Vikki Hayes, Equine Assistant and Trainee Behaviour Mentor at The Donkey Sanctuary Leeds, takes us through the dynamics of our herd, and how these might change when new faces arrive.
Our donkeys here at Leeds have different characters and temperaments; some are more outgoing and confident, while others are more nervous and submissive. In addition, the donkeys' characters and roles with the herd change as they age or feel unwell. Occasionally a donkey will join our herd who appears to be a bold, confident character, while others appear naturally submissive or apprehensive.
Over the years, I have seen many new donkeys come into the herd and watched as the herd sorts itself out to accommodate the characters and roles of the new animal. I have seen donkeys become less confident and more submissive as they become older. All of this depends on the donkey's character and the strength of their desire to access valuable resources like food, water, shade, shelter, friends or even humans.
While watching the herd, I have found that the herd's structure changes when a new donkey joins or when a donkey leaves for pastures new. We might assume that the more submissive animals will take their place when a donkey leaves, but this does not always seem to be the case. Some donkeys are natural leaders, and others are content to be followers; this helps the herd to stay stable and safe. Submissive, defensive behaviour and avoidance of conflict are the crucial elements of herd dynamics that are overlooked. If every donkey wanted to fight for every available resource, there would be a lot of fighting and many injuries, neither of which are desirable.
The herd will always respond to a new member with interest and curiosity. You will see responses to a newcomer, be it distinct body language, physical displays or even sometimes a lively but usually brief show of defence or aggression. You may have the donkeys that prefer to avoid any confrontation for resources. These donkeys are generally the quieter, more nervous donkeys, and their natural disposition is to avoid conflict. Being a more submissive donkey means that they have fewer responsibilities in the herd and, as food and water are plentiful in our environment, there is plenty to go around.
Depending on their previous experiences and natural character, some donkeys want access to valuable resources and are willing to challenge other donkeys for the right to eat first or have the best shady spot on a hot day.
For example, donkeys that have previously been starved are more likely to find access to food highly desirable. Consequently, these donkeys are prepared to challenge the rest of the herd to gain access to something so important to them. This behaviour is often mistakenly described as dominance, but really it is known as resource guarding.
Recently, we have introduced two new donkeys to the herd, a pair who are part of our Rehoming Scheme and destined for a forever Guardian home after spending some time with us here at Leeds.
After a turbulent early life for both, David and Theo need the support of the herd to be content and healthy donkeys. We, as humans, can only help them so far along their journey. Settling them into the herd helps them to learn about interacting with other donkeys and perfect their donkey communication skills. The herd will help them become more resilient and contented donkeys for their rehoming journey.
When we first introduced David and Theo to the herd, there was the usual curiosity and interest in the newcomers. This initial interest was followed by a range of responses, from complete disinterest to the pinning back of ears in a defensive sign, some short chases and the occasional kick or bite threats an ordinary course of events in a donkey herd. However, once they and everyone else had found their place in the herd, they quickly settled down to life as usual at the sanctuary, and now the whole group is in a harmonious place once more.
Thinking of introducing new donkeys to your herd? You can find valuable information to help make this as safe and stress-free as possible here: