Wild Horses Can’t be Broken: Zebra Domestication Attempts

Written by Thomson Safaris
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Photo: Thomson Safaris guest, Fain Zimmerman

They’re closely related to horses, and they already sport a SWEET paint job, so why haven’t we been riding on zebras for the last few hundred years? Has no one ever thought to domesticate these seemingly ready-made forms of African transport?

They have tried, many times in fact. In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was something of a fad for taming zebras.

It’s just never gone that well.

In the mid-19th century, George Grey imported zebras from South Africa to New Zealand, where he was taking up a governorship, to pull his carriage. The Victorian-era zoologist Lord Walter Rothschild likewise trained zebras to pull vehicles, famously driving a zebra-drawn carriage to Buckingham Palace. And in the early 20th century, Rosendo Ribeiro, the first doctor in Nairobi, allegedly made house calls on zebraback.

Zebra carriage to Buckingham PalaceRenowned zoologist, Walter Rothschild driving a zebra-drawn carriage to Buckingham Palace
“WalterRothschildWithZebras” by unknown – The Picture Magazine (publ.: George Newnes). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WalterRothschildWithZebras.jpg#mediaviewer/File:WalterRothschildWithZebras.jpg

Beyond the contemporary colonial fad for “going native,” there were very practical reasons driving the trend. Zebras were already abundant in many of the regions colonialists were penetrating; domesticating the herds would save them the expense and difficulty of importing horses. More importantly, zebras were resistant to the diseases carried by tsetse flies, diseases that were highly fatal to horses.

But while one-off attempts to tame a single animal may have been successful, domesticating them—breeding captive herds specifically for human use—proved impossible. They were easily agitated, aggressive when cornered (biting and kicking so hard they could easily maim or kill a would-be rider), and bad tempered. And while they could carry an adult human, they were significantly smaller than European horses; the discomfort of having a passenger for any length of time was likely to activate their worst tendencies, even if they’d been successfully “broken.” Even Lord Rothschild, the most flamboyant proponent of zebra-transport, never attempted to ride them; he stopped at harnessing them to a carriage.

There’s a reason—or a million mini-reasons, depending how you think about it—why zebras just never took to settling down. The quick-and-dirty answer? Evolution.

The African landscape is very different for equine species than that of western Europe. Multiple large-animal predators—like lions, leopards, hyenas, and crocodiles—mean prey species, like zebra, must develop intense early-warning mechanisms in order to survive. They have to be jumpier, basically, because they have more predators to fear. This has also led to the zebra’s occasional bursts of violence; when cornered in the wild, they have to be ready to strike their attackers…hard.

Moreover, zebras have evolved alongside man, whereas European animals mostly evolved in the absence of man (we didn’t migrate out of Africa until relatively recently). That means zebras are hardwired to view us as threats, too. A few patient weeks in a stable aren’t enough to undo generations of natural selection, as zebras in captivity prove time and time again: they’re the animal responsible for the most injuries to zookeepers every single year.

But the dream of a domesticated zebra lives on. As recently as 2013, a teenager in Virginia, Shea Inman, attempted to train a zebra to bear a rider.

Through extreme patience and rewards-based training, she’s managed some success, but she notes that even now, “Some days it’s like he’s been riding for 30 years and other days he acts like he’s never seen a human being.”

We don’t love those odds, which is why we’ll let zebras keep living as nature intended: without us.