Known by: baudet de Poitou
The origins of the Poitou, as with many ancient breeds, is a bit
vague. It is said that the donkey and the practice of mule breeding was
introduced to the Poitou region of France by the Romans. The two breeds,
Poitou (donkey) and Mulassier (horse) seemed to have been developed side
by side for the sole purpose of producing mules of exceptional quality.
It is not known when the people of Poitou began selecting for the type
of mule-sire which we know today as the Poitou, but evidence shows that
the breed was already well established by 1717 when a memoirs of the king's
advisor described the donkeys of Poitou thus: "There is found, in
northern Poitou, donkeys which are as tall as large mules. They are almost
completely covered in hair a half-foot long with legs and joints as large
as a those of a carriage horse."
Up until the years following World War II, the Poitou played an important
roll in supplying quality mules to France and the rest of Europe. It is
said that the mule resulting from the union of a Poitou and a Mulassiere
is the finest working mule in the world. Whether this is undisputably true,
we can not say, but a Poitou mule, more often than not, fetches a higher
price than any other. It has been estimated that in the heyday of the industry,
the Poitou region produced as many as 30,000 mules per year.
After the war, mule production began to drop off. Tractors and automobiles
were replacing draft animals in every profession. Without a reason to produce
mules, there was little reason to raise Poitous. The decline of the breed
was swift. By 1977, only 44 donkeys of any age could be counted, held by
a few dedicated breeders. Fortunately, the cry was raised and efforts to
save the breed began. To day, there are perhaps as many as 180 purebred
Poitou Donkeys, but that number is still far from safety.
The Poitou is noted for its large size. The Andalucian ass is the
only other European breed of compariable size. Early breeders of these
animals selected for large ears, head and leg joints. The belief was that
jacks with these features would result in exceptionally large and strong
mules. As a result, the ears of some individuals of the Poitou are so large
that they are carried horizontal.
By standard, a Poitou should stand between 1.35 m and 1.50 m at the withers.
His coat is black or brown with a grey underbelly and a white nose and
eye rings. A Poitou must never have a cross upon his shoulders and back.
The head is quite large and long, set on a strong neck. The withers are
unobtrusive and the back flat and long. The croup is short and the haunches
round. The limbs are strong with large joints and loose movement. The feet
of a Poitou are larger than those of other donkey breeds and covered with
the long hair of the legs. The ears should be large and open, again, covered
in long hair. The actual coat of a Poitou Donkey is longer and softer than
that of other donkey breeds. When the animal is left ungroomed, it will
often retain the long hair of its youth which becomes matted and tangled,
growing down into a great coat. Tradition dictated that these animals with
their great "cadenettes" were most highly valued.
Changing attitudes in husbandry and hygiene finds many donkeys being
allowed to shed their great coats, but one can still find a few Poitous "bourailloux" (with
coats of great length).