I spend most of my time writing about, watching or caring for horses – both thoroughbreds and Irish sport horses – but a conversation with vet Dr Joe Collins over the Christmas period reminded me that donkeys are often forgotten.
Jenny the donkey became somewhat the star of the film The Banshees of Inisherin, melting hearts with her dutiful trot as the beloved sidekick to Colin Farrell’s Pádraic. The Oscar-nominated film generated some global heartfelt donkey admiration. But how much do we really know about a donkey’s happiness and welfare?
According to Joe, donkeys are very susceptible to stress and commonly suffer severely from its effects - they often form incredibly strong bonds with their friends and can mourn any separation. Joe explained: “If one of a pair needs to be euthanised, leave the remains with the surviving companion for a few hours.”
I’ve had first-hand experience of this when my old thoroughbred, King, was put to sleep at the ripe old age of 25.
His field companion, Mouse the donkey, tried to rouse him before seeming to then wholly acknowledge that King was no longer living in this realm and got about the business of tucking in to the remnants of his last meal.
When feeding donkeys, Joe has the perfect analogy: “Think of them as an efficient indoor wood-burning stove; the thoroughbred is an open air bonfire. Adult donkeys have evolved to live on sparse, arid lands – not on lush Irish pastures.
“They are adapted to walk long distances wearing down hooves, seeking and then extracting nutrients from high fibre, low quality foods. If not working but instead gorging, their feet grow dramatically long and they lay down body fat.”
Donkeys need shelter from inclement and wet weather because their coats are not dense and oily like native ponies’ coats are. Donkeys need dental care just like horses and they need regular farriery, too.
Not many people know it, but barley straw (with ad lib water) is a great feed for non-working donkeys in good dental health. Donkey hooves have a more sponge-like elastic nature than that of horses and they curl rather than crack and break.
Animal charities of all kinds will need support in 2024, so don’t forget the little donkeys among them. Over 5,600 donkeys from all parts of Ireland have been taken into the care of the Donkey Sanctuary since it was set up. You can donate, volunteer or run a fundraiser event for them. Donkey disco anyone?