Circuses were huge in the 19th and a large part of the 20th century. It was not unusual to see the donkey used in the clowning routines. You can imagine watching the graceful, scantily clad ladies performing acrobatics on the back of fine, well dressed horses, galloping around the ring. Then, as the applause subsides at the end of their turn, the perfect parody - out comes a clown on a donkey!
Sometimes it would be the clown himself who would ride, sometimes a stooge. The description below describes a short film made of such an act at Hagenbeck's Circus in 1903. (I got this from IMDB. It is quoted from the Lubin Film Company catalogue of the time. I was a little surprised that an old fashioned, somewhat racist term had been left in. I don't want to cause offense, but I've left it in too. That's how the world was.)
"This is a funny one. A clown first enters with an apparently docile donkey. A colored man follows and is assisted by the clown to mount on the donkey's back. He thinks he can manage him but the donkey thinks not, and after vainly trying to throw him off backward and failing in this, he changes his tactics and pitches the coon over his head. The man tries to mount him again, but all to no purpose, and some ludicrous positions and actions are witnessed."
As a kid, I remember a few circuses. These would mostly have been in the late 1960's. The clowns I remember, did the ubiquitous disintegrating car act, threw copious amounts of custard pies and kicked each others behinds. But for me, like many generations before, it was all about the animals. I remember Lions, Tigers as well as chimps, elephants and horses performing all kinds of tricks.
I found this image in the HTV collection I am working on at work. This was taken around 1969-70, and I'm fairly certain that this was one of the acts I saw as a child.
We were even allowed to view all the animals after the show, something today's health and safety officers would have nightmares about. I distinctly remember the smell. The aroma of hay and straw, the musky smells of different beasts. We all reveled in the excitement of the low, resonant growls of Tigers as we passed so close, and the rattling of sometimes rather flimsy looking cages. We looked on wide eyed as we were told what happened to "one naughty little boy" who put his hand between the bars to pull a tigers tail!
Since the 1980's very few animals are to be seen in the circus, there are very few circuses at all in fact, particularly of the traveling kind. There were of course many animal welfare issues, and I suspect there still are in some parts of the world, it was inevitable that things would change. I don't defend the cruelty and hardships, to both animal and human, but I am very glad that I can, in some small way remember what it was to experience this kind of spectacle.