Because of their resemblance to the familiar horse, there has always been great interest in taming and training zebras as riding and harness animals. These photos are from the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Why was there such an interest in taming zebras in the late 1800s/early 1900s? There are several reasons. Britain was a colonial power and colonists tried to turn local fauna to their own use, often because imported European livestock didn’t thrive in the new conditions. Acclimation societies wanted to add new animals to the list of animals “useful to man;” the prevailing view was that the Christian god had made the animals for humans to use. Acclimation societies imported new species into European countries as potential additions to useful livestock. Circuses and showmen wanted to present something exotic to the paying public. Accomplished horsemen, eager to demonstrate their prowess in the saddle, wanted the challenge of taming and training the seemingly intractable zebra. One zebra four-in-hand was the result of a bet and took 2 years to accomplish, indicating a social class with plenty of leisure time. Aristocrats and rich eccentrics sought novelty. However, as the motorcar gained in popularity, horses began to disappear from the roads – and so did the zebras. The bored and wealthy could now show off their wealth by owning motorcars instead of breaking exotic equids to harness.

Rosendo Ribeiro, the first doctor in Nairobi, Kenya, bought a zebra in 1907, and visited his patients on zebra-back. He was a familiar sight in the straggling township. He later sold it to Bombay Zoo for 800 Rupees.

Jumping and trick-riding on zebras. The use of the "backward seat" at that time made this unpleasant for the zebra (and for horses, of course). The photo on the right was taken in Africa.

Alice Hayes was married to an army vet, Horace Hayes. She travelled widely with her husband in the course of his work, and she rode a great variety of often difficult horses. In “The Horsewoman” (1893), Mrs Hayes is shown riding sidesaddle. She wrote:

“The most awkward kicker I ever rode was a mountain Zebra, which my husband broke in at Calcutta. He kicked very neatly without lowering his head, and, as the slightest touch on his ears drove him nearly out of his mind, I had great difficulty in avoiding them, as he kicked with a sort of peculiar wriggle which complicated the performance for me, because I had had no practice on a kicking zebra, and had to pick up my knowledge as I went on. It was no use trying to rein him back; for he had a neck like a bull, with a small rudimentary dewlap, and at every kick he gave, he made a noise like a pig grunting. His skin was the best part about him, and was as lovely and soft to the touch as the finest sealskin. As I believe I am the only woman who has ridden a mountain zebra, this photograph is probably unique. It ought to be a better one, seeing the trouble I took to make my obstinate mount stand still; but he seemed to regard the camera as an infernal machine destined for his destruction, and flatly refused to pose nicely for his portrait. He was far too neck-strong to make a pleasant mount for a lady. Kickers, as I have already said, should never be taken into any hunting field.”

In the late 19th century, it was fashionable to train zebras to pull carriages. In the top photo, the three zebras are kept steady bu a pony harnessed at the front. In the lower picture there are four zebras:

In the year 1898, in one of the many mews just off Cromwell Road, Kensington, lived Mr Hardy, who was a noted horserider & trainer, being one of the three men who had succeeded in riding the "French Rocking Horse". This was a device used by the French Cavalry. It had every possible movement of a wild horse not in the best of tempers. Leopold de Rothschild, who knew of Hardy's ability, was talking to friends of this achievement and said that he was willing to make a stake on his ability to train any animal resembling a horse. One of his friends took up this boast, and a stake was made that Hardy could not train a team of zebras to pull a coach through London. When after much trouble, the necessary beasts were obtained, Rothschild went to Hardy and told him the conditions of the wager. Hardy agreed to train them. The zebras were taken to Kensington and after 2 years hard work, Hardy informed Rothschild that his task was completed and that the team were ready for the road. At six o'clock one morning a strange sight was seen in London when, for the first time, a team of zebras were seen pulling a coach through London.

According to The Standard (London), 13th August 1912, "A zebra harnessed to a pony-chaise, seen driven along the side of Clapham Common. The zebra belonged to the music-hall artist, Mr Gustav-Grais. Having survived a fire it was stabled at Brixton and is seen here on its daily exercise route in South London"

This 1900s photo shows a "savage" zebra being broken to harness. Zebras were not hard to break to harness or saddle, but they were more easily spooked than horses.

According to "A New Illustrated Edition of J. S. Rarey's Art of Taming Horses," "For conquering a vicious, biting horse, there is nothing equal to the large wooden gag-bit, which Mr. Rarey first exhibited in public on the zebra. A muzzle only prevents a horse from biting; a gag, properly used, cures; for when he finds he cannot bite, and that you caress him and rub his ears kindly with perfect confidence, he by degrees abandons this most dangerous vice [...] If he is a violent, savage, confirmed kicker, like Cruiser, or Mr. Gurney’s gray colt, or the zebra, as soon as he is down put a pair of hobbles on his hind-legs, like those used for mares during covering. (Frontispiece of Zebra.) [...] When you have to deal with a horse as savage a kicker as Cruiser, or the zebra, a horse that can kick from one leg as fiercely as others can from two, in that case, to subdue and compel him to lie down, have a leather surcingle with a ring sewed on the belly part, and when the hobbles are buckled on the hind-legs, pass the ropes through the rings, and when the horse rises again, by buckling up one fore-leg, and pulling steadily, when needful, at the hind-legs, or tying the hobble-ropes to a collar, you reduce him to perfect helplessness; he finds that he cannot rear, for you pull his hind-legs—or kick, for you can pull at all three legs, and after a few lessons he gives in in despair. [...] These were the methods by which Cruiser and the zebra were subdued. They seem, and are, very simple; properly carried out they are effective for subduing the most spirited colt, and curing the most vicious horse. "

Above: Two zebra-pony hybrids in harness.

