Women’s Working Equine Partners

Shepherd’s burro in Bulgaria

A new report estimates that there are 112 million working equine animals in the world, providing support to hundreds of millions of poor households in both rural and urban areas throughout the developing world. The breakdown includes:
• 43 million donkeys;
• 11 million mules; and
• 58 million horses.

Here in the United States, author JonKatz has served as the voice for the working carriage horses of New York, reminding us of the need “to work to keep animals in our world rather than take them out of it” and that earning a living in partnership with animals is a time-honored and respected tradition. It’s a reminder many Americans need, because for many, the notion of having a working animal partner is a thing of distant history. Readers of this blog tend to be people who know and understand working partnerships with animals, but for many Americans, the partnership of horse and man is limited to the workings of cattle ranches rather than broadly across our culture.

After adding three formerly wild burros (donkeys) to our ranch operation as guardians for our sheep flock, I quickly became fond of these calm and gentle creatures. In our travels throughout Europe and Asia, it would be impossible not to notice how many people still depend on these beasts of burden.


Cart horse in Kurdish region of Turkey.

The Brooke is a London-based international animal welfare organization dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules in the world’s poorest countries. Recognizing the fundamental role of equines in providing support to rural families, the Brooke doesn’t seek to ban human use of equines, but works diligently to improve conditions for these animal partners – providing veterinary and animal health services, hosting training and skill-building sessions, undertaking research, and working to raise the profile of working equine animals. The organization is based on the belief that “when animals are well and prosper, so do the owners, families and communities who depend on these animals for their livelihood.” The Brooke currently operates in Asia, Africa, Central America, and the Middle East.

With this background, the Brooke has released the results of its Voices From Women research project exploring the role of equines in women’s lives in Ethiopia, Kenya, India, and Pakistan. The report is entitled “Invisible Helpers: Women’s Views on the Contributions of Working Donkeys, Horses and Mules to Their Lives.” The entire report is worth reading, and is linked here.

The report notes that over 95% of donkeys in the world are kept for work, and in developing countries the money earned by each working equine can support between 5 and 20 family members. People rely in these animals in order to survive. Two-thirds of poor livestock keepers in the world – 400 million – are women, according to the Brooke. How they use their equine partners is revealed in the Brooke report. It should be noted that although horses and mules are included, the majority of women use donkeys for their livelihoods.


Burros packing maize in Lesotho (Africa).

Ethiopia: Equines are the most important livestock in the farming and transportation system, providing a lifeline for 85% of rural Ethiopians dependent on subsistence farming for survival.

Kenya: Subsistence farming is the primary – or only – source of livelihood for rural women. Donkeys are used for farm work, to support other livestock by carrying water and animal feed, and donkey carts or pack donkeys are the main source of transportation.

India: In a country where 84% of women rely on farming for their livelihoods, working equines are used mainly for pulling carts or as pack animals.

Pakistan: Donkeys are widely used for transport of people and goods, and women use their donkeys in generating income through seasonal brick kiln work or rubbish collection.

In all four countries, women were asked to rank livestock species by importance and 77% put their working equines first. Cows and buffaloes, which provide milk for both their families and for sale, ranked second. Goats that provide meat and milk, and can be quickly sold in times of need, ranked third.

Researchers also found that although there is an assumption that the male members of a household are the decision-makers when it comes to purchasing livestock, most women reported that their husbands consulted with them about such purchases, and half of the women reported that such decisions were a mutual agreement between husband and wife. In Kenya, women make the decisions about livestock purchases, and in some areas a donkey is the first gift a husband presents to his new bride. In most communities in all four countries, women are the primary and traditional care givers for the family’s livestock.

One woman in Kenya provides a glimpse of the importance of donkeys in everyday life: “The donkey affects each and every aspect of my life as a woman. On a typical day the donkey fetches water, which I use to do the dishes, to clean the house, and for bathing. It also fetches sawdust which I use to cook all meals; then I hire it out and it brings in income on a daily basis that I use to buy flour for the evening meal. In other words, I eat, drink, dress, live off the donkey and more so as a woman and not one employed, I work hand in hand with the donkey. Basically the donkey is like me but to plainly put it, the donkey is me.”

A burro hauling firewood in Turkey.

Donkeys reduce the amount of labor and drudgery of household chores for these women. Imagine the burden of women transporting water and firewood without an equine partner. A donkey in Pakistan can transport a month’s worth of firewood in one day, whereas women without donkeys have to carry wood every day. In some regions, women collect dung as a fuel source and to sell to others, and use their donkeys to transport these materials. Women transport grain back and forth to mills. They use their donkeys to transport fodder for the family’s other livestock, and bring household goods to and from the market.

Many women told researchers that by using donkeys to share the burdens of everyday life, the women were able to spend more time caring for their children. One woman from Ethiopia said, “My donkey is just my backbone. It solves all my household problems.” When a donkey is sick, the woman’s workload increases and the family becomes stressed. If she can’t transport enough fodder for the family’s other livestock, the livestock will also suffer and the family will not receive as much milk from their animals.

All of the women interviewed by the Brooke were involved in some sort of income generation with their donkeys, although some was indirect income. A woman in India said, “They are our identity and our source of income. Not having one means no food for the family.” Women use income generated from their donkeys to purchase other livestock, provide food, and pay for household expenses, school fees, and healthcare.

The Brooke report concluded: “For women from equine owning communities, these animals are essential or, as some women put it, they are an additional member of the family or an additional limb of the body.”

Five (million)-star accommodations


Jim and I decided we were ready for a night out, so on Saturday evening we took a bottle of wine, our sleeping bags, and dogs, and headed for our sheep pasture. Jim built a small bonfire and we relaxed, eventually crawling into our sleeping bags to sleep under the stars alongside the New Fork River. Click on photos for enlargements.

