What is a Beast of Burden?

Mary McMahon

A beast of burden is a domesticated animal which has been trained to carry people or goods. Beasts of burden tend to be on the large scale of domesticated animals, so that they can carry heavy loads, with the exception to this rule being the dog, an animal which has been widely used as a beast of burden in the arctic regions of the world. The use of domesticated animals to carry goods and people is ancient, with some researchers suggesting that it may actually pre-date agriculture, since dogs were domesticated by hunting and gathering societies.

Camels have been used to transport goods over arid terrain for thousands of years.
Camels have been used to transport goods over arid terrain for thousands of years.

Different animals are used around the world as beasts of burden. Some common examples are: elephants, donkeys, horses, yaks, oxen, mules, yaks, buffaloes, camels, llamas, reindeer, and water buffalo. Most modern beasts of burden are bred on farms, and some are the result of centuries of breeding for strength and temperament, although some, like Asian elephants, are trapped in the wild and trained. In some cases, years of breeding has resulted in a very refined animal which differs radically from its wild counterparts.

Donkeys are considered beasts of burden.
Donkeys are considered beasts of burden.

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Handlers can use a beast of burden in a variety of ways. Some animals are trained to be ridden by humans, or to pull a conveyance such as a sled, cart, or sledge which may be loaded with cargo or people. Other beasts of burden are trained as pack animals, to carry loads which are strapped to their bodies. Some have special skills, like elephants, who assist at logging operations by using their trunks to manipulate timber.

Elephants might be used as beasts of burden.
Elephants might be used as beasts of burden.

Working animals have been displaced in some regions by mechanized transport, but in other areas, they are an important part of society. Much of the developing world relies heavily on beasts of burden for transport, and on working animals for tasks like plowing. Historically, working animals were critical to moving goods across land masses, and merchants traveled in huge caravans with hundreds of animals to bring materials for trade with other nations.

Oxen are considered beasts of burden.
Oxen are considered beasts of burden.

A beast of burden may come to be viewed as an important member of the family, but these animals are not pets. Like other working animals, beasts of burden should not be interfered with when they are working or in harness, unless their handlers specify that it is appropriate to approach or pat the animal. The heavy loads shouldered by many working animals require their full attention and concentration, and they could be frightened or injured by an approaching stranger, even one with innocent intentions.

Horses are considered beasts of burden.
Horses are considered beasts of burden.

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Discussion Comments


I remember when I was little and I used to work with my father on DIY stuff over the weekend I was all about trying to make my dog into a "beast of burden". I think it annoyed me that I had to work and he could just lay around in the sun all day.

I rigged up a little harness for him and he was going to haul wood with me, like the huskies I'd seen on TV.

But, my father caught me and stopped me. To this day I think I should have gotten more credit for imagination and initiative, but dad just thought I was goofing around.

And it's true, I would have been finished already if I hadn't spent so much time on the harness!


This makes me think of the donkeys that were part of everyday life when I was living in Africa.

People sometimes used cows as their beasts of burden, but more often it was donkeys. And they were everywhere.

Often the roads were very damaged and unpaved, and so the only regular petrol fueled vehicle you would see was trucks, or motorcycles. Riding in a car was like being in a boat on the ocean, the road was so bumpy and slow.

So, it was just more efficient to have a donkey and cart.

During the market days there were even donkey parking lots where you could put them and guards to make sure no one took your donkey.

The sad thing was that they were often mistreated. It broke my heart to see the ones who had had a hard life. I wish I could rescue them all.


I loved the way the Flintstones made use of beasts of burden. It seems like just about everything they use was powered by some kind of animal doing work. The shower was a mastodon spitting water. Bulldozers were big brontosaurus. The record player used a bird with a beak. I'm sure you all remember. All of these were technically beasts of burden. The whole flintstones world was propped up on the backs of animals working for humans. Kind of a crazy Idea that a lot of people overlook


Beast of Burden is one of my all time favorite Rolling Stones songs. From just the very first notes it puts me in a special kind of mood. There is just something about that song that gets in to your brain and does something great. Maybe if the real beasts of burden could hear it it would lighten their load a little bit!


@MrMoody – I would like to say that in American slang, a “beast of burden” can be a human being. The slang definition is: someone who really messes things up.

Of course, that definition has a completely different meaning from the traditional one, or even the one you gave. Instead of the person bearing the burden, they create burdens for everyone else to bear.


I believe that the phrase beast of burden has become a metaphor for anything that carries the bulk of the workload in any situation.

It can be your old, reliable truck which you use to haul wood across town. It can be a heavy duty computer server which can perform lots of number crunching calculations many times per second (that’s the way I use the term). It can be anything, really, that works hard and works relentlessly; and it’s usually a thing and not a person.

Of course, it still applies to animals as well, but as I’m a city slicker, I’m more familiar with its use as a figure of speech more than anything else.

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