Despite a long history of livestock breed development in America, few breeds can claim they originated from the vision of an American president. The American Mammoth Jackstock, however, can.
George Washington understood the growth of our new country would be dependent on superior draft animals, such as the fine working mules of Europe. At the time, America didn’t possess the large donkeys needed to breed such desirable animals. But during Washington’s presidency, the king of Spain gifted him with an Andalusian jack (a male donkey) named Royal Gift, along with two jennets (female donkeys) of the same breed. Not long afterward, Washington’s long-time friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, sent him a jack and two jennets from the Isle of Malta. Washington bred the Maltese jack with one of the Andalusian jennets and produced a fine breeding jack he named Compound. When Washington bred Compound with horses, the outcome was exceptional animals that were superior in their working abilities and endurance compared with oxen or horses. By the time of Washington’s death, mules sired by Compound sold for about $200 apiece, which today would equal nearly $3,000 each. George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate still keeps and works these Mammoth Jackstock mules as a testament to the work Washington did to create the magnificent breed.
Mammoth Jacks are tall and sturdy with substantially thick legs and massive, well-made heads. Their ears are one of their outstanding trademarks, often measuring 33 inches from tip to tip. Breeders must pay close attention to size and bone in their animals. According to the American Mammoth Jackstock Association, jacks are expected to stand no less than 14.2 hands (58 inches) high at the withers and 61 inches around the heart girth. Jennets and geldings can be no less than 14 hands (56 inches) and have the same heart girth as jacks. Many Mammoth Jacks grow to be taller than this, with weights ranging between 900 and 1,200 pounds. Young donkeys may be registered if both parents are registered stock; however, the youngsters must be re-evaluated by 5 years of age to ensure they meet the size requirements for the breed.
Breed numbers for American Mammoth Jackstock came to a peak in the early 20th century, with an estimated 5,000,000 animals in the national herd. As agriculture became more dependent on mechanized tools, the mule slowly lost favor on the American farm. Today, The Livestock Conservancy has the Mammoth Jackstock listed as “critical,” with less than 200 annual registrations for the breed.
I had the opportunity to encounter two exceptionally sweet Mammoth Jackstock donkeys, Jaxon and Chloe, a few years back at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Topeka, Kansas. The animals belonged to Dwite and Mary Sharp of Paradise Ranch Adventures LLC, who utilized the donkeys for trail riding and packing tours. I asked Dwite about his start with donkeys, which took him back a good number of years to when he first graduated high school and began a career playing donkey basketball for the Reynolds Company in San Bernardino, California. He was hooked immediately by the personality and intelligence of these animals and has never looked back.
Fifteen years ago, Dwite got his first Mammoth Jackstock donkey on his farm in Council Grove, Kansas. She was originally brought in to be a guardian donkey for their pack goat herd, and arrived to their farm pregnant. Her foal, Chloe, was the first Mammoth donkey that Dwite had trained by noted horseman Frank Buchman for riding. I asked what the difference was between training a horse verses a donkey, and Dwite said, “Donkeys are very intelligent and operate on trust and caution. Without trust, you get nowhere.” Buchman noted that compared with horses, donkeys have a short attention span, so training in short time spans, such as 30 minutes per day, will get you the best results. By the end of 28 days of training, Buchman returned Chloe to Dwite saying, “A cowboy dreams of having one truly great horse in a lifetime. Although she’s not a horse, she’s your one amazing mount of a lifetime.”
Dwite says that donkeys are easy keepers, but the biggest mistake people make with them is feeding them a diet too rich in grains or high-quality hay. “Alfalfa is a big no-no for donkeys,” he remarked. And the only time he feeds oats is if the animals have had a challenging workday. Another mistake is breaking donkeys for riding at too early an age. He doesn’t start his donkeys until they’re at least 4 years old. Earlier than that can cause harm to both the donkey and its rider, since the animals won’t yet have learned how to “wear their feet” to the best of their abilities. He went on to say that Mammoths that are too tall and leggy tend to be a bit clumsy as mounts, and he finds the ideal size for a trail donkey to be around 14.5 hands.
Dwite’s final thought on Mammoth Jackstock donkeys was this: “The greatest gift the donkey provides its rider is common sense. If the animal trusts you and decides to refuse to do something for you, take a good look around, because it’s probably seeing a danger you don’t. A good donkey will take care of its rider.” Dwite’s grandchildren still ride Chloe today, and she takes good care of them on the trail.
If you’re interested in heritage breed livestock, visit the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR and stop by The Livestock Conservancy stage to learn about traditional animal breeds that benefit both homesteaders and consumers with their hardiness, adaptability, flavorful meat, and genetic diversity. For more information, visit Mother Earth News Fair.
Jeannette Beranger is a program manager for The Livestock Conservancy with more than 30 years’ experience working with animals. For more information on Mammoth Jackstock donkeys, visit The Livestock Conservancy or the American Mammoth Jackstock Association. This article originally appeared on TractorSupply.com.