Above: Two zebra-ass hybrids in harness (1915)
Below: Russian zebra-pony hybrid drawing cart.

Grevy's zebra of East Africa is immune to tsetse fly and colonists once viewed it as a substitute for the mule. Though easily broken to harness, the zebra has less endurance than the mule and is more liable to panic if startled. This 1920s photo shows zebra pairs harnessed between mules in Kenya.

A 1910 "Ogden's Branch of the Imperial Tobacco Co." cigarette card depicts a South African scene of a wooden mail coach drawn by six zebras crossing a river. The information on the back of the card says "The Mashonaland Zebra Mail Team. Owing to the horses and mules on the Mashonaland mail route in South Africa not being able to bear the unhealthiness of the climate, and dying in alarming numbers, zebras kicked and bit furiously, but soon became tractable in harness and pulled well together. A team is shewn as crossing a river near Fort Tuli."

A team of 6 zebras.

In the late 19th century, it was fashionable to use zebras where one would normally use a horse or pony. Above is Lord Rothschild who had a penchant for harnessing zebras.

A famous pair of harnessed zebras in the USA were Hans and Tanta who belonged to the Pevely Dairy Comapny. They were captured in Southwest Africa, near the city of Windhuk, and trained at the Hagenback Circus at Altona-Stellingen in Germany. In July 1929, at the age of 3 years old, they went to the Pevely Dairy Company in St Louis. Due to their early capture and training, Hans and Tanta were exceedingly gentle and well trained. In the 1930s, they became a familiar sight pulling thePeverly Dairy Co milk delivery wagon through the streets of St Louis.

From “Animal Life and the World of Nature” (1902-1903): The photograph of the zebra with a native on his back has been sent to us by Mr Carl Hagenbeck of Hamburg. The animal is a new mountain zebra from German East Africa. The photograph was taken within three months of its capture, and the fact that it is being ridden is interesting as once more disproving the statement that these animals are untameable.

On the Mountain Zebra Horace Hayes relates: ' I once undertook to saddle and get ridden an old entire zebra... whose feet were becoming gradually deformed, on account of the animal not permitting them to be pared down. In less than an hour after I had turned it into the ring of Frank Fillis's circus, which was then in Calcutta, I had its feet rasped down to a proper level, and had it saddled and bridled for the first time in its life. It was then ridden by Steve Margaret ( a brilliant Australian rough-rider) and by my wife. This was certainly the first occasion a lady ever rode this variety of zebra, which had the reputation all over the world of being unridable. Although I was able quickly to teach it to carry its unwonted burden quietly, I made far less progress in giving it a "mouth" during the two days I had it in hand, than I would have done in half an hour with any wild horse in the Dominions caught for the first time on a "run"; the reason being that the zebra's neck was so stiff and strong that I unable to bend it in any direction. I soon taught it to do what I wanted in the circus; but when I rode it outside it took me wherever it liked. In fact, I had not the slightest power either to stop or guide it' ('Points of the Horse' by Captain Hayes, writing ca. 1899)

On Burchell's Zebra Horace Hayes relates: ' On account of the fact that this zebra when in a wild state, possesses immunity from the effects of the bite of the tsetse fly, which is a carrier of death to horses, I strongly advocated, when in South Africa, the taming and employment for harness or saddle of these animals in 'fly' infested districts. ....As the Burchell's zebra is comparatively easy to break in, and as it will breed in confinement, there is but little doubt that it will in time become domesticated. ...it will prove a valuable means of conveyance in South Africa. During one of my horse- breaking performances in 1892, at Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, I made a young Burchell zebra, after about an hour's handling, quiet to carry a rider. In doing this, I did not throw the animal down, nor did I resort to any of the usual "heroic" horse'taming methods.' ('Points of the Horse' by Captain Hayes, writing ca. 1899)

On the Quagga Horace Hayes relates: '... Up to the end of the first half of last century it was found in immense numbers in South Africa, and appears to have become extinct about the year 1870. The last specimen in England died in the London Zoological Gardens in 1864. It was a strong, somewhat heavily built animal, slow of pace for a wild member of the Equidae, and comparatively docile. " A pair of imported Quaggas were in the early part of the last century driven about London in a phaeton by Sheriff Parkins. Lieut. Col. C. Hamilton Smith, in his unpublished volume on Equidae, 1841 states that he drove one in a gig, and that its mouth was as delicate as that of a horse. He further stated that it had better quarters and was more horse-like even than Burchell's zebra, and added: 'It is unquestionably the best calculated for domestication, both as regards strength and docility' " (Tegetmeier and Sutherland) Owing to its deficiency in speed and alertness, and to the value set on its hide by the Boers and on its flesh by their Hottentot servants, it was finally exterminated by the settlers and natives. No attempt was made by naturalists to save this animal from extinction.'('Points of the Horse' by Captain Hayes, writing ca. 1899)

Above: A zebra cart in Calcutta in the 1930s.


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