Moving unobtrusively over land with pack animals whether for recreation or in an emergency situation is both enjoyable and possibly a lifesaving endeavor. This article concerns my experience with donkeys as a veterinarian and as someone who has prepared as much as possible over the years for whatever circumstances may arise in the world we live in. I hope this information will persuade you to look into pack animals, such as donkeys, in your preparedness planning if your circumstances will allow.
My wife and I have owned and ridden horses for the majority of our lives but got out of the horse business about eight years ago primarily due to a downsizing in pasture acreage. We have had donkeys now for the past four years. I did not consider myself “expert ” enough to write an article on donkeys, but after reading a few discussions about donkeys on other survival blogs, I realized that the public has many misconceptions about them. To most they are cute but rather stubborn lawn ornaments, but as I have learned they are actually very hardworking affectionate pack animals with tons of personality.
Donkeys have been working animals for man for over 5000 years. They are by far the most used and abused working animal in the world with over 41 million worldwide. The vast majority of these are in third world countries, where the availability of mechanized implements are limited primarily due to economics. The conditions existing in these countries now are similar to those that would exist in the United States after a total grid breakdown, economic collapse, or other nationwide debilitating natural disaster. Donkeys in these third world countries today are hard working survival animals that allow these people to do jobs and provide for their families when otherwise they would be unable to do so. However, due to limited resources and social mores that don’t allow for the promotion of the human animal bond, these animals live shortened lives with the average being 12-15 years in these countries while donkeys are fully capable of living twice that long if treated well. The Donkey Sanctuary is a U.K.-based donkey welfare group that is active worldwide showing people how to make inexpensive pads for packing donkeys and inexpensive harnesses for other donkeys that haul carts and wagons. By teaching these people that it is not only good for the animal when they care for its welfare but also good for them economically since the animals can work better and longer, they are showing them that a positive human-animal bond is a win-win situation for both man and animal.
The reasons I got into donkeys were multi-fold, but primarily I wanted a smaller, easy to keep, low impact animal for extended back packing trips that I could house in a relatively small area. I felt they would allow my wife and I to travel further with more supplies by reducing our number of resupply points and allow us to travel with lighter packs on our backs. Donkeys would allow us to carry our more valuable, delicate items, such as firearms, ammo, optics, GPS devices, and other small items in our packs while they could carry food, bedding, and other large items in their panniers. These possibilities would make them ideal for either recreational or emergency travel uses. Whether we were traveling on the trails nearby or trying to escape our local nuclear plant in the case of an EMP with grid shutdown and non-functioning vehicles, donkeys would lighten our load and allow us to carry more of our essentials.
Very early in my thought process about whether to get back into riding horses or walking with pack animals to meet the needs of moving myself and material over difficult terrain, I considered several ideas. First, when I had horses, I would sometimes go on overnighters in the mountainous woods of Pennsylvania with my supplies: this was always a great time, but because the horse was carrying me, it greatly reduced the amount of supplies I could carry. I always wondered where those cowboys in the movies used to keep that big coffee pot, cast iron skillet, side of bacon, et cetera on their horses when all I could see was a small bedroll. Another issue I had was that taking the horse off of an established trail or logging road in mountainous woods was not an easy thing to do. I still always felt that I would still be able to travel much faster over distance riding a horse. However, once when we were on a continuing education trip out west one year, I picked up the book Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. The book was about the Comanche Indian Nation and the war against them by the U.S. Cavalry during the late 1800’s. The book went into the logistics of moving men and material over long distances using horses with riders, donkeys, and mules with packs and wagons, and infantry walking. The interesting idea that I noted was that the mounted riders only outpaced the walking people and animals for two or three days and then their pace was the same. This bolstered my view that in a situation where my wife and I were moving ourselves with the maximum amount of supplies over long and difficult terrain, we would be most efficient on foot with a small group of pack animals. Donkeys, for their size, can carry a larger load for a longer time than any other pack animal. Donkeys can easily carry 20-25% of their bodyweight in their packs for 10-12 miles per day for extended periods of time and higher weights over short distances. Our donkeys, except for one, are in the 350-400 lb. range, which means that they can carry 80-100 lbs. We do have a smaller donkey, Chili Pepper, who is half mini and weighs a little under 300 lbs. She can’t carry quite as much, but she makes up in spirit what she lacks in size. Donkeys come in many sizes, from minis that weigh as little as 100 lbs. to the mammoth donkey that weighs over 1000 lbs. Our donkeys are small standards, but there are large standards who weigh in the 600-800 lb. range, which is in the small horse size. We chose our donkeys because we felt the smaller size had many more advantages in our situation.
