Are Mules, Burros and Jackasses All Donkeys?

By: Stephanie Vermillion  | 

donkey
Donkeys like these are descendants of the African wild ass and they're related to horses and zebras. Carlos Sanchez Pereyra/Getty Images

We may use the words interchangeably, but donkey, jackass, burro and mule aren't really synonyms. Each term does relate to a donkey, but a jackass is not a mule, and all burros are not jackasses. (Following along?)

So what are these separate-but-similar creatures, all members of the equidae family? Let's start with a look at the donkey.

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What's a donkey? A donkey is a domestic member of the horse family. Today's domestic donkey is a descendant of the African wild ass, and these hard workers have been hauling goods since 4000 B.C.E., according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Donkeys are related to horses and zebras, although they're often stockier, stronger and have much different personalities.

Unlike horses, donkeys aren't easily startled. Even when they are, they don't panic. Donkeys stop to assess the situation, a trait that's commonly confused with stubbornness. This surefootedness paired with strength — they can carry up to twice their own body weight — make them ideal "beasts of burden." These creatures are still used for transporting goods around the world, although other common uses like sheep and cattle protection play into the donkey's lesser-known strengths. Once a donkey bonds with a herd of sheep, cattle or goats, it will protect the animals as it would its own, keeping dogs and coyotes at bay.

A jackass is just a male donkey. Before "donkey," there was ass — a word that comes from the Latin phrase "asinus," which refers to the animal. While ass is interchangeable with donkey, "jackass" refers specifically to a male donkey. This derives from the male donkey's nickname "jack" paired with the original donkey terminology "ass." Female donkeys are called "jennies" or "jennets," but a female ready to breed is known as a "broodmare."

A wild donkey is a burro. "Burro" is the Spanish term for the common working donkey in Spain and Mexico; it likely entered the English language in the U.S. when Spaniards brought burros to America's southwest in the 1500s. This means unlike the jackass and mule, burro is actually just another way to say donkey. But the term does have a more specific meaning, and there are some specifications.

For starters, those living west of the Mississippi River often say burro while those to the east use the term donkey. Others use burro to refer to smaller donkeys or wild donkeys still roaming rangeland in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Oregon, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

mule
When a male donkey and a female horse breed, they have what we know as a mule.
Marcia Straub/Getty Images

So what's a mule? The word "mule" isn't just another name for donkey; this animal is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. Mules, which are often between 35 to 70 inches (0.8 to 1.7 meters) tall, usually have the body of a horse and the extremities of a donkey, according to the Donkey Sanctuary. Their sounds are a blend of both parents; a mule bray begins with the common horse whinny and finishes with the hee-haw bray of a donkey.

Personality-wise, mules also have a bit of each parent. Mules are typically calm, steady and strong. That's why riders often choose the surefooted mule over the sometimes flighty horse for mountainous and steep terrain.

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Originally Published: Oct 14, 2020

Donkey FAQ

Is a mule a cross between a horse and a donkey?
A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. A mule looks like a horse with the extremities of a donkey. Mules share the personalities of each parent. For instance, they are calm like a donkey yet strong and steady like a horse.
What is the definition of a jackass?
A jackass is an interchangeable name for a male donkey. It comes from the Latin phrase asinus and has been used as a nickname for the animal for a long time.
What happens if a horse and donkey mate?
When a male donkey and a female horse mate, the resultant offspring is called a mule. A mule shares the personality traits of both parents and can be found all around the world.
What is the synonym for donkey?
The most common synonym for a donkey is jackass. Burro is a less popular synonym for a small or wild donkey for people living west of the Mississippi River.
Are a burro and a donkey the same thing?
A burro and a donkey are synonyms of the same animal with different characteristics. A burro is generally referred to as a small or wild donkey in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Oregon.

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