National Department of Agriculture
National Council of SPCAs
Care and use of working donkeys
Compiled by Morgane James
Compiled by Directorate Communication, National Department of Agriculture
in cooperation with National Council of SPCAs
Printed and published by National Department of Agriculture
and obtainable from Resource Centre, Directorate Communication,
Private Bag X144, Pretoria 0001, South Africa
The lives of countless numbers of
people, especially in rural or disadvantaged areas, are improved and enriched through
the use of donkeys. Because of their size and calm temperament they are safely
used by all family members for a variety of tasks such as ploughing,
transporting water and firewood, and for riding.
For donkey owners to benefit
optimally from these animals, the donkeys have to perform to the best of their
abilities. To be able to work hard and well donkeys need to be in good health
and condition. They should also be handled with consideration and need good
harnessing that is correctly fitted. An injured, thin, whipped or overloaded
donkey will not work as hard and for as long as a donkey that is well cared for
and handled kindly.
This booklet is intended to
assist donkey owners or donkey users to care for their donkeys and to set a
minimum standard which, if followed, should ensure that the donkeys used for
traction purposes are healthy, productive and well cared for.
- If donkeys are hired out, make sure the
person hiring them knows how to handle them, harness them and won't whip,
ill-treat or work the donkeys too hard.
- Children should not use donkeys in built-up
areas or in traffic, as they may not be able to cope in the event of an
- Cart drivers must know the traffic and road
laws and where donkeys may not be driven. If a donkey cart is stopped in
town or traffic, make sure someone is left with the donkeys so that they
don't become a traffic hazard.
Donkeys should never be beaten.
Whips should be used only to make a noise and encourage the donkeys. Whips
should not be used on donkeys except when absolutely necessary, and then only
once, lightly on the hindquarters. If a donkey isn't working well, make sure
that it is not tired, overloaded or sick. A good owner will be able to use
his/her voice to control well-trained and cared for donkeys.
Working animals require more and
better feed than animals that are not working. This is especially important
when there is little or poor grazing.
- A working donkey weighing about 150 kg needs
15 to 20 l of water per day. It is best to give half in the morning and
the rest in the evening.
- A working donkey weighing about 150 kg should
take in about 5 kg of roughage (grass type feed) per day. They should
therefore be allowed to graze in the morning and evening for a total of at
least 5 hours every day.
- Where grazing is poor, or there is not enough
time for grazing, a donkey that weighs 150 kg must be given supplementary
feed—about 3 to 4 kg of roughage
- (± quarter of a bale of cut grass such as
lucerne or teff) or 1 to 1,5 kg of concentrate food (horse cubes) every
- Any change in feeding must be done slowly
over a period of time, otherwise the donkey may become sick.
Resting periods are important for
all working animals. It gives them time to cool down, their muscles can rest
and they get a chance to graze and to drink.
Donkeys unhitched while
Once an animal starts to sweat
excessively or breathe very heavily, this is an indication that the animal is being
worked too hard and is getting hot and tired. The driver must slow down, and
allow the animals time to recover. When it is hot, the load is heavy or the
road is difficult, the animals will require more frequent resting periods.
- Donkeys that are worked at a slow walking
pace and pulling no more than double their own body weight should be
rested for 1 hour after working for 4 hours.
- The donkeys should be unhitched from the
disselboom and klein disselboom during waiting periods. They will not be
able to move away from the cart, because they will still be harnessed, but
they will be able to rest without the weight of the cart on them.
- While waiting, the donkeys and cart should be
parked on level ground under trees or in the shade and the animals should be
allowed to graze whenever possible.
- Grooming the animals by brushing them with a
brush or even a sack is a very useful way of getting rid of parasites such as ticks. It also
removes dirt, grass seeds and burrs which, if caught between the skin and
the harnessing, can cause injuries and infection. This can also hurt or
irritate the animal causing it to do less work or to become difficult to
- Every day an inspection of the mane,
especially near the ears, must be carried out, because this is a common
place where seeds and burrs are caught, while the donkey has its head down
grazing. If the bridle is put on top of these burrs or seeds, injuries and
infections may occur.
