Natural Horse World

Zebra Training

Zebra’s insist people ‘earn their stripes’

Cynthia meets Gilbert in South Africa.

I had never expected to be able to play with a zebra so it was an opportunity of a lifetime when I was offered the chance to educate Gilbert – a 3 year old wayward but tame zebra.
He had been raised from 7 weeks of age by a vet who had been part of a relocation operation where Gilbert was accidentally separated from his dam.

He was friendly but wouldn’t tolerate any pressure from humans, especially after being loaned for use in a film called ‘Racing Stripes’.
I was wondering what I’d let myself in for when I was told Gilbert was difficult to halter, wouldn’t lead and could bite and kick at the same time! He had recently been moved to a larger property where he ran with 3 horses, a giraffe, an ostrich, a pot bellied pig and several dogs for company.
His favorite trick was to race cars down the 500m driveway and try to push his way through the gate and he was seen by his people as an un-cooperative character who would only do something for food or if it suited him.

I decided to keep an open mind and to use my horse psychology principles to see what we could achieve in the short space of time available.
Upon meeting Gilbert (who was smaller than the average zebra), I was impressed by his sureness of personality and his curiosity which was mainly from his love of treats often found in people’s pockets.
As I had a large round yard to play in, I decided to see what we could do at liberty with the aim of having him see me as an alpha herd member (he had lived with donkeys so at least knew about her behavior and disciple.

Ros is dwarfed by his giraffe friend. Only in South Africa!

By taking the time to introduce myself and to then find the spots he liked to be itched (which were mainly where ticks gathered along his back, under his tail and belly and in the mane) we got off to a good start.
Once he got bored with the grooming, he tried to push me aside so then it was time to move him around which I did by positioning myself behind his drive line to keep him moving forward against the round yard fence.
He very quickly ,learned to follow my suggestion and focus for moving at walk and trot, stopping, turning and standing for a rub.

I did this at a distance of about 5 metres away, then moved closer until I could move with him and keep my training stick resting on his back to see if he could accept the pressure of a person moving closely with him. Once we’d achieved that, I drove him to the halter and he stood calmly while I simulated the halter going on firstly with a string, then there was no fuss when the halter was put on and off.
I was then able to repeat what I’d done at liberty with a loose rope and started to play with pressure on his head which he reacted to by straightening his short little neck and turning himself around to present me with those heels. He very quickly taught me steady pressure wasn’t going to work but by using rhythmic pressure, he had nothing to lean on and responded quite nicely.

From there, I used some apple and carrot treats to teach him to face up to me and yield his hindquarters instead of try to run off which is what he’d learned in the past. As he reacted very instinctively with squeals, opposition reflex, and use of teeth and heels to steady pressure I once again used rhythmic pressure with the training stick towards his hind end and on the halter to achieve a yield towards me for which he received a food reward.
I used food because he was highly motivated by it and I was able to speed up the process by giving him more incentive to yield. Zebras seem to be able to tolerate a high level of discomfort before they seek comfort as they are more of a fight than a flight animal.

So we finished our first session by being able to lead him from both sides, yield his hindquarters to a stop from the walk and be able to touch most parts of his body and his legs a little with the stick. He was very sensitive to touch on the legs and would instantly drop to his knees then try to bite and kick you if you ran your hand down his front legs – a very instinctive reaction!

His owner, Benny the vet, was so impressed with what we’d achieved, he decided to bring his family along to see the next session 2 days later.
This time, I checked out all the things we’d done in the first session then started to introduce some moving with him at the trot and yielding from a trot to a stop which he achieved well enough to give me confidence venture out of the round yard and be able to control him.
At first, I went with him, sort of like a passenger game on line to see what his ideas were, then gently introduced some direction and yields to remind him he could listen to people and not be defensive.

Gilbert finds comfort with his friend, Ros, while Mr Giraffe looks on.

We soon attracted the attention of the giraffe and one horse who played with both and had become part of this strange herd. We finished our session with lots of photos and then turned him loose to do his own thing while we enjoyed a cuppa. I was then surprised to see the Benny the vet sitting his son on Gilbert’s back for a photo – something he hadn’t been able to do for quite some time and Gilbert was very obliging. Benny then leaned over Gilbert’s back who took him for a short ride with no sign of worry or opposition to this added pressure.

