The Donkey: A Brief Description

Scientific Name – Equus asinusClass – Mammalia
Order – Perissodactyla
Family – Equidae
Genus – Equus
Species- AsinusThe Donkey is a domesticated Ass, deserving our attention, and respect, because of its long and checkered history, and because of the marked, if subtle changes in appearance and temperament it has undergone. They were probably domesticated well before the horse, and were only supplanted by it because of the horse’s greater speed and weight carrying (as opposed to pulling) ability. A point that should not be overlooked is the “prestige factor”, a rider looks much more impressive on a horse, than on a donkey, and can literally look down on their dismounted fellows. (Try doing that from a donkey!) The ridden horse has traditionally been the mode of transport for the warrior and nobility because of this prestige. The rich ride horses, the poorer classes either go on foot or by donkey. Even today this prejudice exists, how many “Horsey” people do you know who still look down their noses at donkeys and refuse to let them any-where near their precious horses?Truly wild, (as opposed to feral), asses are today confined to Northern Africa and Southern Asia. They are a dying race, and as their numbers dwindled, so the numbers of donkeys increased. Donkeys were called Asses until the 18th. Century, by which time they had been taken over a large part of the world by Man. They were important beasts of burden, were used for riding, also ploughing, turning wheels and many other forms of menial task. To a large extent, the donkey has been the helpmate of the poor man throughout the ages, and continues as such today in much of the Third World.The vitality of donkeys is reflected generally in their long life. Wild asses, kept in zoos, have commonly lived 20 – 24 years. Amongst Third World working donkeys, they usually only live 12 – 15 years. However, this is more a reflection of their hard lives and poor living conditions. When looked after well, with good food, regular
worming and general health care, it is not uncommon for pet donkeys to last well into their 20’s. For the donkey, there are many records for above 20 years, some for 37 or more and one white donkey is said to have lived for 50 years. There are several claims for 50 years or more, even to as much as 80. Whatever the truth, the mere frequency of these reports suggests that donkeys are traditionally held to be long-lived. One record for a mule is 37 years.Origin of the Donkey
The Persian wild ass (Onager) was partially domesticated by the Sumerians, about 3000 BC, but was soon displaced by the more tractable horse. A race of African wild ass was domesticated about the same time, possibly even earlier. There are many illustrations of donkeys in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings. It seems certain that the donkeys so widely used in Asia were not domesticated forms of the Asiatic wild ass, but were imported, possibly from Egypt. Moreover, it is very likely that the donkeys used in Europe were imported from Asia, not directly from Egypt. When this took place is uncertain. In fact almost everything connected with the ancestry of the donkey is guesswork, except that its original home was probably Africa. So far as the European donkey is concerned, Homer, the Greek poet who lived 3,000 years ago, made no mention of it, although he wrote of a mule from Asia Minor. However, if you have mules, you HAVE to have donkeys.The Romans, however, knew of the donkey, and made extensive use of both the donkey and it’s offspring, the mule. One early Roman Emperor made the Army reduce its heavy dependency on mules and donkeys. He made the soldiers carry much of their load on their own back – hence the soldiers acquired the nickname of “Marius’s Mules”.There is a Saxon word for ass, so we can suppose the donkey was taken across Europe during the Roman occupation of Britain and was still there at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. Because of the ass’s Biblical connections, it was considered to be a very suitable mount for Bishops and other ecclesiastical persons during the Middle Ages.

The Points of a Donkey
Most of the terms used to describe the various parts (or “points”) of a donkey are derived from those used for the horse. Both the horse and the donkey are based on the same anatomical model – the equine – and have the same basic structure, both internally and externally. There are some minor differences in the way that they function but for all practical descriptive purposes the same terms can be applied to the same areas of the body. The proportions may change , but the area remains the same.

A term you will often hear is “CONFORMATION”. This applies to the way that the various parts of the donkey’s body relate to each other in terms of size, proportion and the way that the donkey moves and stands. Every breed of animal has a certain “IDEAL CONFORMATION” – it is this standard conformation that individual animals are judged against. To have good conformation an individual animal must closely resemble this breed standard. We won’t discuss conformation too much here, except to say that good conformation is obviously better than bad conformation. For practical purposes, what you INTEND to do with your donkey, as opposed to what you CAN do with him, depends largely on his conformation. For information on what constitutes good conformation you should seek the advice of a knowledgeable donkey person. A person who is knowledgeable in HORSE conformation will often be very critical of a donkey’s conformation, because they are judging the donkey by HORSE standards – but a donkey is NOT a horse or small pony. What may be unacceptable in a horse or pony can be perfectly normal in a donkey.

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