Horse and donkey facts

Everything you've ever wanted to know about our equine friends!

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Five Fun Facts

1. The all-time tallest horse was a Shire called Sampson

Sampson was born in 1846 in Bedfordshire, UK, and at maturity he stood at a towering 21.2 hands (2.15m, or over seven feet).  In fact he holds the record as both the tallest and heaviest horse, weighing in at 1,524kg. 

The record has yet to be surpassed - the most recent contender being Belgian Draft gelding called Big Jake, who measured a mere 20.2 hands.  

2. 'Wild horses' are long gone

Many of us think of horse populations such as those that roam freely in the New Forest or the Camargue area of southern France as 'wild', but the right word for these is actually 'feral'. Wild horses are those that have never been domesticated, whereas feral horses are descended from previously domesticated breeds and are simply roaming free, without owners.

There was one breed that was considered to be wild until very recently however - Przewalski’s horse, as pictured here in Mongolia.  They were thought to be the world's last remaining wild horses, but a genetic study revealed that they are actually a feral descendent of one of the earliest domesticated horse breeds, dating from 3500BC and hailing from the area we now call northern Kazakhstan.  

For Sandra Olsen, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Kansas, the study's findings led to a fundamental rethink wild horses and their place in history:  “The world lost truly wild horses perhaps hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, but we are only just now learning this fact, with the results of this research.” (source: reuters.com)

 

3. Some horses can grow moustaches!

The moustache in this photo might seem like it was bought at a fancy dress shop, but it's actually real - yes, some horses really do grow fancy moustaches!  They are most commonly seen on Gypsy Vanner horses (also known as Irish Cob and Tinker Horse), but some Shire horses and other breeds are known to grow them, especially in old age.  The 'taches vary greatly in size and style, from the neat Hercule Poirot-like one pictured here to more bushy growths that bring to mind the philosopher and noted horse-lover Friedrich Nietzsche.

Why? is inevitably the next question. One theory is that it helps the horses feel and differentiate between types of grass. It allows them to graze easier in poor light and conditions, and this explains why it is more commonly seen in native horse breeds that have to scratch about to find the best grass.

As is the case with some human moustache growers, many horses will grow them in winter and shed them in summer.

Image: Alfie, owned by Joanne Priestley

4. A horse called Old Billy reached the equivalent of 165 in human years! 

The record for the oldest horse in history is held by an 18th century barge horse from Woolston, Lancashire, UK.  Old Billy, as he was known, reached the age of 62 when he died in 1822, which is quite something when you consider the average lifespan of a horse is between 20 and 25 years! 

He had a long working life too - bought by the Mersey and Irwell Navigation company at two or three years of age, he was employed as a gin horse and in towing boats until 1819, when he was retired to a farm on the estate of one of the directors of the company, William Earle of Everton. Here on the farm at Latchford, near Warrington, Old Billy lived out the last three years of his life in ease until he died on 27th November 1822.          

Image: 'Old Billy' painting by W. Taylor, courtesy of Warrington Museum & Art Gallery (Culture Warrington)                                

5. The smallest horse on record stood at a tiny 44.5cm tall

Thumbelina (2001-2018) was the world's smallest horse - at her tallest she was around the same height as a bulldog. A miniature sorrel brown mare, she was born with dwarfism at Goose Creek Farm in St Louis, Missouri, USA. 

After noticing that she was good around children, Thumbelina's owners realised she would make a good therapy animal.  They converted a used recreational vehicle, christened it the 'Thumbymobile', and drove across the USA, stopping at children’s hospitals, schools, camps, and shelters for abused women and children.  Over more than two years Thumbelina interacted with children at over 300 stops.  

She retired from the touring life at 13 years of age and spent the rest of her days meandering around her owners' farm, easily ambling under gates and through fencing.

The shortest donkey on record is actually quite a bit taller than the shortest horse. KneeHi, a miniature Mediterranean donkey, measures 64.2 cm to the top of the withers, a good 20cm taller than Thumbelina.

Learn about our Animal Handling approach.  We also have a handy guide to Compassionate Equine Handling available for download

The difference between horses, donkeys and mules

Horses, donkeys and mules are entirely separate species, but come from the same equidae family. Here are some of the mane differences between them!

Horses

  • Fastest and easiest to train. Because of this, they have been used throughout history in times of war
  • Prefer to travel in groups.
  • Horses have smaller ears than mules and donkeys.
  • Their heads are generally in proportion with the rest of their bodies.
  • They have long flowing tail hair right from the base of their tail.
  • Their manes generally flop to the side, and their necks are longer than donkeys’ and mules’.
  • The average lifespan of a healthy, domesticated horse is 25-30 years.  Working horses are less likely to live this long.  Find out more about Brooke's aim to improve the welfare of working horses.  
  • Globally there are over 350 breeds of horse and they can range in height from less than 1m tall (miniature Shetlands) to nearly 2m tall (Shire horses).

Donkeys

  • Shortest, with thicker coats, shorter tails, very short necks and large ears.
  • Their mane often sticks upwards.
  • They often (though not always) have a lighter coloured muzzle area and dark skin around their eyes, like they have applied too much eye liner.
  • Intelligent, strong and cautious.
  • Able to carry up to twice their own body weight, so they are often used for manual labour.
  • More independent than horses and harder to train.
  • They often have a dorsal stripe - a dark stripe of fur along the middle of their back that splits and spreads down towards the tops of the legs.

Mules

  • Combine characteristics of horses and donkeys: Large body shapes, smooth coats, long ears, small hooves, short manes, long necks and thick heads. 
  • Faster than donkeys and more intelligent than horses.
  • Live the longest, at around 35-40 years.
Horse
  • Stallion: Male horse
  • Mare: Female horse
  • Filly: Female horse under four years old
  • Colt: Male horse under four years old
  • Yearling: Horse between one and two years old

 

Donkey
  • Jack: Male donkey
  • Jenny or jennet: Female donkey

 

Mule
  • Horse mule: Male mule
  • John mule: Neutered male mule
  • Mare mule/molly mule: Female mule
  • Mule colt: Young male mule
  • Mule filly: Young female mule

 

Hinny
  • The offspring of a male horse and female donkey, the reverse combination of a mule's parents. Hinnies are much rarer than mules, and more closely resemble their donkey mothers, with smaller stature, shorter ears, stronger legs, and thicker manes.
  • The name 'hinny' comes from jenny (a female donkey) bred with a h-orse. 

A hinny - the offspring of a male horse and female donkey.

More mule facts

Mules are the offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare). They combine characteristics of both parents: large body shapes and smooth coats similar to a horse, with donkey-like long ears, small sturdy hooves, short manes and thick heads.

Mules benefit from 'hybrid vigor': they are prized for having the size and strength of a horse with the resilience and robustness of a donkey. They also live longer than horses and tend to require less food than a similar-sized horse.

Mules

They can also sense danger better and are more cautious than horses or donkeys, making them safer to ride when crossing difficult terrain.

A mule’s skin is less sensitive than a horse or donkey’s skin, and is more resistant to sun and rain. Mules are strong animals and their hooves and coats are extremely robust.

As a result, mules are one of the world’s most common working animals and are highly dependable for owners who work in harsh conditions. We work with their owners and communities to provide better welfare and understanding of these lesser-known animals.

Mules played an important part in Britain’s history, especially in WW1 where they made up over 200,000 of the one million horses, donkeys and mules sent out to serve in battle.  Read more about mules, underappreciated war heroes

PS. Don't forget to take our Donkey Quiz!