Riding A Donkey: What You Need To Know

January 13, 2023
Riding a Donkey

The first thing you will learn when getting a saddle donkey is adjusting to how donkeys are different. Using the right equipment and procedures and being aware of the dangers that may occur are all necessary to enjoy the thrill of donkey riding. However, limiting the risks to yourself and the animal while riding a saddle donkey is crucial.

Before it can be ridden, a donkey must be appropriately groomed and saddled. Examine the animal’s hooves for signs of damage or infection, and brush its coat to remove dirt and knots. In addition to a durable saddle, a properly fitted harness is essential for rider safety.

Before mounting a donkey, it is advisable to consider the animal’s temperament and degree of training. Donkeys are well-suited for carrying big loads over long distances because they have been bred for strength and endurance rather than speed and agility, like horses. So let’s examine what you need to know before riding a donkey.

Riding A Saddle Donkey

Donkey riding is a great way to see the world in a new light and is a lot of fun. Yet, there are critical details to consider before mounting a donkey and heading down a trail.

First and foremost, you must understand that donkeys are not the same as horses. Despite sharing a common ancestor with horses, donkeys are distinct from horses in body structure and temperament. Donkeys, compared to horses, have shorter legs and stockier bodies and are smaller and more compact overall. They also have a different gait, with a two-beat pace instead of a three-beat trot.

saddle donkeys

Donkeys are known to be more wary and self-reliant than horses, but they can also be more stubborn and less obedient. Because of this, learning to ride a donkey requires a different mentality than learning to ride a horse. You’ll need to take your time and be kind to the donkey so that it can become used to you. You should also be ready to modify your approach to saddle riding to accommodate the donkey’s peculiarities.

You need to know the mechanics of riding a donkey and some crucial safety measures. For example, donkeys are not in a hurry and will keep a slow, steady pace. This is great since you can enjoy the scenery. But, also, they are very skittish if not appropriately conditioned and desensitized.

Even though donkeys are known for being strong and resilient, they can still get sick or hurt if they aren’t treated properly. The donkey’s hooves and teeth must be examined regularly and given clean water and enough food to sustain itself. Donkeys eat less than horses, and their upkeep is also cheaper. Know what to do if your donkey exhibits colic, laminitis, or respiratory illness symptoms.

Saddle Donkeys Are Expensive

Trail riding, exhibiting, working, and more are just some of the many uses for a well-trained donkey. The size, breed, gender, and degree of training of the animal are just a few variables that will affect the final price. One can have a donkey for as little as a few hundred dollars or as much as $3,000+. Finding a good saddle donkey that is broken in and ready to ride is challenging.

A special bond of trust and understanding gets created over a long period since many hours go into training a saddle donkey, and owners rarely part with them. Most of the time, you must spend a lot of time with your new donkey to train and condition it before you can embark on trail riding.

Donkeys live around 40 years on average, and having a well-trained saddle donkey becomes almost priceless to its owners. So it will be worth it to buy a less expensive donkey and spend time training, desensitizing, and conditioning it.

Is Your Donkey Broke To Ride?

Riding a donkey may be fun if you go into it with the appropriate frame of mind and are prepared for what to expect. When you go out to buy a donkey with the intent to ride it, you should ensure it is broke to ride. Many sellers advertise it as broke to ride and even show how they sit on it and move around in a small enclosure. This does not mean that it is broke to ride, though.

grey donkey

Donkeys will be OK in specific environments they are used to but as soon as you take them out of the familiar, they act like one that has never been ridden. Therefore, training and conditioning your donkey for riding is essential.

Unlike horses, where you can saddle and break them as a colt, donkeys require more time to develop and grow. Therefore, they can only be saddle broken when older than four, but it is even better if they are older.

Sizes Of Donkeys

There are primarily three sizes of donkeys miniature, standard, and mammoth. See the table below for specifics on each.

Donkey size-type



Carry Weight

Pull Capacity


7-9 hands

(28 – 36 inches)

200lb – 450lb

40lb – 90lb

400lb – 900lb


7-14 hands

 (36 – 60 inches)

400lb – 500lb

80lb – 100lb

800lb – 1000lb


14-17 hands

(56 – 68 inches)

900lb – 1200lb

180lb – 240lb

1800lb – 2400lb

Overall, the amount of weight a donkey can carry depends on a range of circumstances, health, and age of the donkey. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider the donkey’s specific qualities and skills when deciding how much weight it can carry. By following the broad recommendations and considering the unique conditions, you can aid the donkey in carrying its load securely and comfortably.

What Weight Can A Donkey Carry?

A donkey can often carry 20 percent of its weight and pull twice its own. Nonetheless, this might vary depending on the donkey’s fitness level and the terrain, as some donkeys can carry up to 30 percent of their body weight when conditions are ideal. Training a donkey to carry a load up or downhill should therefore begin with less than 10 percent of its body weight.

Donkey Bridle, Bits, Saddle, And Harness

In contrast to horses, donkeys have longer cheeks, wider browbands, more extended broader ears, and smaller noses. Hence bridles for donkeys are custom-made to fit their physical differences. As a result, the saddle you use on your donkey will likewise be unique.

