Over 50 million donkeys and mules exist in the world, but despite this the number of pure-bred animals within each breed is generally low, with several on the verge of extinction.

There is a tendency to treat donkeys as if they are small horses, but donkeys are different! Donkeys are not like horses; they differ physically, mentally and emotionally. To learn more about donkeys and their care take a look at our Donkey Care Guide.

Donkeys today come in all shapes, sizes, colours and coat texture. The most common coat colour is grey, followed by brown and then black, roan and broken coloured donkeys (a combination of brown and white or black and white markings) and the rarest colour is pure white.

Many different colours, sizes and shapes of donkeys can be seen as you walk around The Donkey Sanctuary but the most noticeable is probably the difference between the resident herd and the Poitou donkeys. They originate from France and stand at 14 to 15 hands, they have a thick coat which traditionally is matted and tangled and is brown bay in colour.

Donkey breeds and cross-breeds

Thanks to tenacious work carried out by The Donkey Sanctuary we have been provided with a sound base on which to further investigate the 17 breeds of donkeys currently known in Europe.

While we don't have all the different donkey breeds living at The Donkey Sanctuary here in the UK, there are different breeds and cross-breeds synonymous with the area from which they originate at our rescue centres in Cyprus, Italy and Spain.

Donkey definitions

Colt: A colt is a young male donkey which is less than four years of age.

Filly: A filly is a young female donkey which is less than four years of age.

Foal: A foal is a baby male or female donkey up to one year old.

Gelding: A castrated male donkey.

Mare: A female donkey.

Rig: A rig is an entire male donkey with no signs of external testicles.

Stallion: A stallion is a male donkey that has not been gelded (castrated).

Yearling: A yearling is a young male or female donkey between one and two years of age.

Donkey terms

Asino: An asino is the Italian word for "donkey".

Ass: An ass is either a male or female donkey.

Burro: A burro is the Spanish word for "donkey".

Hinny: A hinny is the result of breeding between a female donkey and a male horse.

Jack: A jack is a term for a male donkey.

Jenny: A jenny (or jennet) is a term for a female donkey.

Moke: A moke is a British term for a donkey.

Molly: A molly is a term for a female mule.

Mule: A mule is the result of breeding between a male donkey and a female horse.

History of the donkey

Although millions of years ago donkeys and horses had the same ancestors they have evolved to be very different species and understanding those differences are of vital importance to the care and welfare of donkeys. There are two distinct species of wild donkey; the Asiatic branch of the species came from an area stretching from the Red Sea to Northern India and Tibet where the ass had to adapt to different climate, terrain and altitude. Consequently there is more than one type of Asiatic wild ass. The African branch of the species was found in North Africa between the Mediterranean coast and the Sahara Desert to the south of the Red Sea. There were two separate species of the African ass: the Nubian wild ass and the Somali wild ass. Our modern domesticated donkeys are all descended from these African wild asses ancestors.

Donkeys were first domesticated around 6,000 years ago in North Africa and Egypt for meat and milk. Around 2,000 years ago donkeys were among the draught animals used to carry silk from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean along the Silk Road in return for trade goods. The overland route was approximately 4,000 miles or 6,400km and lasted several years. No single animal completed the entire journey and mixing of breeds occurred as unplanned matings happened en-route to give us the beginnings of the diverse range of donkey breeds we now have. The journey ended in the Mediterranean ports of Greece, Italy, the Middle East and Alexandria in Egypt. In Greece donkeys were found to be ideal animals for working on the narrow paths between the vines. Their use for cultivation in vineyards spread through the Mediterranean countries to Spain, whose coast at the southern tip is separated from North Africa by only a few miles - possibly another entry route for the African wild ass.

The Roman Army was responsible for the movement of donkeys into Northern Europe. Donkeys were used in agriculture and as pack animals. The Romans used donkeys in their new vineyards, some planted as far north as France and Germany. Donkeys came to England with the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43. However, donkeys were still not commonly documented in the UK until after the 1550s. After the mid-17th Century, Oliver Cromwell's invasion of Ireland saw an influx of donkeys being used to bear the labours of war. Following this, large numbers of donkeys were introduced to the country for the first time - opening opportunities for poorer and agricultural Irish communities to keep a cheap, working draft animal.

From the early-19th Century until the First World War, donkeys picked up the shortfall in work while horses were used in war. At the beginning of the war, the British Army owned just 25,000 horses but within a few weeks they purchased or conscripted another 165,000. Sadly, the horses did not fare well in the beginning of the war: hundreds of thousands lost their lives. At home, it was up to donkeys to sustain labouring industries in Great Britain in the absence of their equine friends that had been drafted into war; at battle, the British turned to the mule in order to carry out the work of war horses that had either perished or were temperamentally unsuited to the rigours of the front line. By the end of the First World War, the British Army owned 250,000 mules.

Fifth Battle of Ypres Royal Artillery limbers and pack mules of the 29th Division on the Menin Road at Hooge, 1 October 1918. Note a crater in the foreground.
© IWM (Q 11796) Fifth Battle of Ypres. Royal Artillery limbers and pack mules of the 29th Division on the Menin Road at Hooge, 1 October 1918.
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