The Myth of the Wild Zebra

The Chronicle of the Horse interviewed a Texan woman called Sammi Jo Stohler who has schooled her zebra to jump:

“As I was training horses, I kept hearing, ‘You can’t train zebras, they’re untrainable.’ I said, ‘Why?’ To say something is untrainable implies that it can’t learn, and we all know that if they couldn’t learn, they’d all be extinct. They have to be able to learn and adapt. Obviously, the burden lies on the trainer to be able to train them,” Stohler said.

Watch Zack in action:

I suppose the myth of the untrainable zebra has two bits of reasoning behind it. Firstly, that none of the locals in Africa bothered to domesticate zebras before Europeans arrived. Given that there were large parts of Eurasia in which other locals didn’t bother to domesticate horses before the Central Asian Steppes culture arrived in their midst, this argument doesn’t quite wash. The second question that arises: why don’t you see more Westerners riding around on them?

Well, you did. Here’s the Victorian sidesaddle expert, Mrs Alice Hayes, riding a mountain zebra trained by her husband, Captain Horace Hayes:

And here’s Walter Rothschild driving his four in hand:

They were also used alongside mules as draft animals in the Transvaal in the nineteenth century. Here’s the hideous sight of a colonial officer, straight from central casting, leaping a fence held aloft by native servants in East Africa:

from the Library of Congress’ collection

I’d guess you don’t see more “tame” zebras because we already have plenty of specially bred, larger horses to choose from, and the striped equid represents mere novelty value. You could buy one from a specialist exotic animal dealer in London for between £100–£150 in Victorian Age (thank you to Lee Jackson for that snippet), and nowadays some zebra species are so common that you can actually expect to eat them as pizza topping in the UK. Yes, in topsy-turvy Britain it’s easier to buy zebra flesh than horse meat.

One place they’ve always found a home is, of course, the circus. One of the early fathers of the modern circus, Andrew Ducrow, trained two zebras for performance in the early 19th century despite the claims of the French naturalist Cuvier that this was impossible. According to the Magazine of Natural History in 1840, Ducrow’s zebras “entirely lost their spirit and vivacity in consequence, assuming the humbled bearing of the common donkey.” I’ve seen a contemporary drawing of this feat but alas can’t find it online. Meanwhile, these rather surly beasts of the 21st century are doing liberty work – the artificial representation of natural freedom – for Circus Knie:

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow…

I’d heard of horses manes and tails being stolen for rocking horse manufacture, and felt a little sceptical until I learned about the booming market for hair extensions for horses themselves. In the US in particular there’s a growing trend* for some show horses to have tails of My Little Pony proportions that drag behind them on the ground. It’s always looked hideous to me – horses need to be able to swish their tails, not have them bagged up for cleanliness. A horse should be a horse, not a WAG.

This Texas news report on stolen horse hair is slightly hilarious, but it’s no fun for the horses that had their tails chopped. As for the comment of one owner, that “There is a big market for horse hair abroad,” well, lady, we have horses “abroad” too! Lots of them! Shadowy foreign types that we are, we don’t really need to go all the way to Texas to find a horse’s tail.

* trend or revival?