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I’ve been working with heritage breeds for nearly four decades, but one above all others inspires me every time I gaze upon it: the Poitou donkey. Few know its name, but many folks have seen or heard about this shaggy donkey that looks like it’s covered in dreadlocks. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s immune to the charm of its lovable appearance and famously sweet disposition. But as likable as the breed is, it’s not a donkey for everyone. As a critically endangered breed, anyone thinking of getting involved with Poitou donkeys must do their homework far in advance and know exactly what kind of commitment will be needed to be a responsible steward.
The Poitou is known as the Baudet du Poitou (“donkey sire of Poitou”) in the Poitou-Charentes region of its native country of France. Mules, the result of crossing a male donkey with a female horse, are a greatly valued resource for draft and farm work. For more than a thousand years, mule production has been documented in France, and, around 1717, the Poitou become the standardized breed we know today, for the purpose of breeding mules. The most desirable mule was produced by breeding a Poitou jack to a Trait Poitevin Mulassier mare. This cross created the finest working mule in all of Europe, and fetched great prices for those who could afford them. The breed flourished until WWII, when draft animals were replaced with motorized vehicles. The Poitou and the Mulassier both declined as a result.
The Last Poitous
A survey of the remaining Poitous was conducted by Annick Audiot in 1977. She found that only 44 purebreds remained. The French National Stud Farms program, in partnership with Parc Naturel Régional du Marais Poitevin, developed a grade-up plan using a similar large donkey breed from Portugal. Poitou jacks were used on Portuguese jennies, and female offspring were then bred with pure Poitou jacks. After seven generations, the grade-up donkeys were 99.2 percent Poitou, and were eligible to be registered as purebred Poitou donkeys.
Poitous in America
America has had a long history with Poitous, but these donkeys have never been common in the United States. The breed was one of several European donkey breeds used by George Washington and some of his colleagues to create America’s first donkey breed, the American Mammoth Jackstock. Like the Poitou, the purpose of this breed was for the production of high-quality working mules. Washington believed the mule would be crucial as a powerful draft animal for his goal of expanding America. All he needed was a large donkey breed. Most people don’t know that Washington was a prolific livestock breeder and made a small fortune with the success of his donkey project. Thanks to their Poitou blood, some Mammoth Jacks can be a bit shaggy.
Today, the Poitou is rare in America, with perhaps fewer than 100 purebreds left. In 2020, The Livestock Conservancy decided to take on a census and DNA study to see how many are left, and to develop a conservation plan for this breed. One of the crucial elements in this plan is to develop an American studbook, since registering animals in France has become nearly impossible for American-bred animals because of European Union rules for European studbooks. Before the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, I had the pleasure of meeting with some of the leadership of the Races Mulassières du Poitou association during the International Agricultural Show in Paris. We discussed our plans for the breed in America, and with the association’s blessing, we agreed to create an American-based studbook so we can identify and track purebreds remaining on this side of the pond. We agreed to use the French breed standards and DNA markers to identify purebred animals in the United States.
Island of Donkeys
Following my visit to Paris, I decided to take a quick trip to western France. My destination was the Île de Ré, an island just off the coast of the city of La Rochelle. The island is a tourist destination famed for its ânes en culotte, or “donkeys in pants,” which can be found in the city of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. While this local display is mainly for the benefit of tourists these days, the tradition began as a way to combat the biting flies that plague the island and its farms during the warm months of summer. The pants protected the legs of the animals, which helped minimize bites. If a child is lucky enough, they might be able to catch a ride on one of these bedecked donkeys.
Among the donkeys on the island is a herd of Poitous, and I had the great fortune of seeing them after exploring the city. These striking animals had some of the most massive corded coats I’ve ever seen. I could only stand there, amazed, and marvel at this rare opportunity (and snap a lot of photos in the process)!
After I came back to the United States, I began looking at Poitous, and it was clear from the beginning that the largest herd belongs to the Texas Poitou Donkeys ranch in Grandview, Texas. Owners and husbands Christopher Jones and Patrick Archer started down their donkey path with Miniature donkeys, but a chance meeting with a massive Poitou changed their lives — it was love at first sight. They decided to switch gears and embark on a mission to save the Poitou breed. They’ve now been working with Poitous for approximately 15 years.
