It is a question many children ask their parents after a trip to the zoo. The answer to it is difficult, at first glance, to give.
After all, zebras are very horse-like. They have manes and tails and are roughly the same size as the ancestors of the horses we ride upon. They eat grass too, so would not be difficult to keep fed. Horses and zebras can even interbreed, just like horses and donkeys – and we can ride donkeys.
And atop all that, they have an exceptionally striking coat. We know from the popularity of appaloosas and pintos, humans love nothing more than having a flashy, unusual creature to get around on.
So, why don’t we ride zebras?
Many people throughout history have tried to tame the noble striped beast. Those attempts, by and large, have failed. Europeans in the 1800’s were particularly interested in the zebra’s resistance to disease, which possibly would make them excellent transport for use in war and trade in the exotic new worlds they were conquering. However, whilst it was discovered not to be impossible to train a zebra to carry a person, it proved a painstaking and tedious task fraught with danger.
The big problem with domestication, quite simply, is that zebras are mean.
Some zookeepers in fact, would rather take care of the lions than the striped equines, citing the former as the less dangerous job.
We know horses bite and they kick. Zebras are different. When they kick, they look behind themselves, aim and strike with purpose. The power of a zebra’s kick is enormous. It can easily shatter a lion’s jaw. They also have a charming habit of biting and not letting go until the thing they are biting is dead.
Not exactly the best creature to jump on for a leisurely hack!
Now, do not think I mean to say the meanness of zebras makes them ‘bad’. Aggression is a very useful and understandable quality for life in the African savannah they call home. They are, unfortunately, one of the favourite meals of whole prides of clawed, fanged, muscle-bound big cats and packs of savage hyenas. In order to survive, zebras have gained a major bad attitude by necessity. When in danger, they run, and when necessary, they fight. They have to be good at fighting or they die.
Horses have, by comparison, an extremely tolerant disposition. They also have a far more malleable nature which allows them to adapt to new scenarios, such as having a bridle fitted for the first time, with fewer attempts to attack the person handling them. They tolerate clumsy handling by inexperienced horsemen and women remarkably well. They may bite and kick, but they can be taught manners when they are young relatively easily and simple safety rules such as not running up behind a horse and giving it a surprise, drastically reduce the likelihood of being injured.
Considering their power and the amount humans interact with horses, very few terrible accidents occur on the ground. The majority are the result of riders losing their seat and taking a fall.
Of course, a new question emerges from this: were horses born or created? Did the horse’s early, wild ancestors who also lived a dangerous life betray similar behaviour to the zebra? Did by process of selecting for the qualities we humans prefer – such as, animals not determined to kill us – create the placid horse akin to how wolves have been transformed into lapdogs?
Some posit the horse was simply in the right place at the right time. The tradition of domestication and agriculture did not emerge in the human societies of the zebra’s native habitat of Africa parallel to those in the range early horses inhabited in Asia and Europe. Zebras did not have the same chance to experience handling and breeding throughout the course of much of human civilisation.
We are unlikely to ever know whether or not this is true. Unless over thousands of years a number of zebras are bred carefully with the focus on creating pliable personalities and better trainability, it would be impossible to make a fair judgement on the matter.
It is not impossible to ride zebras. Enterprising teenager Shea Inman proved this only recently, able to ride her trained zebra ‘Joey’ quite successfully in her farm in Virginia. However, situations such as these tend to be one off cases by determined and patient individuals. So too, we can remember, lions can be tamed by showmen wishing to dazzle crowds. It is a very different and complex process to the regular breaking in of horses, which can be managed with comparative simplicity.
So, the answer: We don’t ride zebras because they are wild animals not wild about being ridden. We don’t ride them because we are for the most part happier admiring them from afar doing what zebras do best: being bad-tempered and eating grass!