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What are mules and hinnies? How can you distinguish between them?

A mule is the offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare). Conversely, a ‘hinny’ is what we call the offspring of a female donkey (jenny) and a male horse (stallion).

Since mules and hinnies are sterile in 99.9% of cases, they are actually not classified as a true ‘species’ which, by definition, must have the ability to reproduce. Instead, mules represent a special class of animals called ‘hybrids’. Hybrid animals are the result of the mating of two closely related species of animals like donkeys and zebras (Zonkey) and lions and tigers (Ligers).

In order for animals to be fertile their parents generally have to have the same number of chromosomes, even in hybrids. However, there are some hybrids who have somehow been exempt from this biological rule including horses, donkeys and zebras. While these kinds of animals can reproduce, it means their offspring, including the mule and hinny, are not themselves fertile.

There is a wide spectrum of appearance and disposition for both mules and hinnies so as of right now, there is no official method for identifying between the two just by sight (ie. their pedigree must be known). Thus, the term ‘mule’ is frequently used to refer to both kinds of donkey-horse hybrids since they generally have similar needs of care. Typically though, mules are thought to have more donkey-like physical features (ie. face, ears, mane & tail, hooves) and horse-like behaviors (ie. flighty) and hinnies more horse-like physical features and more donkey-like behaviors (ie. stoic).

How are donkeys and mules different from horses?
Donkeys, mules and horses are all herbivorous (plant-eating) ungulates (hooved mammal). Donkeys and horses are members of the Equidae (equine) family which is made up of donkeys, zebras and horses. Since they are in the same family, donkeys, zebras, and horses can interbreed. Each of these animals have a different number of chromosomes though (donkeys have 62 and horses have 64), which means most offspring from interbreeding would be infertile, including mules (mules have 63 chromosomes).

Thus, mules and hinnies are genetically half donkey and half horse. For the majority of their traits (both physical, behavior and physiological) mules express an intermediate expression between what is seen with donkeys and horses. Most animals tend to take after the behavior of their mother meaning on average, mules may act more similar to horses whereas hinnies may act more similar to donkeys.

When compared to horses, donkeys have shorter, less full tails, and shorter manes that typically stand up straight. Donkeys, as do many mules, often (but not always) have a stripe down their spine and over their shoulders. There are also certain colours that are and are not present between donkeys and horses. Donkeys have smaller, more upright hooves and also require a diet higher in fiber and lower in protein and sugar. These differences as well as many others have a huge impact on how donkeys need to be housed and cared for differently than horses.

Q: How old do donkeys get?
The average domesticated donkey lives 25-30 years but with good genetics, care and a little bit of luck, many have been known to live into their 50s!

Arizona was the DSC’s oldest donkey being born in 1961 and passing away just shy of her 50th birthday. The DSC’s oldest living donkey is Joey, 39.

The average age of our donkeys at passing is approximately 25 years old. Many of our animals come to us from poor breeding and poor to nonexistent care which both sadly impact an animals life expectancy.

Q: Why do people have donkeys?
As stoic and affectionate creatures, donkeys provide excellent companionship to humans. While some are enjoyed simply for their naturally calming presence, others have hobbies that they do with their loved ones. This can be anything from going on walks, doing in hand obstacle courses, teaching them to pull a cart, be ridden, and beyond! While mainly done with horses and ponies right now, there is no doubt we will begin to see donkeys in a greater capacity in equine-assisted therapy which has become an important treatment for many people. We are also beginning to see a rise in donkey and mules sporting events including jumping, driving, hunting, racing, camping and other riding!

Especially for those who keep small livestock (ie. sheep, goats, and poultry) there is a growing concern in some areas about the risks of predation from coyotes, foxes, bears, mountain lions and the like. Some people resort to using other animals to try to protect their herd including dogs, llamas and believe it or not—donkeys! Unfortunately, donkeys are not as cheap, simple, safe or effective an option as they are too-often portrayed to be. Pleaase don’t hesitate to contact us if you are considering having donkeys for this purpose. We would be happy to help you prepare a plan to keep all your animals safe. 

While donkeys have found new purpose in many parts of the western word, it is important to pay homage to the fact that to this day, the majority of the world’s donkeys still have a very important socioeconomic role, especially to impoverished communities. This includes providing transportation, food, water and important supplies for agriculture and construction. Donkeys are invaluable to improving the quality of life of millions of people in our world through this work, especially women.

Q: Could I own just one donkey?
Maybe! It is important to keep in mind that donkeys are social creatures though—They crave companionship and should never be kept alone. Like any animal, each donkey is unique so sometimes they may do well with other kinds of animals but generally, the DSC recommends caring for donkeys in a minimum of pairs for a number of health and safety reasons. Mainly, research has shown that when given the choice, donkeys prefer the company of other donkeys. Stress, including that which occurs from isolation from each other can be deadly to donkeys. 

Q: Are donkeys as stubborn as they say?
No! This is one of the biggest myths about donkeys that has lead to their neglect and abuse. The key to debunking this misconception lies in understanding donkeys are not flight animals like horses. Donkeys evolved in an environment where outrunning predators was not an option so they had to make use of a different response to fear than horses. This response required them to be less trusting and more analytical of their surrounding. So instead, when a donkey is faced with a strange situation, their instinct is to freeze and carefully consider their options. If they are being asked to do something they deem unsafe or unvaluable, they will remain where they are.

Despite being domesticated, this response is still programmed into their genetics. Patient and methodical training from a young age is critical in order to teach donkeys to trust and overcome issues perceived as ‘stubbornness’. When we think about it, this really isn’t much different than what we know about other pets! If we do not socialize dogs for example, they can become similarly fearful and mistrusting of others handling them. The problem is that many donkeys still do not receive proper care and handling which perpetuates these kinds of behaviors. In taking the proper steps though, you can easily create a lifelong bond with donkeys that allows you to do anything with them. If you need help with this, do not hesitate to reach out to us. We can give you tips to improve your relationship with your donkey and help handling them become easier!

Q: Are donkeys really ‘guard’ animals – do they guard sheep from coyotes?
This is another common myth. White it is true that some donkeys possess territorial tendencies, the reality is the frequency that this behavior results in protecting other animals is low and widely unpredictable.

Unfortunately, the same rough and territorial behaviors that have led many to believe that they make good guardians in the first place are also what regularly make them a dangerous choice to place with other animals, especially ones smaller than them. The most common outcome that is reported to us with donkeys who have are used as livestock guardians is their accidental or purposeful injury or killing of the livestock they were meant to protect.

So, while some donkeys do guard the DSC’s recommendations against this practice are based on the fact that the potential for negative impacts are greater than any potential benefits. Whether housing donkeys (especially single donkeys) with other livestock is good forthe donkey is an entirely separate question also worth considering… 

If you have any questions about housing donkeys with other livestock, whether for the express intent of hoping they will act as a guardian or not, please reach out to us! We would be happy to help you come up with a plan to minimize risks and offer all solutions to protecting your current herd.