A week later, I heard Gilbert had loaded himself in the horse trailer beside his horse friend while he was waiting to be unloaded at the end of our 4 day course. This was a zebra who went from being bribed into a float with food then needed sedating so he wouldn’t jump out to confidently standing beside his friend in the float at liberty and calmly unloading himself when the horse was backed out.
In all, it was a fascinating experience and taught me that Zebras are really very similar to horses but their instincts are amplified by ten by being un-domesticated. They respond to most of the same communication but find steady pressure hard to cope with as it is very natural for them to fight such pressure to save their lives. No wonder horses have such opposition reflex to the constraint we impose on them.

Gilbert showed me and those watching that being tame, gave everyone a false impression that he should accept pressure as readily as horses, and when he showed his fight instinct, that he was not being nasty, just scared and ‘fighting for his survival’.
Once you had ‘earned your stripes’ by acting like another zebra and understanding where he was coming from, he was able to listen to our communication and comply with requests.

It was interesting to note that each person who wanted to handle him had to get his trust and respect – he was (pardon the pun) very black and white about who he would allow near him let alone push him around. I guess that’s how zebras survive in a herd and there’s really not a lot of difference between the various equine species.

Gilbert trusts Benny, the vet who raised him with is son.


The Diary of training and filming
GILBERT THE ZEBRA by Cynthia Cooper

Gilbert is a naturally curious little zebra.

The main reason for my trip to South Africa this year was to be part of a documentary being filmed about Gilbert, the zebra.

I met Gilbert last year for two training sessions which resulted in a some video footage being shown at one of my courses this year.
Janine White, a student at my January camp, saw the footage and was inspired to write a film about it. She then received a scholarship to enable the film to be produced as a short documentary so Janine, Troy (the producer) and I spent three weeks with Gilbert filming his education in hoof trimming and leading out.
We all enjoyed the lovely warm weather and ate too much yummy food, and achieved the goal of trimming Gilbert’s hooves so he could remain sound in a domestic situation. I also started him on a leading program that will eventually enable his owners, Carin and Izak, to take him out for rides with their other horses which will help keep his feet in good shape.

September 2005

Gilbert is part of a small horse herd, happily grazing on the house lawn.

This time the trip to South Africa seemed to take forever.
Travelling with Troy and Janine (film producer and director) on my third trip to this vast and varied continent meant I was the experienced guide who at least had a little knowledge of local customs. However my travel savvy was not enough to avoid being ripped off by local taxi drivers and the bureau de change when we converted our aussie dollars to rand.
Tedious hours on the plane and in hotels were made more challenging by forgotten vegetarian meal orders, being taken to the wrong hotels, and having to share double beds in a South African hotel where they just don’t do singles!
At least getting through customs was a non event, taking all of 2 seconds as we handed our in-coming flight cards to someone not even interested in checking them.

DAY 1: After three days of flying and two nights in hotels, we finally arrived at the Kruger International airport to be met by Gilbert’s owner, Carin. It was wonderful to get out to the countryside again to the peace and quiet of their mango farm nestled in the productive Sabie Valley in the northern part of of South Africa.

After greeting the six excited dogs, unloading the car and getting camera gear organised, we all went to meet Gilbert – the star of the film who’s future is to be decided by Carin and myself in the next 2 weeks.
We found him loafing around the horse shed with the 4 horses, flicking away flies on a lazy, warm afternoon.
He was the only one to approach us – the horses were happy to have someone else receive all the attention and fuss. The first thing Gilbert had to inspect were the big cameras attached to Janine and Troy – satisfied they were just another weird part of the human world, he then sauntered over to me to check out my little digital camera – probably wondering if that was small enough to eat.

The first thing I noticed about him was his changed demeanour – the shy, insecure zebra I had met a year ago was now much more confident, bold even, and showed a real maturity and genuine friendliness to people.
12 months ago he was not happy to have strangers touch him too much and always moved away when too many people around him looked like a potential trap.
Now, he allows complete strangers to rub his head and ears and was quite happy to have me touch his legs, something I could only do last year with a stick as an extension of my hand.
As the mosquitoes started biting we retreated inside leaving Gilbert contentedly pruning the banana tree and grazing on the lawn with his four horse herd.

