Contributed by: Chad Brinlee, Bombproof Horsemanship
I have been training horses most of my life. God has blessed me with the opportunity to have trained just about every single breed. To be successful domesticating and training a zebra, you must of course have lots of equine experience and lots of patience. Although this statement is very subjective to some, I just cannot stress how important it is that you personally possess enough of each. Zebra’s should be trained “rewarding good behavior” rather than punishing the bad. Don’t get me wrong. They will need correction, but that’s not even in the same ball park as a punishment.
It’s also important that you know how to properly read a zebras body language and can quickly respond and understand what each subtle gesture is telling you. If you don’t understand this form of communication, you can and probably will get hurt.
I pride myself on the attitude I hold towards horse training. I am a firm believer that every single horse on the planet can be trained to be safe and manageable. I have never given up on ANY HORSE and have never declined to train one either. Some are definitely better athletes and are better at particular disciplines, but it doesn’t take a special athlete to be safe and manageable. Before I decided to take on training a Zebra, the situation had to be almost perfect after all, they are wild animals. Zebras are not like horses, mules, or any other equine species and cannot really be categorized with anything else. To me, they seem to act more like a deer if I had to stereotype them. Their sense of self-preservation is very high but rather than running first, they tend to kick and bite.
A situation that I probably would not consider is a Zebra that is older and raised wild. To be successful, a Zebra must be raised by a very confident and kind individual from the very beginning. Zoe’s owner was just that, too! She bottle fed her starting when she was only 24 hours old and did an amazing job with her. She basically raised Zoe more like a friend or a dog than a wild animal, which is exactly what she needed in the beginning. The friendship part definitely brings out confidence; but without a balanced portion of leadership, boundaries, and respect it will also create dominance, fear, and disrespect.
I have heard my whole life that a Zebra is “untrainable”. In fact, if you Google “Can zebras be trained?”, the first thing you will see is, “Yes, zebras can be domesticated and trained, but it is not necessarily practical or humane to do so.” The first red flag about this statement is, “not humane to do so” speaks volumes. Obviously, they are not going about it the same way that I would and so I refused to believe this statement.
The first thing I learned was that “Zoe’s” natural herd instinct was very different from any horse. Horses have a pecking order within the herd and respect whoever holds a position above theirs. Zebras in the wild also travel in herds, but within the herd they travel in pairs where horses do not. Zebras have a best friend that they respect and that respect doesn’t transfer to others. I had to develop my own relationship with her and “earn my stripes” so to speak.
In order to create this relationship you need to be able to read their body language and keep in mind that they can read yours. They are very similar to horses in this regard. Zebras are experts at reading a person’s body language. In fact, they are absolute masters at it, because sensing danger is what keeps them alive.
If you walk up to “Zoe” and are confident but not threatening, she will allow you to pet her. If you approach her in a nervous or timid way, that will cause her to perceive you as a threat. If she kicks at this point, it’s important to realize that she is not to blame. You have to think about what you did to cause her to kick and change your approach rather than trying to change her natural instinct to protect herself when she perceives a threat.
The same goes for horses, too. If a horse acts out or does something in attempt to protect themselves, look to yourself because you more than likely caused the problem. I ALWAYS look to myself to figure out what I just did wrong to cause the unfavorable reaction before I ever blame the horse.
A quick example of how a zebra will generally fight you first: When a horse is afraid of something they, of course, will always run first and if backed into a corner will fight you. A deer is the same way, but a deer will get scared so much easier and run faster and harder than any horse. They are just not tolerant too much of anything. Zebras are much like a deer in their tolerance as they spook easily. For example, “Zoe” was afraid of water and you could not give her a bath. While she was in her pen, which is about 20 feet by about 60 feet, I squirted her with the water hose. She started to run off about 3 to 4 steps and stopped and literally ran backwards towards me trying to kick. Since I had a fence between us, I wasn’t worried at all and just continued to squirt her. When Zoe got to the fence, she just stood still as I was squirting her. Since she was still, I stopped. Just a few minutes later, I haltered her and brought her outside and was able to give her a bath as I would any horse. I was very impressed by how fast she realized that standing still was the only thing she could do to cause me to stop squirting her.
Zoe learns the same way a horse would and is extremely smart. Pressure and release techniques do work on her but remember, they are not as tolerant to pressure as horses. Your feel and timing has to be close to perfect. If you make a mistake and apply too much pressure then you can expect the zebra to protect itself. They will certainly choose to kick or bite and will do it extremely fast. Even horse training techniques have to be based on rewarding the right things rather than punishment
During Zoe’s first 30 days of training, I initially concentrated on her bad habits. Once I got those work out, I could start to teach her a few things. I am now happy to announce, Zoe is easily caught and haltered. She can be properly led with a loose lead. While leading, she will walk directly beside me and will stop when I stop before I have to pull on the rope. She will yield her hip away from me when I apply pressure from the ground up and she will bring her hip towards me when I apply pressure from up high towards her hip. I can easily move her shoulders away from me and back her up in a semi straight line. She will trailer load, jump creeks, and even push a 3 foot soccer ball. She will release her hind end and sit on the bean bag and stay until she is told to get up, which she was deathly afraid of at first. She is even starting to lay down from the sit down position.
I’m really looking forward to working more with little Zoe in the future. I believe I have just scratched the surface of her potential.
If you have any questions about zebras, horses or anything please comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.