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Why can't we ride zebras?

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It seems like an obvious question: if we can ride horses, why not zebras?  After all, the two animals look similar, and no doubt split somewhat recently in evolutionary history.  Zebras are on average slightly smaller than horses, but they’re larger than ponies, and the pony was domesticated long ago.  Horses and ponies, indigenous to Asia, were first domesticated there by the humans who wandered there from Africa.  For much longer, humans and zebras have inhabited southern Africa together, living in the same region since the existence of the modern human beings.  In fact, zebras have been around longer than human beings have.  Africans never domesticated the animal, which they would no doubt have found plenty of use for, if they had.

So why didn’t they figure out how to ride it?  Did it just never occur to anyone there to try?  Maybe it didn’t, but the more likely explanation is that zebras just aren’t as easy to climb up on as horses are.  In fact, they’re pretty mean.  Like horses, zebras kick and bite when they feel threatened.  But while a horse will just kick wildly when it wants to discourage whatever is behind it, a zebra will actually turn its head to aim squarely at the target.  Zebras kick hard, too, packing enough force in their hind legs to break a lion’s jaw.  And while a horse’s bite is pretty bad, a zebra’s bite is worse, due to their habit of keeping their teeth clenched on the target until whatever it’s biting is dead.  European colonists discovered this pretty quickly, and found that the only way to stop a zebra biting attack was to kill the animal.  These traits no doubt discouraged generations of Africans from even trying to find a way to make the animal useful.

The Europeans, of course, figured they’d give it a try when they started to settle the Cape Colony, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal (all of which, along with other colonies, are the Republic of South Africa today).  Dutch, English and Portuguese colonists all learned in their turns why the Africans generally left zebras alone.  At first they were excited, since it looked like there was a local version of the horse they could use, and save a lot of trouble and expense of importing horses from Europe.

There were cases of zebras being broken by humans, both native Africans and European colonists, and used like horses.  There’s a number of isolated cases in southern and eastern Africa where this was managed.  The former English colonial governor of the Cape Colony, George Grey, used zebras to pull his carriage there, and took them with him when he was reassigned as the governor of New Zealand.  Lord Rothschild, a zoologist in London, also used a team of zebras to pull his carriage around.

Lord Rothschild and his team, circa 1900.

English Army Captain Horace Hayes was one of the colonials who broke a zebra and learned to ride it.  By his account, he managed to break it after two days of effort.  The zebra that Hayes broke was actually a subspecies called Burchell’s zebra, which were tamer than most kinds of zebra.  Hayes explained in his book, Points of the Horse, that he felt the Burchell’s zebra could be domesticated.  This never happened, though, since the last Burchell’s zebra, which once roamed southern Africa in large numbers, went extinct in 1918, when the last one died in a Berlin zoo.  An even better candidate for domestication was another subspecies of the zebra called the quagga.  Quaggas were an even tamer kind of the animal.  Dutch colonists (later Afrikaners) found the quagga to be easy to hunt and kill, and a great source of meat and useful pelts.  Quaggas were also brought to Europe and were used as beasts of burden, much like horses, since their temperament suited them to the job.  Since quaggas lived only south of the Vaal River, they had a pretty limited distribution, so their population didn’t last long.  The last quagga died in a London zoo in 1883.

A rare photograph of a quagga mare in the London Zoo, 1864



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