- While harnessing the donkey check for any
discharge from the eyes. This could be a result of infection, injury or
bad harnessing and if so the animal must be treated and the problem
rectified. If, though, it is just because of dust or wind, the face and
eyes should be gently washed with a clean cloth and warm, clean water. If
you leave this discharge it will encourage flies, which will bother the
donkey, and could even lead to infection and blindness.
Protection against flies
A simple attachment of
very soft strands of rope or pieces of cloth to the head band on the halter
will help to keep flies away from the eyes. Make sure pieces are long enough
and hang neatly down, with no sharp pieces or edges that could irritate the
- While grooming the animal, check for injuries
and harness rubbing, especially on the chest, at the base of the mane, on
the neck, back and around the eyes and mouth.
- If injuries are noticed they must be treated.
Contact your local veterinarian, SPCA, or animal health technician if you
require advice or assistance. Remember, before giving any treatment, to
properly wash your hands, cloths and any other equipment used, in a clean
bowl with hot (preferably boiling) water.
- It is very important not only to treat the
injury but to find the cause of the injury. Inspect the harnessing that is
attached where the injury occurs to find the cause of the injury. This
harnessing must be repaired or replaced before it can be used again.
Donkeys don't wear shoes like
horses. Therefore, wherever possible they should be worked on soft surfaces,
because working for long distances or constantly on hard ground, especially
tarred roads, can wear down and damage their hooves and can cause lameness. The
donkey will then not be able to work.
- At least once a day, after the donkey has
finished working, each hoof should be picked up and inspected for stones,
thorns or injuries. A blunt instrument can be used to gently scrape away
any stones or dirt. Regular daily inspection will ensure that any problems
can be dealt with immediately and may prevent infection and lameness.
- During dry periods the hooves may start to
crack and splinter. A good hoof oil rubbed into the hooves once or twice a
week will help to prevent these problems. If no hoof oil is available then
old cooking oil can be used, although it is not as good as proper hoof
oil. Too much oil, however, will make the hooves soft and cause them to
wear down very fast.
- Wherever donkeys have to be tied or tethered
this should be done in an area where they can graze, preferably with
access to shade. Water should also be provided in a bucket that is secured
or cannot be tipped over.
- Ropes should preferably be attached to a
- A slip knot, or any knot that can tighten
when the donkey pulls away should never be used on any animal, as it can
cut off blood circulation and choke or even strangle the animal,
especially if the donkey gets a fright or is chased.
- Thin ropes, especially nylon ropes, should
not be used on donkeys, as they can cut into the flesh easily, and cause
- Donkeys should never have their legs tied
together with wire or thin rope because it can cause serious injuries.
They should only be hobbled if absolutely necessary.
- Hobbles should be made of thick bands of soft
but strong material, allowing the donkey to walk comfortably without
running. The hobble rope therefore should not be too short. The hobbles
must not be fixed onto the legs too tightly.
- The only recommended method of hobbling a
donkey is by securing the two front legs together and leaving the hind
legs free to protect itself in case of attack.
- Tying the head and front leg together, or
tying one front leg up is not acceptable.
Correct method of hobbling a donkey using
the two front feet
- Animals that are heavily pregnant (in the last
4 months of pregnancy) must not be worked, as this may cause abortion, or
the foal may be born too soon and may not be strong enough to survive.
- If it is absolutely necessary to work an
animal in the early stages of pregnancy then it must only be for light
work and for short periods. Make sure that the animal is rested
- It is recommended that pregnant animals are
not worked at all.
- A donkey that is feeding a young foal (under 3
months old) should not be worked, but should be kept with the foal
(ideally until the foal is 6 months old).
- A donkey that is feeding a young foal needs
large quantities of clean water and food to be able to produce milk for
the foal so that it can develop well and become strong.
- A young foal ideally should drink from its mother at
least once every 2 hours.
- A foal under 3 months of age should not be
separated from its mother. Once the foal is 3 months old, and it is
absolutely necessary to work the mother, make sure that the foal is kept
in a clean area and has shelter to protect it from hail, rain or excessive
- Foals must always be kept in a safe area away
from animals that may attack them, such as dogs.
- Until foals are trained to walk on a halter,
they must not be allowed to run with their mothers while working in
built-up or dangerous areas, especially on tar roads. The foal can cause a
traffic accident, or be attacked by dogs.
- Foals and mothers should always have water
- Although basic training can be undertaken on
a foal (like walking on a halter and being handled), they should not be
used for working until they are at least 3 or 4 years old. Long-term
damage to their bones, development and health can occur if they are used
for working from a too early age.