Rex, the bull mastiff cross dog, wandered straight up to him and snuffled in his ear before licking his face as a greeting, showing us Gilbert really didn’t mind being approached by friends.

DAY 2: The next morning as we set out for a walk around the property, we came across Gilbert, lying down resting with the horses after their morning feed.

Unsure of how he would react to the approach of a human while lying down, I kept my eyes averted as I sidled up to him – he didn’t worry at all and relished in a good ear scratch as I cleaned the wax from inside. Rex then decided he needed to be the centre of attention by jumping on Gilbert’s neck, clasping him with his paws as he humped in a show of doggie domination. Gilbert didn’t even move until he tried it again on the other side and almost pushed his head to the ground, causing him to get up just to rid himself of the pesky dog.
Rex then leapt up, putting his paws on Gilbert’s back, who rather than react, just ambled off to see us for more scratching before we continued on our morning walk.

Gilbert and Ros hang out at the back door.

Later, that afternoon, I heard some commotion at the back door and found Ros, Gilbert’s best horse friend, raiding the dog food bin. After blocking their access to the dog food, I spent almost an hour, while Janine and Troy filmed, finding all of Gilbert’s itchy spots which he showed me by rubbing on the stone wall, backing up to me and biting himself in various places.
Again he allowed me to handle his legs which have become my training focus as his hooves are getting a little long and need trimming. Carin tells me he won’t hold his legs up for very long so I’m working on being able to hold them for longer with his hoof still on the ground first. He managed to tolerate my hand around his pastern for up to a minute and would lift his hoof off the ground for a few seconds, before wanting to extract his leg from my hold.
Once Gilbert had his fill of our company, he wandered out the gate to find some grass while Carin evicted the horses who hadn’t given up on the dog food.

DAY 3: Our focus was on the horses as they needed their annual African Horse Sickness injections and I wanted to trim Ros’ feet before riding him.
Also one of the horses had a bad wound on his knee which needed treatment for proud flesh which I did by bandaging on some honey.
Its so dry here that the hooves are rock hard so we stood Ros in the hoof bath while we gave the 3 other horses their injections. Gilbert hung around the whole time, checking everything out and supervising the hoof trim.
Later in the afternoon, Carin, Janine and I went for a walk and took Ros with us to distract him from raiding the dog food bin.

Security is a big thing in South Africa.

Gilbert followed us all the way to the front gate then tried to follow us out, not succeeding, he then followed us as far along the fence line as he could while we continued down the path alongside the canal.
We then decided to teach Gilbert to lead from Ros so Carin can give him more exercise which will help keep his hooves in shape.
When we returned Gilbert met us, nipping Ros as if to say “why did you leave without me?” He then allowed Izak to put Kabonki, the dachsund, on his back with no concern whatsoever.
Gilbert sure is comfortable with his dog family too.

DAY 4: That morning, we decided to do a lesson with Ros, so Carin could see me ride him as she needed to know if it was her causing him to be so tight and tense in his trot that it was hurting her back each time she rode.
The whole time we spent with Ros, Gilbert stood around in the arena, enjoying a groom from me then investigating the cameras and taking it all in.

Ros and Carin accompany me and Gilbert on a walk in the mango grove.

DAY 5: The next afternoon we spent some time with Gilbert and Ros in the round yard to work on picking up his feet. They were both feeling fairly energetic and Ros was wanting to be back with the other horses so I sent them around until Ros decided I could be the leader after which he didn’t leave my side.
This made working with Gilbert much easier as he became a calming influence rather than a distracting one.
I started with the rope around his leg, asking him to yield it forwards then up which he coped with better than up and back. Then once the rope slipped to his forearm, I discovered that he was happier to hold it up and back with pressure in this position, rather than around his pastern.
We also re-visited leading with the halter on and yielding his hindquarters which he did beautifully – and Carin had done very little with him in this regard.
I was using carrots to reward him during this session and it was interesting when he decided he didn’t need them any more. This point was accompanied by lots of yawning and as we’d been going for at least 30 minutes, I decided it was good to finish there.

