In winter, equines are generally best off if you provide them with plenty of hay and the option of shelter.
More specifically, Best Horse Practices views blanketing as not only unnecessary but potentially harmful in most horse-keeping situations. Read more about that here.
What, then, to think of donkeys needing added protection?
We could hear the blanket sellers hooting, hollering, and setting up their next ad campaigns!
Alas, we beg to differ.
Ann Firestone has run Save Your Ass Long Ear Rescue for decades. She has taken in, rehabilitated, and rehomed hundreds of donkeys and mules during her tenure as president. Firestone writes:
“In my experience. I only blanket exceptionally thin or ill donkeys. I do make sure on cold days that they have free-choice hay 24/7. “
Not taken into this study’s consideration were many donkey-v-mule-v-horse distinctions that we know to be important anecdotally. For instance:
- What about their varying metabolic rate?
- What about the volume-to-surface area ratio?
- What about digestion differences?
Dr. Sheryl King, Best Horse Practices Summit trustee and professor emeritus of Southern Illinois University, offers this critique:
The study reports what should be considered preliminary results comparing measures of hair coat between equine species. The experimental number of animals in each test group is low, and the unspecified breeds limit the data’s usefulness utility for drawing management recommendations.
The authors’ credentials are from the field of psychology, which makes the conduct of this study a bit out of their field of expertise. No psychological function was monitored in this study.
The research was funded by the Donkey Sanctuary, a humane group dedicated to rescue and protection of donkeys. Donkeys used in the study were a part of this group’s rescue herd. Whether these factors affected the study results is unclear.
The study was based on suppositions:
- Domestic donkeys descended from Equus africanus africanus (Nubian Wild Ass) or Equus Africanus somalinesis (Somali Wild Ass). These ancestors evolved in a hot, desert climate as opposed to many domestic horse breeds common to the UK that presumably evolved in a more temperate climate.
- Contemporary donkeys have changed little during the lengthy process of domestication.
The researchers compared weight, length, and width of the hair coat of donkeys with those of horses/ponies and mules to determine if there exists divergent winter hair coat adaptation between the species/sub-species.
However, the comparison groups used were either ill-defined or haphazardly selected. For example, the description of the donkeys used in the study was restricted to gender and age. Horses/ponies used were described as cold-blooded breeds. Cold-blooded connotes heavier-bodied animals specifically adapted to a cooler climate and possessing coarser hair coats. Consider the shaggy winter coat possessed by the Shetland, New Forest or Exmoor ponies.
One could argue that in order to make the best comparison between horses and donkeys, bloodlines originating from similar climates should be compared. For example, compare the donkey (African origin) to the Arabian or Turkmene horse or even breeds originating in a Mediterranean climate.
Some additional questions which the researchers might have done well to consider:
- What was the latitude at which the study was conducted and what were the average and high/low temperatures during the summer and winter? Were the study animals housed close enough to each other that environmental conditions would be essentially the same?
- Was the hair sampling performed during the same timeframe (only months were mentioned, giving a possibility of up to a 31-day variance in hair sample collection.)
There was a very substantial variation in hair coat measures, particularly within the horse/pony group and less so within the donkey group. This suggests a great diversity in seasonal responses within and not just between groups.
The mule group consistently fell between the donkey and the horse/pony groups. We are led to assume (never a good thing) that these mules were crosses between the donkey types and the horse/pony types used in the study.
I would take issue with their conclusions that “donkeys do not grow a winter coat.” I think a more appropriate way of expressing the data is that donkeys do not grow a winter coat like cold-blooded horses, or that donkeys don’t grow the same kind of winter coat.
Considering the temperatures and conditions for wild burro populations in the American West, and the fact that they are thriving, I suspect that the humane issue of hair coat growth in winter is probably not as critical as other factors such as adequate fat covering going into winter, food and water availability, and windbreaks.