insist people ‘earn their stripes’
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
trusts Benny, the vet who raised him.
Diary of training and filming
GILBERT THE ZEBRA by Cynthia Cooper
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Our focus was on the horses as they needed their annual African Horse
Sickness injections and I wanted to trim Ros’ feet before riding
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Kabonki he too could be a jockey for Racing Stripes! Gilbert doesn't
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
The hyena were fully aware of the damage a zebra can inflict with
his teeth and hooves so retreated, looking over their shoulders.
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
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.
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.
Taking photos of Gilbert’s hooves was the next mission which
also extended his ability to hold his feet up for longer in preparation
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
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.
Photos: Top - front
hooves before the trim and bottom - after trimming.
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
Once he realised we were going down the drive, Gilbert enthusiastically
led the way to the gate and happily squeezed through the small opening
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
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.
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
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
you know zebras have a belly stripe and every zebra has a unique pattern
on each side of the body?
why zebras have stripes.
always has the last laugh.