The duo has combed the United States and Canada to track down and acquire every purebred animal they could find. They’ve also detailed the animals’ life histories and pedigrees. To date, the two have accumulated a herd of more than 30 Poitous, including many who were born on the ranch.
Both Chris and Patrick say it’s been a labor of love and not for the faint of heart. With the many successes they’ve had, they’ve also had tragedies, such as the loss of a foal or beloved donkey.
During a recent visit to the ranch by The Livestock Conservancy staff, Patrick said of the donkeys, “Each one here is a gift” — and he truly meant it. This is one of the main reasons they don’t sell donkeys as pets, unless under specific circumstances, such as a retired animal that can’t breed, or a gelding. “People ask me all the time if they can buy a Poitou, and my answer is always the same — yes and no.” Chris and Patrick’s goal is to establish breeding programs around the country and make sure the donkeys are in competent hands, and that on their own ranch, all the “eggs are not in just one basket.” They feel so strongly about the importance of the Poitou project that they generously donated the funds to launch the census and create the studbook.
The Hard Part
Fertility for some of the animals is tricky. Getting a mare pregnant isn’t easy, and once you do, the pregnancy can last up to 14 months. After that comes the hard part: keeping the foals alive through their crucial first days. One of Texas Poitou Donkeys’ greatest achievements is its collaboration with a local vet, Dr. Keith Youngblood. Keith is a remarkable equine vet with a great reputation, and he became intrigued with the Poitou herd. Through painstaking research and firsthand experience, Keith has developed a foal protocol that has led to many successful births and foals that have since grown to maturity. To date, 20 foals have been born on the ranch!
During our visit, we had the unbelievable luck of witnessing the birth of a new foal and documenting Keith’s procedure, which included a crucial infusion of plasma in the baby’s first 24 hours of life. Armed with two video cameras and a massive list of questions, we were able to capture everything on film, with the intent to produce an educational video for new Poitou owners so they may share in the success that Chris and Patrick have had.
The birth of the foal now named “Legend” was bittersweet. His sire, the great Poitou jack “Nerio,” was tragically lost after a terrible fall during an exceptional cold snap in early 2021. The deep freeze created treacherously icy conditions rarely experienced in that part of Texas. This foal was their last chance to produce a son from this jack that had such a promising breeding career ahead of him. Hopefully, the little jack foal will be the legend his father was.
For anyone looking to buy a Poitou, keep in mind that not all shaggy donkeys are Poitous. Many donkeys out there are touted as the breed, and unsuspecting owners purchase the donkeys at great expense, only to find out later that what they have isn’t the real deal. Anyone planning to get involved with the breed should first be familiar with the French breed standard. Some of the key points in the standard are:
- The head is large and long. The ears are long, wide open, and covered with long hairs. The neckline is strong.
- The limbs are powerful, with very wide joints. The feet are wide, open, and covered with long hair.
- The coat color is bay brown to black, with pale hair around the eyes and muzzle, and along the underside of body. The hair coat around the eyes is silvery-gray bordered by a reddish halo. The color of the animal must not have white ticked hairs scattered throughout the coat, nor can it have a dorsal stripe (darker black band along the dorsal line from the withers to the tail) or a darker transverse stripe across the withers and shoulders.
- Ideally, the adult male (5 years old) will have a minimum height of 13.3 hands (1 meter, 40 centimeters), and the adult female (5 years old) will be a minimum height of 13.1 hands (1 meter, 35 centimeters).
Compared with most breeds, the Poitou is massive and often referred to as the “woolly mammoth of donkeys.” Some of the jacks in Texas were over 14 hands and weighed more than 1,000 pounds!
The Poitou may not be a donkey for everyone, though everyone does seem to fall in love with them. Not many are out there, but we hope to change that in the coming years. Even if you can’t own one, please consider supporting The Livestock Conservancy’s conservation project so we can make these amazing animals more available to their adoring fans.
A program manager for The Livestock Conservancy, Jeannette Beranger counts more than 30 years of experience working as an animal professional. She uses her knowledge to plan and implement breed conservation programs. At home, she maintains a heritage breeds farm, with a focus on rare breed chickens and horses.