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May 9, 2011

A Horse Of A Different Color, Indeed

Zack proves that zebras can jump too. Photo by Kimberly Hahn-Orlaska.

What’s one way to stand out in the show ring? Wear stripes!

After Zack the zebra kept jumping out of his field, Sammi Jo Stohler figured he might have a knack for having fun over fences. “I had to build an 8' fence around the property because he kept jumping out,” she said. “He can clear 5' without a problem; he just walks up to a fence and ends up on the other side of it. I said, ‘I bet he can do it with a rider,’ and yep, it was no problem.”

Zack took quickly to the fences. “He’s large pony size, but he jumps very easily. The first time I pointed him at it, I just put it really low and showed him this is what we’re doing,” said Stohler. “And he said, ‘Oh yeah, I got that.’ He likes jumping, and going higher was no problem.”

With Zack’s ability, Stohler saw the opportunity to prove that zebras can do many different things. “Everyone always asks ‘Can they jump?’ or ‘Can you do this with them?’ and I always like to see what I can accomplish,” she said.

Stohler grew up riding horses on a ranch in eastern Oregon. She embarked on a career of training horses and gradually expanded to other, more exotic, species.

“As I was training horses, I kept hearing, ‘You can’t train zebras, they’re untrainable.’ I said, ‘Why?’ To say something is untrainable implies that it can’t learn, and we all know that if they couldn’t learn, they’d all be extinct. They have to be able to learn and adapt. Obviously, the burden lies on the trainer to be able to train them,” Stohler said.

She got her first zebra about 10 years ago. “He was a dream to work with, and I’ve been hooked ever since. They’re very intelligent. When you teach them something, you don’t have to do a lot of review,” she said. “You train them something, put them away for a few months, then bring them back out, and it’s exactly as if you didn’t stop. A lot of horses need review over and over again before they’re consistent.”

Stohler has two zebras, Zack and Charlie, on her farm in Willis, Texas, as well as a zorse (a zebra-horse cross) and a zonkey (a zebra-donkey cross). She rides Zack frequently, especially on trail rides, and drives Charlie. Her exotic animal rehabilitation skills have led her to work with birds of prey, antelope, deer, elk, camels and badgers.

Stohler has shown locally, but she prefers to focus on training and working her animals at home. But she does enjoy watching equine competitions. “Last year, I got to go to the Devon Horse Show [Pa.] and just loved it. A good friend of mine introduced me to Devon, and I think I’m kind of addicted!” she said.

Zack, 6, came to Stohler two years ago after a former owner had trouble with him. “Sometimes people get a zebra and then lose interest. A lot of people don’t really know how to handle them, so they run into problems, and rather than trying to fix it, they give up and get rid of the zebra,” she said.

“Originally, I was going to work with him, get him over some of his issues, and then sell him again, but that’s not going to happen. He’s going to stay with me,” she added.

Initially, Zack didn’t want to be around people, especially new people. “He was picky about who he allowed to be around him, and he was worried and vocal about it. But as I’ve been working with him, he’s really come around and decided that people are a lot fun,” said Stohler. “Now, instead of going the other way when I go out to his field with a halter, he comes up to me, and he’s very jealous if I take another animal from the field. If I get on one of my mules or horses, he will follow along behind the whole time.”

According to Stohler, zebras tend to bond strongly with one person. “Sometimes they get so bonded to one person that that one person can do anything with them, but no one else can touch them. It’s common to have happen,” she said.

Although Zack had definitely developed a relationship with Stohler, she’s been conscientious to make sure he’s also comfortable around other people. He’s allowed others to groom him and to ride him.

Stohler is working toward being able to use Zack in clinics and demonstrations, but the show ring isn’t in the plans for the near future.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "A Horse Of A Different Color, Indeed" ran in the May 9, 2011 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.