For centuries, the Poitou region of France was famous as a center of mule breeding. The area even boasted special breeds of horse and donkey developed exclusively for the purpose—the Poitevin horse, known for its heavy build, and the Poitou donkey, prized for its tall stature and large joints. When the horse and donkey were bred together, the result was a strapping mule ideal for tough work.
Mule breeding in Poitou was surrounded by secrecy and mysterious practices. The shaggy donkey involved was never used for work himself, but was closed up year-round in a dark stall. His ancestors were unknown, but they probably entered France as early as the Roman times, brought by invading legions.
The late 1700s and early 1800s saw a change in the status of the Poitou donkey, however. The turmoil of the French Revolution made mule breeding a low priority. When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, he demanded horses—athletic chargers for the cavalry—not mules. The Poitevin horse was bred with light horses to meet the new need. Meanwhile, laws were passed to keep mule breeding to a minimum.
Fortunately for the Poitou, a new market for mules had opened up outside of France. The young United States needed powerful, low-maintenance draft animals to plow its land and open its frontiers. Poitou donkeys were imported into America between the Civil War and the early 1900s. Most of these Poitou imports, however, were absorbed into a melting pot of large donkeys kept exclusively for breeding mules.
When mechanization spread across the world after World War II, mules were no longer an important part of agriculture, and all donkey breeds suffered neglect. By 1977, there were only 44 Poitou donkeys in the world.
Realizing that the Poitou was in danger of speedy extinction, donkey fans in several countries promptly set to work to conserve the breed. In America, Poitou donkeys were imported once again, first going to the Catskill Game Farm in New York in 1978. Private breeders also introduced donkeys from overseas in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Poitou population remains at critical levels. While it is difficult to estimate the breed’s numbers in America due to confusion with partbreds sold as purebreds, there are are an estimated 2,500 pure Poitou donkeys in the United States today.
Today, most Poitou donkeys are kept as pets and companions. They are suitable for light harness work, however, including pleasure driving and some farm chores.
Note that, despite its size, the Poitou is not built to be ridden. Even a lightweight rider can severely injure the donkey.
The engaging personality of the Poitou donkey fascinates owners. When treated kindly, the breed is friendly, loyal, and sweet-tempered. Its intelligence gives it an impish streak, but that merely adds to the donkey’s charm. Any time spent with a Poitou will be richly repaid in affection.
The heavy coat of the Poitou donkey should be clipped in hot weather to avoid dermatitis.
Despite its size, the Poitou has weak points in the bones of its legs, hips, and spine. It should never be ridden, even by children, or it could be severely injured.
The Poitou was bred to thrive on a small feed allowance. Strict attention to diet is necessary to avoid obesity.
- Low feed requirements.
- Ability to pull heavy loads.
- Intensive grooming requirements.
- Late maturity; should not be bred or worked until about five years old.
- Slow working pace.