DAY 6: I managed to halter Gilbert out in the paddock and lead him to the shed – or more to the point, he led and I just kept up, even at the trot!
During our second round yard session with Ros and Gilbert, we focused on picking up feet for a little longer and managed to have him accept lifting the back feet with the rope without too much of a kick reaction.
We also did some more leading and filming that all went well with Gilbert following at the slightest suggestion and stopping without running into me.

DAY 7: A couple of days later, after an un-successful zebra filming mission to a local game reserve, we had a visit from Carin’s farrier, Shaun. He was quite open to the suggestions I made about the corrections to Ros’ feet and said he’d trimmed a couple of zebra before, mentioning that they can bite and kick very well.
I worked a little more with Gilbert’s feet to show where his training was and managed hold them up long enough to brush them with the hoof pick. He even held his back feet up long enough for us to see underneath – they aren’t as long as the front.
Eventually, we hope Shaun will be able to trim Gilbert’s feet when they need it which will probably be less often than the horses.

Izak tells Kabonki he too could be a jockey for Racing Stripes! Gilbert doesn’t care.

DAY 8: Our next filming mission was at the Kruger Park which meant a very early start (5am) to get there as the gates opened. In the 12 hours we were there we saw and incredible amount of zebra – maybe over 300 in fantastic condition and in their various little herds which ranged from 5 to 12.
It was great to see the herd behaviour where stallions seemed to get along fine as they looked out for their own herd, often including some younger sons too.
We were treated to a real predator scene where two hyenas who had caught a monkey raced out of the bush near the zebras, one chasing the other in an attempt to get the monkey.
The zebra stallion was alerted firstly by the cries of the other monkeys then when the hyenas became visible, stood his ground between the hyenas and his herd, at one stage charging at them when they came too close.
The hyena were fully aware of the damage a zebra can inflict with his teeth and hooves so retreated, looking over their shoulders.

We saw many more African animals including almost all of the ‘big five’ – lion, rhino, buffalo, elephant and instead of a leopard we saw three cheetah with one of them giving chase to a herd of impala.
The families of Baboon were fun to watch, as were the vervet monkeys while the hippo and crocodiles didn’t move much as they sun baked and swam.
There were many beautiful birds from small iridescent starlings that hung around all the cafes and lunch tables, to the huge long legged storks with their black and white bodies and red beaks.
As we left, with the sun going down, we were treated to close up sightings of majestic giraffe and elephants feeding on the long reeds and trees by the road. What a fabulous day.

DAY 9: When thick smoke filled our valley the next morning we realised how lucky we were to have seen the park on a clear day. We then heard that the fire was in the Kruger park, most likely caused by a lightning strike during the two thunder storms we had that night.
I hope the animals were able to get to safety in the river and on the already burnt ground from previous fires.
The training session with Gilbert advanced his hoof handling to where he could have both front feet picked up by hand and cleaned out with the hoof pick.
After lifting the hinds with the rope again, he allowed and seemed to enjoy me scratching his back legs and holding them for a short time.
Carin and Ros then led a little walk down to the arena and back, just in time for the afternoon feeding which doesn’t include Gilbert as he’s already quite fat.
I amused him with a good grooming while the horses ate then once I’d finished that, I tried to pick up his feet again. He wasn’t too cooperative and after trying to pull away once which was my first warning, he kicked out, just missing me when I tried again.
I went back to using the rope, watching his teeth as he indicated that he wasn’t too keen, but he finally accepted the leg up and we finished on a good note again.

Gilbert’s un-trimmed hoof.

DAY 10: Our next session went much more positively, starting with a good grooming for Gilbert while Carin saddled up Ros then I picked up all 4 feet, again using the rope first as he seems to find this less threatening. He allowed me to clean out his front feet which were packed with mud after our night of rain.
Then we walked to the arena with Ros for Carin’s lesson during which I turned Gilbert loose and he just stayed nearby, happily grazing.
At the end of the lesson I caught him again with no fuss and followed Carin and Ros on a little ride through the mangos back to the house. Just like a horse, he wasn’t too keen to head away from home but happily trotted towards home.
While Ros was being un-saddled, I once again picked up Gilbert’s feet and this time he was so relaxed I cleaned out the back feet for the first time. We’re making good progress.

Gilbert’s long hooves prior to trimming.

