Gaited mammoth donkeys are unique breed
CARLOS E. MEDINA
Jul. 15, 2017
OCALA, Fla. (AP) — El is a giant among donkeys.
No, really. Whisper's Star of Rapha El, or El as he is known around the barn, is a gaited, mammoth Jack stud, with an emphasis on the mammoth.
El, and other mammoth donkeys, stand about a foot taller than their standard brethren. Males must be at least 56 inches at their withers (the ridge between the shoulder blades).
El, at 59 inches tall, is about as tall as an Arabian or Tennessee walking horse. But he is not as delicate as those breeds. Mammoths are thick, large-headed animals more akin to linebackers.
Yet, despite their intimidating presence, they act more like puppies.
Garris Graham leaned over El's paddock fence on a recent day and recalled how he fell in love with the breed. As he spoke, El ambled up and laid his head on Graham's arms.
Minutes earlier, El had followed Nancy Graham, Garris' wife, around the paddock like a loyal dog, nudging her for a head pat.
"I love you. You are such a good boy. Yes you are," Nancy said as she finally patted El on the forehead.
The Grahams breed mammoth donkeys at their Ever Green Farm in northwest Marion County. They offer El for stud service to other mammoth owners or to those who want a mammoth mule. Mating a Jack and a female horse produces a mule. Donkeys and horses are part of the same family, but are separate species. That is why their offspring are sterile.
The mammoth breed developed in America and traces its history to George Washington.
Washington heard that farmers in Spain used an animal that looked like a horse, but worked harder and ate less. He asked the U.S. ambassador to Spain to track down the animal, which turned out to be the mule. Due to his interest, the king of Spain sent Washington a mule as a gift in 1785. It was the first mule in America and Washington dubbed it Royal Gift. But the Spanish mule was kind of puny.
Since you cannot breed mules, Washington bred big donkeys to produce big, strong mules. Stronger mules plow more acres. That was important to farmers like Washington. Eventually, the modern mammoth donkey emerged.
Thanks to tractors, mules became obsolete as work animals in America. But today, there is a thriving, if under-reported, mule and donkey show circuit. The refined animals and studs like El are striking. El is a frosted, spotted, white mammoth. His white coat covers his dapple skin.
Breeders mix and match to come up with a tapestry of colors and patterns. El's girlfriend, Joani, is even bigger, at 62 inches tall. She looks more like a traditional donkey, except supersized. She even carries the cross shaped markings on her back and shoulders that are typical of donkeys.
Despite her coloring, the baby at her side is the spitting image of his father. He was born in April and is already sold.
"The baby loves to be around people. He nuzzles on you and follows you around," Garris Graham said. "These guys are very gentle."
The Grahams got their first horse in 2004, when Nancy bought an Arabian named Silk. Garris said he knew he had to take up equines as well, if he wanted to spend any time with Nancy.
"When I was a kid, I saw a movie and the general in the movie was riding a white mule. When it came time to get something to ride, I said, 'I don't want to get a horse. I want to get a mule.' That's what started my love affair with these creatures," Garris said.
In 2007, El joined the band and the couple never looked back.
They also have two mules they use to trail ride. The mules are even bigger than the donkeys, and are about the size of a small draft horse.
"When we go trail riding, everybody stands still when they first see them," Nancy said. "The women are more intimidated, but the men really like their size. They are like a big pickup truck."
As a gaited donkey, El and his type offer a smooth ride.
"Riding him is like sitting in a rocking chair," Garris said. "You just glide."
When bred to gaited horse breeds, you get a gaited mule. Not long ago, El had a rendezvous with a paso fino mare.
"The mare was a 5-year-old maiden. She had never seen a donkey before, much less a big white one," Nancy said.
Despite her initial reluctance, El was able to win over the mare with his charm and she recently had their baby. He is a white and brown little mule, that is until the mammoth kicks in.
"He's a paint. He's beautiful and has a medicine hat (distinct facial marking)," Nancy said.
Nancy said mules and donkeys can do anything a horse can do, from driving to being hunter/jumpers.
One of the biggest mule and donkey skill events in the country is Mule Days in Bishop, California. Every Memorial Day weekend hundreds of animals and about 30,000 people attend the event, which features events including Western, youth, English, cattle working, gaited, coon jumping, racing, musical tires, gymkhana, packing, shoeing, chariot racing, team roping and driving.
"They are very versatile and willing to please," Nancy said of the creatures. "They enjoy being around people."
Information from: Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner, http://www.starbanner.com/