We are fortunate to have a mother donkey and two of her offspring from subsequent years who are both females (jennys). We have had the younger ones since they were foals and have hiked with them and their mother since they were four or five months old. The mother was always on a lead, but the younger one were both on lead and off lead. By doing this we trained the younger ones to keep up with us off lead when we are in wide open spaces. As a result of this, we can hike in the state forests on old logging roads with the younger ones off lead even without the mother, and the youngsters look at us as the lead donkey and rarely ever get more than 100 yards away from us. The mother donkey can not reliably be turned loose off lead. She doesn’t run away, but she considers herself to be the leader since she was older when we got her and makes little attempt to keep up with us. We are blessed to live in a place where we can go with our donkeys and dogs off lead. This is definitely an advantage of rural living in areas with vast expanses of public land. Our donkeys also forage as they go through the woods with their packs. This makes for more efficient travel as it reduces the amount of roughage that must be carried. When the younger donkeys are off lead, they sometimes lag behind and sometimes run ahead, but they do not impede our general travel speed. When they come back to make contact with us, we reward them with a scratch behind the ears or a treat. When we were at the second annual International Donkey Symposium in Davis, California a couple of years ago, I talked to a donkey rescuer who would go for extended treks into the desert alone with seven or eight pack donkeys. He would lead the dominant donkey, and all the others would follow. This made it feasible for him to carry alot of gear and water while only having to control one donkey.
In addition to the fact that donkeys’ feet are smaller than a horse, they are much tougher and more elastic. They rarely if ever need to be shod. I jog with my donkeys on back country gravel roads, which naturally keep their feet trimmed, and I’ve never had any lameness issues. If your donkeys spend all their time on lush soft pasture, you will need to manually trim their feet. Donkeys are much less likely to get laminitis than horses. Laminitis is an inflammation of the feet often caused by over eating of concentrates, among other causes. It causes immediate lameness that can permanently change the conformation of the feet leading to chronic lameness.
Donkeys have the reputation of being stubborn, ornery animals, which I believe is undeserved. I will admit that all our donkeys are jennys and not jacks (males), making them much easier to handle. It would be my recommendation that if you get a male donkey for working purposes that you get a gelding or castrated jack. The reason that donkeys appear stubborn is that they are more cautious and less reactive than horses. Horses, especially horses that have not been handled a lot, respond to you on the ground in a round pen situation because of their reactive natures. You can create a desired movement by the horse as a reaction to a movement by you on the ground in the center of that circle. This is due to the self preserving herd based nature of the horse. A similar movement by you to a donkey may produce a donkey that looks at you as if to say ” What on earth are you doing?”. Donkeys are actually more intelligent than horses, but they learn their lessons more slowly and in a different way. However, once they learn a lesson whether good or bad, they rarely forget it. I have always tried to use coaxing rather than coercion on my donkeys when training, and as a result they are very loving and tractable animals. As with all animals, all training sessions should end on a good note with the animal doing something no matter how small that it can be praised for. Donkeys are also extremely steady. The first time I put their harness on they acted as if they had worn it their entire lives. In addition, they seem to be completely unaffected by gunfire. They frequently come and stand by the fence while I target practice with my Ruger Blackhawk in 44 mag.
One advantage of having several smaller pack animals rather than one large animal, such as a horse, in an emergency situation is that in the case of a debilitating injury or sickness you can redistribute your load between the remaining animals, whereas if your one large animal goes down you will have to leave most of your supplies there and only take what you can carry on your back.
Besides carrying loads, donkeys can pull carts and wagons, if the terrain allows. They can easily pull two times their body weight. Another job that they are used for is as a guard for other animals, such as sheep and cattle. Donkeys are very tuned in to dogs as possible threats because of this, so if you get donkeys I would recommend exposing them to your dogs at a young age to allow them to get comfortable with each other.
In the actual packing of your donkeys, the most important idea is to not overload them and to balance their load. Some people carry a small hanging scale for this purpose. I tighten my cinch which goes around their chest pretty tight with the girth less so. A small tie between cinch and girth strap will keep the girth strap from slipping back. The packing harness also has a chest strap and a rump strap to keep it from sliding backwards and forwards. These should be loose enough to not impede motion but tight enough perform their function. I try to keep the chest strap loose enough to allow the donkey to put its head down easily. My last pack I purchased had a saddle pad that attached to the wooden saddle. This was a great improvement over a saddle that just sat on top of the pad in that it kept the pad from sliding around. Also it is best to pack heavier items lower and lighter bulky items higher in the pannier.
I vaccinate our donkeys for tetanus, equine influenza, eastern and western encephalomyelitis, and rabies. I deworm them every three or four months and rotate the classes of wormers I use to minimize parasite resistance. However, proper manure management has been shown to be just as effective in reducing intestinal worm burdens in equines. Other vaccines, such as West Nile, may be important in your area. You should contact your local veterinarian.
After considering the possibility of using donkeys as pack animals for quite some time, the final impetus for actually getting animals of our own was a trip to Colorado for a veterinary meeting. While there, we learned that donkey racing is very popular in Colorado and is being considered as the Colorado state sport. There are five mountain towns that during the months of July and August have races on subsequent weekends that range from five miles to the granddaddy race that is 26 miles long and ends at 13,000 feet in altitude. The rules are simple; you run with your donkey and both of you must cross the finish line together. The donkey must also carry a shovel, a pick, and a gold pan, since this is supposed to be a re-creation of the old miner’s races to establish gold claims. So we went to get a young donkey from a breeder in New Jersey and came back with the mother who happened to be pregnant, and now we have three. This is about par for the course from what I hear from other people with donkeys. They are like potato chips; you can never have just one. Had I known that these animals were so loving and affectionate and such a joy to have around, I would have had them long ago. I can not walk in my back yard without them braying at me for attention. This appears to not necessarily be a need for treats, since they seem to be quite happy with a hug and a scratch behind the ears.
I purchased my packsaddles and panniers online from Bantam Pack Saddles in Idaho. These are custom made based on your donkey’s measurements, were reasonably priced, and have proven very functional. As far as where to get a donkey, there are breeders online, and the U.S. government has a program to find homes for excess donkeys on BLM lands. There are also various donkey rescue organizations, which have donkeys for sale. Lastly, there are animal auction houses where donkeys are available. If you get younger animals I would recommend trying to see the mother and father to get an idea of how big they are going to be. Donkeys don’t reach their full height until they are two years old and don’t fill out completely until four or five. So you can’t fit their packs until they are two. If the animal is an adult, handle it a lot, especially the feet, and see it in action if it is a working animal. A veterinary pre-purchase exam is always a good thing also to insure you are getting a healthy animal.
While I hope that our need for our donkeys will only be for recreational purposes, such as donkey racing in Colorado, hauling an elk out of the woods in Idaho, or just having some really sweet pets, I have no doubt that in an emergency situation they will meet our needs as pack animals. They are always eager for adventure and practically run to load in their stock trailer for hiking trips now. Mechanical means of transport are great in times of plenty and on trails where they are allowed, but in Pennsylvania there are almost no public lands where you can take off road or on road vehicles with the exception for snowmobiles, which are obviously only wintertime vehicles. So for recreational purposes in the state and national forests, pack animals are a good way to go for long camping trips. In times of emergency when there is no fuel or electricity to pump the fuel or vehicles functional to use the fuel, we truly will be thrown 100 years into the past, and pack animals will be a must. Consider owning donkeys. You won’ t be disappointed.