Skip to main content

Why can't we ride zebras?

Image result for zebra

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



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Halley's Comet Panic of 1910

If you were around in 1986, you might remember the excitement surrounding the return of Halley’s Comet.  Halley’s Comet hadn’t been seen since 1910, and 76 years later, it was getting ready to make another pass by Earth.  Many who were excited probably wound up feeling a little disappointed. I’ll admit I was. I was sixteen, and was eager to see a bright ball in the sky with a burning tail lighting up the night.  All we got to see was a small, faint, comet-shaped light in the sky. It turned out that in 1986, the comet passed when the Earth was on the other side of the sun, so there wasn’t much to look at. We knew it was coming, though.  We’ve known this since 1705, when Edmond Halley predicted the comet would return on Christmas night, 1758.  Halley died in 1742, so he never got to see that he was correct—but he was correct. Halley’s calculations show that the comet will pass by Earth every 74 to 79 years, and these passes are predictable. When Halley’s Comet isn’t near Earth, …

Alcock and Brown: The First Transatlantic Flight

Since his celebrated landing in Paris 90 years ago, we often hear of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.  He flew solo, taking off from Roosevelt Field in Brooklyn and landing in Le Bourget field in Paris after a flight of 33½ hours in his cramped, lightweight plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis.  Lindbergh was one of several individuals or teams who were competing for the Orteig Prize: a $25,000 purse offered to the first to fly from New York to Paris, offered by wealthy New York hotelier Raymond Orteig.  Lindbergh took off and landed perfectly, and managed to navigate the whole way without getting lost.  This was quite a feat in the days before computers to aid navigation, or the elaborate system of air traffic control that would come into being, once commercial airlines started to develop.  What Lindbergh did immediately made him an international hero and a household name for years after, with streets and buildings and yes, airports, named after him.  To this day, Charles …