The sheep herd, along with their guardian burros and dogs, met us when we entered the pasture, but didn’t join us at our campsite. We had two herding dogs and Rena the Akbash guardian with us, so we were sure to be alerted to any critters roaming about during the night.

Not long after we settled in around the campfire, Hud the herding dog let us know there was a bull moose just down the river from us. You can just make out the moose crossing the river in the photo below (those are our sleeping bags and pillows in the right side of the photo also).

Darkness crept in and the moose came up the river just opposite from our camp. It’s rut (breeding season) so this bull was walking along emitting soft grunts and calls. We could see the moonlight reflecting off his paddles even in the darkness. He eventually walked upriver from our camp and crossed back onto our side, but was met by the guardian dogs when he tried to walk back toward our camp. We could hear the bull as he thrashed around, rubbing his paddles against the willows and brush, and crossing back across the river again.

We let the fire burn down and went to our sleeping bags to watch the light show. There were millions of stars filling the night sky, and we saw several stars slowly falling, while others seemed to shoot across the sky. I closed my eyes and started to drift off to sleep when the screech owl arrived in the trees nearby. They are definitely named appropriately. Fortunately the owl only screeched about four times before moving away from us.

Things were fairly quiet for a while, but another moose tried to approach our camp from downriver a few hours later. Rena put the moose in the river, giving us peace once again as the bigger animal retreated.

We had a series of visitors during the night, including our guardian dogs that were in charge of the sheep herd. They never came together to our camp, but stopped in on individual patrols during the night. Luv’s Girl was thrilled to see us, and tried to bulldoze her way into our sleeping bags, but Rant seemed irritated that we were there. He ran around outside the perimeter of our camp, huffing into the darkness and marking all the brush. Apparently we were just another burden of his, more critters to be guarded. We heard the soft hoots from owls off and on during the night, and the occasional howl of a coyote, always met with a ruckus of sound from our guardians from various points throughout the pasture.

The sheep and burros arrived at our camp at sunrise Sunday morning, nibbling on the frost-covered vegetation.



Jim started us a pot of coffee, and a few ewes came forward to share a bag of pumpkin seeds.

We drank our coffee while enjoying the view, soon realizing that any effort at getting acquainted with a trout would have strong interference (see photo below). We threw our gear and dogs back in the truck and headed back to the house.

Border guards


We arrived back at the sheep pasture this afternoon to find a quiet standoff in progress. Two young bull moose were in the pasture, but the three burros were lined up in a row, forming a border between the sheep herd and the moose. What I love about this photo are the magpies on the butt of the burro in the middle. (Click on the photo for a larger view.)


These two moose are well known in the sheep pasture. They’ve been lurking around on the other side of the river, watching me do chores, and sulking about the dogs not letting them into the haystack. The dogs leave the moose alone, as long as they keep their distance. Today was just another day in the neighborhood, and the moose finally went on their way into the next pasture.

The mark of the cross


There are plenty of legends and stories about what wonderful and loyal companions burros make – miners and shepherds of long ago talked to their beasts of burden and treated them like old friends, which they often became. I’m going to venture into new territory here and share a story about the cross mark on a burro’s back. I think of it often, especially when I see the sheep are peaceful, protected by their sweet burros. Our burros are mellow creatures, kind but brave.

Some say that the cross mark on a burro’s back is a sign of love from God. In the story of the Crucifixion, Jesus rode a burro to Jerusalem. The burro wanted to carry the heavy cross for Jesus, but was not allowed, so he followed Jesus to the hill of Calvary. His heart filled with sorrow, the burro was unable to bear to watch the horrible scene before him as Jesus was nailed to the cross. The burro turned his back, but stayed nearby Jesus on the cross, and heard Jesus pray for those who had harmed him. To reward the sweet beast, the shadow of Jesus on the cross fell across the burro’s back and remains there to this day, as a visible symbol of God’s love.

Livestock guardian play

Once the New Fork River freezes, we have to move our sheep herd from the south side of a highway to the north side, into a pasture with an artesian well. On Saturday morning, we walked the herd underneath a highway bridge on a narrow trail along the frozen river, and they ended up out in a huge meadow where our cow herd also spends the winter. Luv’s Girl, an adult Akbash guardian dog, came along with the herd, as did its three burros. We turned the rams out into the ewe flock, and then I ran back to the house and got three other sheep that had been bedded with the Aziat pups and turned them out as well.

All this commotion caused pains to our guard animals, especially to the older pair of burros, which don’t like any change at all. But the fun part to watch was the introduction of new sheep into the herd and how the guardians respond to that. Luv’s Girl (adult Akbash dog) and Roo (young burro) both hurried to inspect the new sheep, but in their hurry, they realized they were competing with each other for attention. So they turned their attention to each other.

Luv’s Girl stood her body broadside against the burro’s front legs, so the burro couldn’t pass. The burro chewed on the dog’s long hair on the back of her neck, with the dog tilting her head back until the burro had the flesh on the top of the dog’s skull in her mouth. I’m thinking from the expression on the dog’s face that it felt like a massage.

The dog and burro ended up standing there, with the dog leaning against the burro’s front legs for a few minutes, before the dog walked away and the burro went back to the fresh line of hay in the snow.

Later in the day, I took Rena (1 1/2 year old Akbash) over to see her mother, Luv’s Girl. I love to watch them play because they are so graceful. I like this shot of the open mouths. That’s Rena on the right.

Rena is on the left in this photo. It can be difficult to tell mother and daughter apart, but the sheep know at a glance which is which and respond accordingly.