DAY 11: Taking photos of Gilbert’s hooves was the next mission which also extended his ability to hold his feet up for longer in preparation for trimming.
Apart from initially pulling away which is still his first reaction, he was very good and picked up all 4 feet in a relaxed manner. We’ve been rewarding him with small pieces of carrot or pellets which he was initially over enthusiastic about, opening his mouth much wider than necessary and diving in so I really need to watch my hand.
Maybe this is a zebra characteristic – a response to not knowing about taking food from the hand and sometimes, its better to put it on the ground. After a few hand feeds though, he was able to gently take the treat in his lips just like a horse. I’ve also noticed that when he uses his mouth to tell me he’s bothered by something, he also opens it wide but so far has not attempted to bite me.

After the trim.

At last he seemed ready to be trimmed which we did in the cool of the afternoon which unfortunately, is also the grazing time for the herd so we had allow Gilbert some slack and let him eat during the trim. Its called making a compromise – he puts up with me rasping his foot while interrupting his meal and I put up with him needing to put his foot down often as he moved around to munch.

I trimmed one front foot, which he coped with very nicely and successfully picked up all four again so left the session at that.

DAY 12: The following morning we needed to film the going for a walk footage so decided to trim the other front foot beforehand. Gilbert was once again grazing but left the herd to trot over and see us. Once again he coped nicely with cleaning out all four feet and the trim, only needing to move when he became surrounded by people and cameras, all trying to get the close up shots and different angles film making requires.
Once he realised we were going down the drive, Gilbert enthusiastically led the way to the gate and happily squeezed through the small opening after Ros.
We walked a short way along the canal to find some nice green grass under the shady mango trees to munch on, much to the delight of Gilbert and Ros.
After 30 minutes of heads down grass mowing, they got a bit restless so we headed back home. Little Betsy, the daschound with the broken leg was tiring so we put her up on Gilbert for the 100m of driveway. He didn’t bat an eyelid as he dutifully carried his little passenger who relaxed with the swaying movement of her striped transport.

Trusting me to trim his hinds.

DAY 13: Finding the right time to trim Gilbert meant keeping track of when the horses were hanging out in the shade, doing nothing much. This was usually in the morning and afternoon shortly after being fed although it depended on the flies as to whether it was comfortable for any of them to cope with more annoyance from humans.
Fortunately, the morning of the last day it was cool and Gilbert was happy to stand for more trimming. I finished off the underside of the front feet and even managed to do most of the back feet with nothing more than a warning swish of the tail from my little stripey friend.
It really showed that these animals will not be bossed around and working with rather than against them is the only way to get cooperation.
Just to prove the above theory was right, I went out in the afternoon when the herd was hanging out near the shed, waiting for dinner. I dressed Fritz’s leg wound without too much trouble even though the flies were bothering him quite a bit.
Then I approached Gilbert with the idea of finishing off his hind feet but I was soon discouraged by a very active swatting zebra tail. I didn’t get past reaching down for the foot as his tail was batting me so hard (I think he was aiming at the flies) that I couldn’t stay there long enough to ask him to lift the leg.
Lesson learned – don’t pester the equines when the flies already are.

Did you know zebras have a belly stripe and every zebra has a unique pattern on each side of the body?

DAY 14: So, the morning we were leaving, I tracked down the grazing herd and managed to persuade Gilbert that I could trim while he grazed. It took a bit longer than if he was standing still but he happily lifted his back feet for short periods – just long enough to finish the roll on the hoof walls.
Sadly, I then said my good bye’s and choking back tears, headed back to the house to put my bags in the car.
I sure will miss the little stripey fella who boldly comes up for a cuddle and is taking to the training incredibly well for a supposedly ‘difficult’ equine.

Gilbert always has the last laugh.


The End!


2 thoughts on “Zebra Training”

  1. Jackie

    we downsized to a farm area and right down the road there are zebras, when they are at the fence I go up to them but they want no part of me,so I was very interested to know more about them and reading this I understand now…..they look at me then walk away…..still a gift to have them down the road, peace, Jackie

    1. Cynthia

      How lovely that you can see them regularly – I bet they’d be more interested if you sat beside their fence for some time, reading a book and minding your own business!

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