Zebras have too many characteristics that make them poor candidates for domestication.
Zebras are in the genus Equus, the same genus as horses and donkeys. There are three species of zebras, which roam wild in grasslands, woodlands, and mountainous areas of southern Africa. Given that their Equus cousins (horses & donkeys) have been domesticated, it is logical to think that zebras could also be similarly domesticated. However, zebras have some characteristics that make them poor candidates for domestication.
Domestication of a wild species has to be worth the effort (is the juice worth the squeeze?). If the costs are too great then there’s little point in doing it.
Some of the keys to domestication are:
• Diet – Is their food inexpensive? are they picky eaters?
• Growth rate – Will they grow big quickly?
• Reproduction – Will they reproduce in captivity?
• Social hierarchy – Do they naturally form a chain of command? Will they take orders from a human?
• Fight or flight response – When spooked what do they do?
• Temperament – How nice are they in general?
As it turns out, zebras are not the most happy-go-lucky animals.
Horses and donkeys came from Eurasia which had relatively few apex predators and so these animals tend to be fairly docile. Zebras however were/are surrounded by lions and other very dangerous predators. As such zebras adapted to survive by any means necessary. This survival instinct means that sometimes a zebra will flee from a threat, but it also means that they’re ready to fight. They can kick so hard they’re able to break a lion’s jaw. Zebras are not flashy looking donkeys – they bite, they kick, and they tend to see humans as a threat. All of this adds up to why zebras have not been domesticated. They aren’t people-friendly, they don’t want to be managed, and they don’t want to do your work.
Attempts have been made
This is not to say people haven’t tried. As white settlers of Africa encountered zebras they frequently wondered why the local people had’t already domesticate them. It certainly would have made matters easier for the colonizers since zebras were already resistant to tsetse flies, they wouldn’t have to import horses, etc. The Dutch Boers tried but quickly learned that zebras didn’t want to be domesticated.
Sometimes you see a few zebras that have been tamed, but a few tame zebras isn’t the same as domesticating the species. Baron Lionel Walter de Rothschild of Victorian England had a carriage drawn by four tamed zebras that he would ride through London. He wanted to show that zebras could be tamed, but given that we never saw many other carriages pulled by zebras, he may have proved the opposite.
In general, zebras do not respond well to attempts at domestication — they don’t have the temperament and at this point there is no need.
Added info: While the domestication of zebras has never worked, the crossbreeding of them has. Some zebra hybrids include: Zorse (horse + zebra) and Zonkey (donkey + zebra).