These animals, though but little used in this country, in comparison with the horse, are nevertheless of much value for certain kinds of work, and especially under particular conditions. Their usefulness is generally overlooked or ignored, either through prejudice, dislike, or from the nature and capabilities of the animals not being understood, leading to mismanagement and consequent disappointment. In certain circumstances and for special requirements, as in the field during war, the ass and mule are better than ponies or horses; and in the country, and even in towns, they might be largely and advantageously employed - indeed, mules are preferred to horses in several countries, and form by far the largest proportion of the animals used for work.
The ass is characterised by great hardiness of constitution, endurance of fatigue and hunger, patience, and apparent indifference to privation, while he is sure-footed and little liable to disease. In this country the ass is but little utilised, his services being generally limited to costermongers, gipsies, small tradesmen, hawkers, and sometimes for carrying young children or sea-shore riding. In some other countries, however, he is in more repute, and takes a somewhat prominent share in load-carrying, and even in draught. In France, in 1866, there were 518,837 of these animals, the numbers having gradually increased up to that date, while their improvement had also kept pace with their larger numbers. This improvement was more especially directed towards furnishing the best possible asses for mule production, which is a somewhat important industry in France and Spain, and for this purpose the stallion ass has been brought to a high degree of perfection.
The asses of France, Tuscany, Spain (Andalusia), Persia, Asia Minor, Arabia, and Egypt, are extolled for their large size and good qualities; and in the United States of America, and also in South America, these animals are valued chiefly for their share in mule-breeding. In France, those found in Gas-cony and Poitou are recognised as the best for this purpose.
The Spanish ass is nearly double the size of that with which we are familiar in England, and in the Island of Bahrein, in the Persian Gulf, there are said to be donkeys exceeding in size those of all other countries. As a general rule, the ass is large and smooth-haired in warm countries, small and long-haired in colder ones.
According to the country, the breeds of asses, and their strength, they are employed to carry or draw loads, or as riding animals - rendering, in fact, though on a smaller scale, the same kind of service as the horse. The peculiar qualities of the ass render him, in certain conditions, particularly valuable, and these can be greatly developed by good food in sufficient quantity, and careful attention in breeding and general management. This is proved by what is seen in Asia, Arabia, in some parts of Africa, and in the south of Europe, where this animal is much stronger, taller, altogether better shaped and graceful to look at, while better able to endure fatigue and privations, and faster and pleasanter paced. If possessed of less brilliant qualities than the horse, the ass in those countries has them of a more varied character, and can consequently be put to a greater number of uses.
With us, the ass is only too often utterly neglected, and left in the hands of those who brutally maltreat him, by semi-star-vation, beating, over-working, and insanitary maintenance. It can scarcely be matter for surprise, then, that the creature is dwarfed and decrepit, spiritless, sulky and resistive - nay, vicious, and proverbially stupid; when, under opposite conditions, he is intelligent, and a most willing and useful servant of man. Even in the abject state of slavery and neglect in which we generally behold him, he renders good service in his way, and probably no animal does more work on so little food.
In some countries the flesh of the ass is eaten; and the asses' milk, holding a kind of middle place between that of woman and the mare (equine) - being rich in sugar, and containing less butter and caseine - has long been extolled for its medicinal properties, especially in chronic disease of the lungs and the digestive organs.
In agriculture, and in several branches of manufacture and commerce, the ass might be profitably utilised when circumstances permit or require his special qualities to be brought into play - qualities which are not found in the horse or pony.
Asses are used more in the East for carrying loads or packs than in this country, or even in Europe; though in hilly countries where the vine is cultivated, his special aptitudes render him particularly useful in carrying the manure up the narrow, rugged paths, and bearing the grapes down to the homesteads during the vintage. For the saddle he is also much more employed in the East than in Europe; in Egypt and Syria he is in common request for this purpose, and the donkeys of Bagdad are celebrated for their good qualities as riding animals.
The load for a donkey to carry any considerable distance, varies with the size and condition of the animal; but the maximum weight is usually fixed at about 100 pounds.
In no other animal, perhaps, is good feeding, kindness, grooming, and housing, more amply compensated for by increased service and willing performance than with the ass. His appetite is not large, and he is much less fastidious about the quality of his food than the horse. A few pounds of hay and oats in the course of the day and night will maintain him in excellent condition, and even on hay or grass alone he will perform a fair amount of work; but if the toil is exacting the food should be in proportion. A large-sized ass will get through a wonderful amount of work on half-a-dozen pounds of oats and eight or ten pounds of hay. Few, however, receive such an allowance as this, unfortunately; but more frequently they have to labour hard on a little inferior hay, or the grass and weeds they may chance to pick up between or after the hours of toil.
The shoeing of the ass demands special care. From the structure of his peculiarly shaped foot, he is very easily pricked by the nails, and this accident is often followed by tetanus (lock-jaw), to which he is strangely predisposed, and which is so acute and fatal in him.
In purchasing an ass, the age is judged by the teeth, in the same way as in the horse, and pretty much the same diseases and defects should be looked for. The limbs should be strong; the knees and hocks large and free from blemishes; the feet not too small, and the hoofs sound; the chest wide; the back unscarred; the body rather long, but compact; the hindquarters and croup round and wide.
The ass should not be put to hard work under four years of age.