April 6, 2017
Timianne Sebright, four months pregnant, held a gate with one hand and a 500-pound zebra with the other and asked if I was ready to take over.
Good question. “Can we go through this again?” I said.
The problem was backup, of which we had none. Timianne had just returned from her first ultrasound (it’s a girl!), so I couldn’t expect her to jump in if things got hectic. That meant if I messed up, a quarter-ton of a kicking, biting African equine could soon be thundering down the road toward the Michigan interstate.
Timianne has been raising zebras since high school, and I’d come to see her after a truly awful idea led to a pretty good one. It began when my family and I adopted an ailing donkey and I discovered we’d not only have to nurse his body, but his mind back to health: Sherman needed something to do. Maybe we could run a marathon together? When the guys at our local feed store heard my plan, they knew exactly what I needed:
Yes, I know how it sounds now, but follow the logic, and you’ll see why back then it seemed brilliant. Zebras are natural runners, hair-triggered to gallop off when they smell trouble. Donkeys are the opposite; they freeze when they sense something’s amiss, which could be why I was struggling to get Sherman down the driveway. The solution, according to the feed-store caucus, was to team Sherman up with a zebra — and they knew just where to find one. Two of the guys dug phones out of their pockets to show me photos; they’d spotted a zebra at a farm on the far side of the county. How much could a zebra cost if a frugal Amish family had one as a pet?
Intrigued, I went online and found “Rarity Acres,” the Michigan farm where Timianne not only breeds zebras but also “zorses” (half horse, half zebra) and “zonkeys” (half donkey, half zebra). Yes, Timianne told me by phone, she had a zebra for sale; but nope, I couldn’t have it. Timianne is very selective about her customers; if you want one of her animals, you’d better produce plenty of photos of an appropriate barn, fence, pasture and even household pets, and be prepared for some hard-eyed Facebook stalking. Timianne rescued her first zebra from a vicious owner and she’s determined never to expose any of her herd to risk.
But she had to admit the feed store guys were on to something. “Zebras and donkeys are very social,” she explained when I came to visit. “It’s gotten so that when our donkeys see me flick a light on in the house, they call for me to come out. But as much as they learn from you, they learn even more from the herd. They’re great at teaching each other how to behave.”
So if the animals are coaching themselves, how does Timianne get them to follow her commands? By handling every animal, every day, from the moment they’re born. Timianne keeps monitors in all the stalls so within minutes of a birth, she’s there to stroke the new foal. She doesn’t bottle-feed the newborns or treat them like “fur babies” (a term that makes her grind her teeth). She just makes a connection.
“You let them know you’re different, but they can trust you,” she said. “Then you establish boundaries that you both respect.” Take Rarity; once Timianne sensed the zebra didn’t enjoy being ridden, she hung up his saddle for good. In return, Rarity is a cooperative breeder and easy to handle. Today, he ambles straight toward us as soon as he spots Timianne. She takes his big striped head in her hands and gives it a smooch.
“Yup, you’re a big dork,” she told him. They’ve been together for 13 years, ever since Timianne was a horse-obsessed teenager who raised money to buy him by mucking stalls after school. She persuaded her mother to drive her to North Carolina to pick him up, and was horrified to find Rarity’s owner beating him with a rope. When Timianne got him home, she turned the traumatized zebra loose in a pasture and let him be, while she sat quietly in the grass as he eyed her.
“It takes three months to train a horse,” she said. “It took three years to train him.”
But her hands-off approach led her to a revelation: Sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing at all.
Down in Texas, Sammi Jo Stohler — a dressage trainer who turned one of her zebras into a show jumper — was developing a similar philosophy she calls “downtime training.” Why, she wondered, did horse clients who knew nothing about animals sometimes have better luck than experienced riders?
“You’ll see a first-timer develop an amazing relationship, while people who know more can turn their animal into a big hot mess,” said Sammi Jo, who has also trained badgers, a pelican and a water buffalo. The secret, she believes, is watching your animal and learning how it communicates.
“When your horse can tell you with a glance that she has an itchy right stifle (a hard-to-reach spot on a horse’s upper leg) it’s just — wow! So exhilarating. Better than competition.” It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a Mennonite neighbor. When I asked how he’d raised six children into happy, hard-working adults, he replied, “Dinner. We have dinner together every night.” Not church, not chores — downtime.
Back at Timianne’s, it was time to try my hand at taking Ziana, her 11-year-old zebra mare, for a walk. “Zebras are more powerful and athletic than horses, so if she wants to get away, there’s no stopping her,” Timianne warned me. “All she has to do is turn her neck and she’ll rip that rope right out of your hands. But —” she looked me in the eyes to make sure I was getting it. “You can’t be fearful. They will test you.”
As Timianne handed me the lead rope, Ziana shook her mane and squeaked out a bray that sounded half donkey, half porpoise. She was more nervous than I was, and that gave me an idea. I waited, watching, until Ziana stamped her foot like she was tired of standing around. That’s when we moved off, calmly and easily.
“Now you’re catching on,” Timianne said.
I was dying to take Ziana home, but since I couldn’t pass the Timianne Test, I’d have to be grateful for what she gave me instead. I couldn’t wait to get back to Sherman and just … watch.