Because mules and donkeys have a different skeletal structure than horses, you should not use a horse saddle on one. The mule’s skeleton is similar to that of their donkey fathers. Though it’s possible to force a horse saddle onto a donkey, a donkey really needs a harness that’s been custom-made for it.

group of donkeys

Donkey Vs. Pack Donkey Saddles

Donkey saddles are made explicitly for specialized tasks. Horse saddles and donkey saddles have many similarities. Still, donkey saddles are typically smaller but broader and more compact than horse saddles because donkeys are proportionally smaller than horses. Furthermore, many donkey saddles have a flatter, less curved shape to make the rider feel more at ease and secure.

Not only do donkey saddles differ from horse saddles, but there are also different donkey saddles. For example, if you plan on using your donkey for riding, you will require a riding saddle. In contrast, a pack saddle is designed to be durable and carry more.

Donkey Riding Saddle

Riding saddles are characterized by having large, padded seats and high, ornate pommels. They are designed for use in trail riding as well as other types of activities that take place outside. Leather is frequently used in the construction of riding saddles, which are typically embellished with colorful stitching and tooling.

Donkey Pack Saddle

Pack saddles are large and sturdy, with multiple mounting points for various luggage. Their design prioritizes their ability to transport heavy loads. Most pack saddles are made of long-lasting materials such as canvas or synthetic fabrics and reinforced with metal rings, straps, and buckles.

Bitted Or Bitless Bridles

Many owners opt to use a bitless bridle, while others feel they get more out of their donkey with a bitted bridle. Whatever you choose to use is up to you, but please consider the following:

  • A horse bit can’t be used on a mule or donkey because their mouths aren’t the same as a horse’s.
  • A mule’s nose is longer, and its mouth has subtle variances from a horse’s; likewise, a donkey has even more differences than a horse.
  • Improperly fitted bit bridles will prohibit you from having the communication you need impairing the donkey’s ability to comprehend what you need.
  • The bit may put pressure on the donkey’s wolf teeth.

Remove Wolf Teeth For Bit

Wolf’s teeth have roots that can grow 0.8 inches (2 centimeters) long. They are usually the first teeth to fall out, along with the first cheek tooth cap, between 18 months and 2 years old. However, if they do not fall out, are too large, or are in the way of the bit, they may need to be removed.

Some wolf teeth may be located below the gum; these are “blind” wolf teeth and can cause significant discomfort when having a bridle bit on it. The extraction of wolf teeth is painless thanks to local anesthetic and expert surgical techniques. Removing the entire tooth root is critical, all while causing as little damage to the gums as possible. The gum will usually heal in less than a week.

Donkeys Vs. Mules For Riding

Donkeys and mules are similar but have distinctive characteristics that make them different. Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell them apart if you need to know what to look for. For example, riding mules or donkeys is in some ways the same, but mules are faster and more robust than donkeys.

donkeys on a mountain

Mules have mainly been used as work animals, carrying, pulling, and transporting supplies. On the other hand, donkeys are also helpful in agriculture and rural transportation because they can pull plows and carts, transport goods to and from markets, and water from wells.

Difference In Physical Characteristics

A donkey has a short and thick head, a short mane, skinny legs, and tiny, narrow hooves compared to horses and mules. However, mules are more extensive and taller than donkeys and will often be mistaken for mammoth donkeys.

Mules, like horses, come in various coat colors, with brown (also known as sorrel) and bay being the most common. White, blue, and red roans or buckskin coats are less common than black, grey, palomino, and dun coats.

While most donkeys are gray, you may occasionally come across a black, dark brown, or light-faced roan. They also have a dark stripe running from the mane to the tail and a crossbar across the shoulders.

A donkey’s ears are long and broad, and the base and tip are dark in color. Mule ears are typically longer than horse’s ears but shorter than donkey’s ears. A mule’s ears will be the same size and shape as those of its donkey father.

Donkeys and horses can have healthy pregnancies and births, unlike mules. This is because horses have 64 chromosomes and donkeys have 62. Haploid cells are required for reproduction, but mules cannot produce them because they are hybrids with only 63 chromosomes.

Male mules can mate, but their emission is unfertile and cannot produce offspring. Therefore, male mules (also known as Johns or Jacks) are commonly castrated to remove the need to mate with females, making them easier to manage.

Training Your Saddle Donkey

When riding a donkey, knowing how to approach and control it securely is essential. Donkeys are often frightened and defend themselves or even attack their perceived threat. So, the best way to approach a donkey is from the front or side, not from behind, and to do so slowly and gently.

Building trust and rapport with the donkey requires spending time with it, talking to it, and petting it. When the time comes to mount the donkey, you’ll need to ensure you’re prepared with the proper tools and methods.

Conditioning A Saddle Donkey

Saddle donkeys need to be conditioned before they can be ridden by people safely and reliably. Donkeys have many natural instincts that need to be adjusted before being ridden by a person. Before riding your donkey, it is essential that you get them comfortable with their saddle and that they follow your commands.

Historically donkeys were used for livestock protection. Their natural instincts are that if something comes from behind or gets on their back, they are attacked by predators. Once they are conditioned to comfortably have things on their back, you can increase their weight-carrying capacity.