- Ideally donkeys "in season"
(females on heat) should not be worked with other animals, because they
can cause fighting between the males, and make them difficult and even
dangerous to handle. This can also lead to road accidents.
- To prevent fighting and injuries, donkeys
"in season" should not be kept in the same kraal or pen as male
The best material for harnessing
is leather, but rubber or canvas can also be used. Whatever material is used
though, must fit well and not injure the animal. Padding may be necessary to
Typical donkey harnessing
and common names
All harnessing, when not on the
animals, should be hung on a hook in a clean, dry place. If harnessing is left
out in the sun and rain, it will not last as long and will become hard and dry
and cause injuries to the animals.
Leather harnessing should be
rubbed with oil often, to keep it soft and protect it, especially against rain.
Hard or cracked leather should never be used on animals. Rubber or canvas
harnessing should be washed or brushed regularly to clean it.
Ideally every working donkey
should have its own breastplate, bridle and bit. If however, this is not
possible, then every time the harnessing is put onto the donkey it must be
checked and adjusted if necessary to ensure that it fits well and will not hurt
the donkey in any way.
Harnesses should not be repaired
with wire, or any other material that can cause injury to the animals. All
joints should ideally be made on the outside of the harness, away from the skin
of the animal.
Breastplates and backstraps
- Breastplates and backstraps should be about
60 mm wide. If they are too thin there is more chance of them cutting into
- If there are any sores or injuries on the
donkey where the breastplate and backstraps fit, it may be because the
breastplate or backstraps have not been put on the donkey correctly, and
the straps may have to be adjusted to make them shorter or longer.
- Clean, soft sheepskin or foam rubber sponge
(wrapped in soft cloth), can be used on the breastplate or backstraps as
padding. Make sure it is fastened properly, with all joints on the outside
away from the skin of the animal.
Bridles and blinkers
- Bridles should be at least 20 mm wide.
- Make sure that the cheek-straps (the strap
around the head, joining onto the bits) are not too tight, otherwise
serious injuries can be caused to the mouth of the donkey.
- Blinkers should be made of a firm, solid
material like leather. Make sure they cover the eye area well, but they
must in no way touch the eye.
Chains and ropes
- Any chains that come into contact with the
donkey should be covered to prevent injury or rubbing. The chain can be
threaded through soft hose pipe, or have soft material securely and neatly
tied around it.
- Ropes, particularly thin ropes, are not
suitable to use as part of the breastplate, bridle or as hobbles, as they
often cut into the donkey's skin and cause injuries.
- Donkeys have sensitive mouths, unless they
have been damaged and hardened by incorrect equipment or poor or rough
- Because the donkey's mouth is very sensitive
the driver should try at all times to be firm but gentle.
- Sharp jerking of the reins, and dragging of
the reins, will just injure the donkey's mouth and eventually make it
hard. The donkey will then become difficult and hard to handle.
- Only proper bits should be used in donkeys'
- Bits should be washed regularly (to remove
food and spit) in clean, warm water, and dried.
- Check the bits regularly (by feeling them
with your fingers as well as by looking at them), especially the joint
areas, because when they wear down they can become very sharp and can cut
the donkey's mouth and tongue. Bits that could cause injury must not be
used and should be destroyed.
- There should be NO sharp edges on a bit.
- When fitted correctly the corners of the
donkey's mouth should be just slightly pulled up by the bit.
of bit that are acceptable for use on donkeys (arrows show the `front' of the
bit that should face out of the mouth)
- Carts should always be as light as possible.
Carts made from the bodies of old cars may not be acceptable because they
may be too heavy.
- The disselboom and klein disselboom should be
made of strong, but lightweight material. Heavy iron poles are not good,
because they make the cart heavier than necessary and increase the load of
the donkeys, especially the weight on the neck.
- Loaded carts should be well balanced, with
most of the weight resting on the axle above the tyres and not on the
disselboom, to prevent the weight being pushed onto the animals. Tyres
must be properly inflated.
- All carts should have brakes fixed to them.
Using the donkeys and harnessing as a brake system is not good, and can be
dangerous, especially if breeching straps on the hindquarters of the
donkeys are not used.
