Why don’t humans ride zebras? When I was younger, I always wanted to own a zebra after watching the National Geographic shows and save them from the lions and hyenas.
In the film Racing Stripes, a zebra gets left behind by a circus and then is rescued by a farmer and his daughter who live near a horse racing facility. After watching the racehorses, the zebra decides to become a racehorse with the farmer’s daughter, and they take a journey that ends with them winning a race against the formally trained Thoroughbred racehorses and earns their respect.
This film begs the question, why were zebras never domesticated by humans? They would have been very helpful for African tribes to use to farm and haul supplies, so why were they never yoked and broken to ride? After doing some research, I found out humans have tried many times to harness and saddle the zebra, but the problem was that zebras could never be truly tamed by man, unlike their European equine cousins. During the British colonization of Africa, there were attempts to domesticate the zebra as it would have saved the expense of importing horses from Europe and acclimating them to the hotter and drier climates, and new diseases. There was very little success in taming the zebras as they were very difficult to catch, and were very aggressive and unpredictable. Some people who have recently tried to ride zebras under saddle say they will be completely fine one day and the next day act like they have never seen a saddle nor a human before. Zebras tend to cause the most injuries even to familiar zookeepers.
One famous example of “successful” domestication was when Lord Rothschild famously harnessed four zebras and had them pull a carriage to Buckingham Palace, but even Lord Rothschild admitted he would not do anything beyond putting the zebras in harnesses.
So what makes zebras different from their European equine relatives? The big difference is their environments. Zebras have always lived in the African savanna where there are many large predators such as lions, crocodiles, hyenas, and man. Comparatively, European horses did not have as many predators in their habitat, so they did not need to develop such high alertness and very aggressive behaviors to fight off predators. Without these intensified survival instincts, European horses were more trusting and were able to bond with humans, and then throughout the millennia of domestically breeding out aggressive behaviors, man and horse have created a very close relationship, while zebras have kept their primal survival instincts intact and their distance from man.
Hayden Panettiere, the actress who rides the zebra in the movie, did say in an interview she tried to bond with the four zebras used in the film, but it was difficult and they would kick and bite at her. She also said riding a zebra was very different from riding a horse as they are short and wide. I also bet their gaits are not very smooth.
If a zebra was able to be domesticated, could it competitively race against Thoroughbreds? One may think that having to run away from lions would make it a very fast runner. Zebras can run 35-40 mph which is about the same speed that Thoroughbreds typically race at, however, zebras are not endurance runners. Zebras may be able to keep up with a Thoroughbred in a short sprint, but not in a mile long race.
Seriously, how fun would it be to see people riding zebras at horse shows today?
I am Amy. I love movies, TV, and horses. I grew up with horses and taught kids how to ride during my summer breaks from school. Now I am a country girl living in a city hoping to someday move back into a rural area and own a horse again.