Therefore it is crucial that before riding your donkey, they are comfortable with something on their back varying in weight and size. It is also essential to teach your donkey to start moving before you get on its back, as they are stubborn animals and won’t move an inch if they don’t want to. Using different move command training is the best way of conditioning the donkey.

Once you think the donkey is ready and comfortable with its saddle with weights and follow your commands, it should be prepared to be ridden. However, you should ensure not to overwork your donkey and, at first, only go on short walks, slowly increasing the distance after every ride.

Your and the donkey’s safety depends on a saddle that fits properly. You can direct the donkey where you want to go by using reins or a lead rope attached to a harness. It would help if you kept a calm and erect posture when riding the donkey. You can steer the donkey in the right direction with the reins or lead line or gently touch its sides with your heels to get it to move forward.

Environmental And Animal Conditioning For Donkeys

It’s not enough to ride your donkey in the comfort of your property as a saddle donkey, as they should be comfortable with different environments, other animals, and vehicles. The key to successful donkey training is introducing new sights, smells, and sounds gradually so as not to overwhelm the animal.

donkey on the beach

Remember that they were used as guard animals and don’t like any animal of wolf and canine decent. They will be very cautious and skittish when on a trail. If you do not adequately prepare and condition the donkey, someone walking their dogs may trigger instinct behavior. Although donkeys rarely bolt or buck like horses, you might be in an unsafe situation.

Building Muscle And Getting Your Donkey In Shape

It is essential to be persistent with your donkey taking them on rides often and for long enough to keep them in shape. Pulling heavy objects can strengthen the donkey’s leg muscles and prevent injuries. Still, it is essential to slowly increase the weight over time to avoid injuring the donkey. Although donkeys are sure-footed, training them to go up and downhill with loads on their back is vital. Take your time.

Riding a donkey is safer than a horse because donkeys avoid areas they see as dangerous and travel at a slower pace. They also don’t behave as erratically as horses. So you won’t find yourself heading in one way to have them abruptly alter their minds and dash in the opposite.

Even if you walk around on specific trails, it does not mean you will be OK on a different path. Desensitizing your donkey is the key to helping them go down an unfamiliar route.

How To Desensitize Your Donkey

It can be utterly frustrating when you made a lot of progress training your saddle donkey and having it act like a scared little mouse when you take it out on a new trail. But, on the other hand, a calm, desensitized donkey is happier than a donkey scared of every new thing it meets. It allows you to move comfortably through paths, past upcoming joggers or riders, past traffic, and, most importantly, dogs.

Be creative when introducing new objects and sounds to your donkey. For example, suppose you are on a farm with various animals. In that case, you will have the advantage of presenting the donkey to all kinds. Tractors, cars, trucks, and ATVs make different sounds; if you can, use them.

Play ringtones and music around your donkey. Like with most things, start slowly and, in this case, not too loud. You don’t want to scare or frighten it. An excellent way to approach this is by thinking about how you would introduce sounds to a baby.

Start by approaching your donkey from various angles and varying speeds. Next, alter your hand gestures and then have objects in your hands. After some time, when the donkey is OK with you and your ways, introduce other people. Have different people, including kids, come up to the donkey to pet or stroke it. The various smells and levels of enthusiasm will help desensitize the donkey.

With every encounter, try to bring in a different object or item. Sometimes bring a ball, other times a flashlight. Place pool noodles on the ground or roll in with the trashcan. Have fun and be creative. In little time, your donkey will recognize a wide variety of sights, sounds, and smells as normal.

Train Your Donkey To Understand Movement Using Voice Queues

Donkeys can stand in one spot; no matter what you do or say, they don’t move. You can use various methods to get them to move, but that does not mean they will do it again on a different day. Therefore, you want your saddle donkey to respond to voice queues. This is the most challenging yet rewarding way to train your donkey.

Teaching Them To Back Up

Can you place your donkey in reverse, so to speak? Yes, you can. Donkeys can walk backward, but that is not natural, so you will need to train your donkey to back up. Always start voice training by standing next to or in front of the donkey. Later, when you find they understand and are proficient at following your voice commands, you can get into the saddle and train them while on their back.

After giving the voice queue, apply pressure to their head or shoulder to move them back. At first, they will resist. Then, reward them if they back up a little, even if it is just a weight shift. Repeat, again and again, incrementally rewarding the progress and behavior you want. Soon they will connect the voice prompt with the desired action.

Donkeys are intelligent and can be trained to respond to verbal cues, such as “easy” for walking more slowly or “stand” for standing still. However, it takes patience, discipline, and endurance on your part as the trainer and owner to build trust and rapport with your saddle donkey companion.


Lastly, learning how to ride a donkey might be fun and rewarding. But you must know how to care for and ride these gentle animals. Before getting on a donkey, riders can improve their experience by looking at how the animal acts and how well it has been trained. Training and owning a donkey is for a lifetime, requiring patience and a gentle touch.








I'm Bo, the owner of Smarter Horse. Helping horses be smarter by educating their people.  To find out more about me, click here

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