- Attaching reflective discs on the back of
carts and on the donkeys' bridles is a recommended safety precaution and a
legal requirement in many areas.
- For every 2 wheels on a cart it is
recommended that there is a minimum of 2 donkeys (4-wheel carts require 4
- A donkey in good condition should pull no
more than double its own body weight on a gravel or tarred road.
- Animals working in teams should always be
well matched (the same height at the shoulders).
- Make sure that all the harnesses, chains and
ropes are attached evenly. If the animals are the same size then all the
attachments should be about the same length.
- Aggressive animals should not be worked in
such a way that they can bite, kick or injure other donkeys in the team.
- When donkeys are used to carry loads on their
backs, suitable pack saddles or panniers should be used. It is not
acceptable to tie heavy loads together with a piece of rope and throw them
across the back of the animals. This can cause serious injuries and
permanent damage to the animal, especially the spine. The animal may not
be able to work well and can become difficult to handle. In addition the
load may be damaged or lost and the animal can fall and injure or kill
itself especially in mountainous areas.
- Pack saddles should always be padded. Raw wood
should not be put straight onto the donkey's back as this may cause
- The weight of the load must be distributed
evenly in both sides of the pack, over the ribs to prevent imbalance and
injury to the donkey.
Donkeys carrying poorly-fitted packs
- Donkeys should not be made to stand for long
periods with the packs on their backs. If there is going to be a waiting
period, the pack should be removed and where possible the donkey should be
tied in the shade and allowed to graze and drink.
- A strong pack donkey in good condition should
not carry more than a third of its body weight. A donkey in good condition
weighing 150 kg, should carry a maximum of 50 kg. The more difficult the
terrain and the longer the journey, the less the donkey should carry.
- Packs/saddles should be firmly secured on the
animals, preferably by being attached to a chest strap, girth strap and
breeching strap. This will stop the pack from moving or slipping as the
animal walk (particularly on steep terrain).
A donkey carrying a pack, showing the type of equipment used
soft blanket should be put on the donkey's back underneath the pack
saddle, to prevent sores that may be caused by the saddle.
- When trained pack donkeys are used in rural
areas, away from traffic, it is not necessary for the donkeys to wear
blinkers. In mountainous areas, in particular, it is safer for the donkeys
not to wear blinkers. They can then see all around them and choose a safe
- It is recommended that pack donkeys are
trained to walk on a halter so that they can be led and tethered where
- When donkeys are trained and used for work in
the fields, it is advisable to use the same harnessing used for cart
pulling, namely breastplates. Neck yokes (those designed for use on oxen)
are not suitable for use on donkeys and can cause severe and long-term
injuries. The donkeys will work better and more effectively if
breastplates are used.
- When ploughing or undertaking other field
work, it is not advisable to use donkeys and oxen together. Oxen are much
stronger than donkeys, and often the donkeys will not be able to keep up.
Donkeys and oxen walk at a different pace.
- Two donkeys can be used, abreast (next to
each other) or in tandem (behind one another) for very light field work.
Ploughing or heavy work should be done with 6 or more well-trained
donkeys, in good condition.
- Field work should preferably be undertaken
during the cooler parts of the day, and the animals rested in the shade
during the heat of the day.
- Donkeys should be rested for 30 minutes after
every 2 hours worked.
- For this type of work donkeys should not be
worked for more than 4 hours per day.
Correct harnessing: donkey ploughing with the use of the breastplate
Incorrect harnessing: donkey ploughing with a yoke designed for use
D. J. HANEKOM, Institute for
Agricultural Engineering, Agricultural Research Council.
P. A. JONES, Donkey Power
Teaching and Consultancy, Zimbabwe.
A. B. D. JOUBERT, Department of
Agronomy, Animal Traction Centre, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Fort
R. C. KRECEK, Department of
Veterinary Tropical Diseases, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of
C.M.E. McCrindlE, Production
Animal Medicine, Medical University of Southern Africa.
R. A. PEARSON, Draught Animal
Research and Tropical Animal Production, University of Edinburgh.
J. REDMOND, National Donkey Protection Unit, Zimbabwe.
South African Network of Animal
For further information contact
the National Council of SPCAs, Farm Animal Unit,
P.O. Box 1320, Alberton 1450, South Africa
Tel (011) 907 3590 Fax (011) 907 4013