Q: Some friends and I were discussing the heightened "territorial" aspects of long-ears (mules and donkeys) vs. horses. While I've had horses that were bred and raised out West that were more protective against "predators" such as dogs and coyotes, it seems more ingrained and harder to train out of mules and donkeys. Do you have any insights on this phenomenon?

Kim, via e-mail

A: It is true that members of the ass family are territorial and are much more likely to attack intruders. Among the equids, there are two distinct types of social organization, each with distinct behavioral tendencies and skills.

Horses have a harem band social organization in which the basic family unit is a harem stallion and a group of mares and their young. These harem bands share territory with other harem bands in their herd as well as all-male bachelor bands that linger nearby like a little "army." Horses can attack intruders, but their defensive strategies are usually to first simply move on. They also have "safety in numbers."

On the other hand, for asses and donkeys, the jack actually "stakes out" and guards a territory. He is the sole defender of this real estate that has to be good enough, large enough, and safe enough to attract females as they wander around. The jennys wander through the various territories, alone or with one other jenny and their young. Jacks, who have invested in their territory to attract females as they wander about, are quick to fight off intruders rather than to move on. The jennys and the males without a territory, who also wander about trying to avoid dominant males, are somewhat slower to attack since they can simply move on. But since they are usually alone without a dominant jack or a bachelor army on hand, jennys and subordinate males are also generally quicker and more skilled at attacking predators than their horse counterparts.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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