
Many of the differences we appreciate in the behavior of our domestic donkeys and horses are attributable to this solitary versus group social organization. | Photo: iStock
Q.Can you explain some of the differences between the behavior of horses and donkeys? Why do donkeys sometimes get labeled as stubborn or stupid?

—Alex, via e-mail

A.That is great topic. In fact, one of my most well-used and favorite teaching slide sets is entitled Donkeys are Not Horses. I first assembled it to outline and explain the biological basis of the many differences in donkeys’ social and reproductive behavior. I and my colleagues learned early on that if you try to breed donkeys as you would horses, things often don’t progress very well. That led to studying free-roaming donkeys in Brazil. I still remember the embarrassing moment when I realized how silly it was of me not to have figured it out sooner. These species’ behavior is in fact very different for very good evolutionary reasons. Over the years my interest and the slide set have grown to include other differences than reproductive that can be equally confusing and frustrating.

Many of the behavior differences stem from differences in how the various equid species evolved. Donkeys and asses and Grevy’s zebras that evolved mostly in arid regions where forage and water were sparse naturally have a primarily territorial social organization and system of breeding. In contrast, horses (e.g., Przewalski’s horse and the common zebra) evolved in environments favoring a social herd organization. Horse herds are composed of multiple harem bands of one mature stallion, multiple mares, and their juvenile offspring, as well as bachelor bands of mostly or all males of various ages. Harem stallions herd and guard their families, staying with them at all times, but they also maintain relationships with other bands in the herd, such that they share defense of the herd as a whole in times of major threats

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Written by:

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

2 Responses

  1. I appreciate the thorough information. I was reading the bible where it says Jesus rode on a donkey colt and wondered why a donkey, why not a horse, but being a good Jew Jesus knew that riding on horses was frowned upon for Israel and symbolic of trusting in works instead of God. And i started to think of what i know about donkeys, which isnt much other than they have a reputation of being stubborn, so i decided to look this topic up to find out more about donkeys and horses, and based on the i formation you have given i feel i havea better understanding of all this now. Thanks so much!!!

  2. Really interesting – thanks Sue. I am a vet who worked at a well known international donkey charity for many years and we always noted the strong bonding behaviour of donkeys such that separating a bonded pair could result in fatal stress induced hyperlipaemia. This is a fact but seem to run counter to the solitary behaviour you talk about. It would be great to hear your views on this. Thanks a lot.

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