Donkeys are extremely hardy animals that can survive on much less than a horse or pony of similar size. A horse will not do nearly as well on the types of forage that a donkey can live on. It is unclear exactly why donkeys are so much more efficient than horses at thriving on substandard forage, but one reason put forth is the fact that while both species grind their feed by a circular motion of their jaws using their molars as grindstones, the jaws of the donkey make a much larger circle than those of the horse. In addition, it has been suggested that the differences in the donkey’s intestinal microflora make it digestively more efficient than the horse. The bottom line is that a horse requires 2-2.5% of their bodyweight of a higher quality forage on a dry matter basis to thrive while a donkey can live on 1.5% of its body weight in a lower quality forage.
While donkeys, in a pinch, can live on straw– a very low quality forage, I have found that mine do best on first cutting grass hay, which tends to have more stems and seed heads present. First cutting hay is usually less expensive than second cutting hay, which has more broad leaves and is more often fed to horses. Our three donkeys live on 3/4 acre of land in our backyard. We have their space divided into two sections during the warm months. One section is a grassy area; the other area, which is more wooded, contains their barn. Their barn is about 10 feet wide by 32 feet long and is about 10 feet tall. This has proven to be ample space for the donkeys and for the storage of about 60 bales of hay. The donkeys have taken out all of the underbrush in the wooded area but are pretty good at not bothering the larger trees, especially evergreens, if they are provided an equine mineral block. We turn them out on the grassy area for thrre or four hours every day or two during the growing season depending on the amount of grass available. This lets them have the taste of green vegetation, but because of their small area we feed them year round. They each eat an average of 1/4 bale of hay daily and 1/2 lb. of 12% pelleted horse feed daily. Where we live in Pennsylvania, a bale of grass hay runs about $2.75 a bale and a 50 lb. bag of pelleted ration runs $10 dollars, so each donkey costs about $300 a year to keep. If these three donkeys were one horse, the ground would be turned to mush and completely devoid of vegetation in their small area, but because of their small feet the donkeys still have vegetation. These Sicilian donkeys we have were originally desert dwellers, so they do like to roll on bare ground. These are the type of donkeys that lived in the Middle East during the time of Jesus and have the large cross on their back. Because of this need, they do tend to paw out a few bare rolling areas in their pasture that are six to eight feet in diameter that they use on a regular basis.
Another item of concern, especially in a small area such as we have, is manure management. Fortunately, donkeys tend to concentrate their manure in several piles around their living area rather than going in many different places. Where they have these manure piles they will not eat the grass, even though it grows prolifically. I rake my barn area daily and pile it up. Once a week in the winter and more often in the summer, I sprinkle hydrated lime on my barn pile and the various pasture piles. The lime helps degrade the manure, stops insects in their tracks, balances the pH, and controls intestinal parasites. When the smaller piles degrade, I just go over them with a riding lawnmower and puree them over the ground to add organic matter to the soil. A couple of times a year, I move my barn pile to a composting area to make room for more. If you cover it with black plastic in the spring after a season of composting and just after the weeds and grass have sprouted, you can put it in your garden after all of the vegetation in the manure has died.