Spotlight on Local Breeds
This is the first in a series of articles contributed by Jeannette Beranger, of the Livestock Conservancy
During the history of the development of livestock breeds in America, not many can claim its origin began with the vision of an American President. The American Mammoth Jackstock is one such breed. It was through visionaries such as George Washington who understood the growth of the new country would be dependent on using superior draft animals such as the fine working mules of Europe. At the time America did not yet possess large donkeys needed to create such desirable animals.
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 he bred this animal to horses, the outcome was exceptional work animals that were superior in their working abilities and endurance compared to oxen or horses. By the time of Washington’s death, mules produced by “Compound” sold for about $200 a piece, which in today’s dollars would be nearly $3000 each.
Washington’s work with breeding mules earned him the nickname “The Father of the American Mule” and set off great interest in mules, especially in southern states such as Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and others. There were many importations of large donkeys from Europe during the 1800’s. The Catalonian donkey from Spain was of primary interest to American breeders, but Poitou (from France), Majorcan (from Majorca), and Italian strains of donkeys were also used. Breeders crossbred these strains, selecting for size, soundness, and strength. The end-result was the creation of the American Mammoth Jackstock breed. A registry was created in 1888 and a second one in 1908. The two combined to create the Standard Jack and Jennet Registry (SJJR.) Today it is known as the American Mammoth Jackstock Registry. George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate still keeps and works Mammoth Jackstock mules as a testament to the work he did to create the magnificent breed on the property.
Mammoth Jacks are tall and sturdy, with substantial, thick legs and large and well-made massive heads. Their ears are one of their outstanding trademarks, often measuring 33″ from tip to tip. Breeders must pay close attention to size and bone in their animals. According to the American Mammoth Jackstock Registry, jacks are expected to stand no less than 14.2 hands (58 inches/147cm) high at the withers and at least 61 inches around the heart girth. Jennets and geldings can be no less than 14 hands (56″/142cm) and have the same heart girth as jacks. Many animals can be taller than this with weight ranging between 900 and 1,200 pounds (408 and 544kg). 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.
Numbers of American Mammoth Jackstock came to a peak in the early 20th century with an estimated five million animals in the national herd. As agriculture became more dependent on mechanized farm tools, the mule slowly lost favor on the American farm. Today The Livestock Conservancy has this breed listed as “threatened” with less than 1000 annual registrations for the breed.
I had the opportunity to encounter two exceptionally sweet Mammoth Jackstock donkeys, “Jaxon” and “Chloe,” in the fall of 2013 at the Mother Earth News Fair in Lawrence, 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 from high school and began a career playing donkey basketball for the Reynolds Company in San Bernadino, California. He was hooked immediately by the personality and intelligence of these animals and has never looked back.
On his farm in Council Grove, Kansas, Mr. Sharp got his first Mammoth Jackstock donkey 12 years ago. She was originally brought in as a guardian donkey for their pack goat herd and arrived at their place pregnant. Her foal, Chloe, was the first Mammoth donkey that Dwite had trained by the noted horseman, Frank Buchman, for riding. I asked what was the difference between training a horse versus a donkey and Dwite said “Donkeys are very intelligent and operate on trust and caution. Without trust you get nowhere. Buchman noted that compared to horses, donkeys have a short attention span, so training in short time spans such at 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.” Today there are 6 Mammoth Jackstock donkeys at Paradise Ranch.
Dwite says that donkeys are very easy to keep, but the biggest mistake people make with them is feeding them too rich a diet in grains or high quality hay. “Alfalfa is a big no-no for donkeys” he remarked. The only time he feeds oats is if the animals have had a challenging workday and only then. Another mistake is in breaking donkeys for riding at too early an age. He does not start his donkeys until they are at least 4 years old. Earlier than that can cause harm to both the donkey and its rider since the animals still have not 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 finds the ideal size for a trail donkey is around 14.5 hands.
Mr. Sharp shared his final thoughts on Mammoth Jackstock donkeys – “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.” Today Dwite’s grandchildren still ride Chloe, and she’s takes very good care of them on the trail.
Jeannette Beranger, Research & Technical Programs Manager, The Livestock Conservancy.