What are the Differences Between Zebras and Horses?
Zebras and horses share many of the same physical and behavioral attributes, and you may have even seen pictures and videos of the two living together in sanctuaries. Zebras and horses are both equines, but does that mean they are the same species? What exactly do these animals have in common, and how are they different?
Are zebras different than horses? Zebras and horses are both of the genus Equus, but they are completely different species. While they share many similarities, there are key differences in appearance, build, speed, diet, and even in the sounds that they make to alert one another to danger.
Can zebras be ridden? Can you own them as pets? Just how similar are they to horses? Keep reading as I explain the important distinctions between these two fascinating species in detail!
Zebras vs Horses: Different Species
Animal classification is all very scientific, with the order of classification as follows:
Do you know what phylum zebras fall into? How about humans? Neither do I, but what I can tell you is that zebras and horses share the same classifications all the way through number eight. Both zebras and horses are of the genus Equus. After this, they finally go their separate ways.
All horses, from Shetland ponies to Clydesdales, are of the species Equus ferus. This species includes both the domesticated horse and the truly wild horse. The domestic horse is specifically the subspecies Equus caballus.
There are three species of zebra. They are Equus grevyi (the Grevy’s zebra), Equus quagga (the plains zebra), and Equus zebra (the mountain zebra). They all live on the African continent, with the three species differing in region, size, and coat pattern.
Can You Own and Ride Zebras?
If the zebra is so close to the horse, you may be wondering if you can own and ride zebras just like you would a horse. In most states in the USA, you can legally own a zebra; however, that does not mean it’s a smart idea to buy one. Firstly, zebras are extremely rare in America, and it would be difficult to find one for sale. If you can find one, they average around $7,000-$20,000.
Secondly, zebras have not been domesticated for thousands of years like horses; they are very much still wild animals. This attribute would make it harder to train them or find professionals like a vet or a farrier to care for them. Even containing them in a field may be more tricky, as they may try to escape.
My conclusion is if you want to add an exotic animal to your farm, you may have better luck getting a camel or a llama.
Zebras vs Horses: Coat Pattern
Of course, the greatest distinction between these two species is their coats. After years of selective breeding, horses come in all sorts of different colors and patterns, from black to white, solid to spotted, and everything in between. Zebras come in one pattern: black and white stripes.
This pattern varies slightly depending on the species. The Grevy’s zebra has narrow stripes with a white belly, a white tail base, and white around the muzzle. The plains zebra has very broad stripes that are horizontal at the rump; northern populations have more extensive striping, while southern populations have white legs and bellies.
Finally, the mountain zebra has stripes of a width somewhere between the other two species, which connect to a dorsal stripe; the rump has horizontal stripes, their bellies are white, and their muzzle is chestnut. The muzzle of the mountain zebra is the only part of the zebra body that is not black and white, which makes this particular species fairly easy to identify.
Zebras vs Horses: Size and Build
Zebras are smaller and stockier than horses. A horse can stand as tall as 17 hands high (or taller!), while a zebra will stand approximately 10-14 hands high, depending on the species. The Grevy’s zebra is the largest of the three species, while the plains zebra is the smallest. As would be expected, zebras also weigh less; a draft horse can weigh more than 2,000 pounds, while a zebra will weigh 400-900 pounds. When comparing zebras and horses, you may say that a zebra more closely resembles a small-medium pony.
Zebras vs Horses: Speed
Considering the height difference, it should come as no surprise that some horse breeds can outrun any zebra. The Quarter horse has been clocked at a top speed of 54 mph, while the top speed of a zebra has been estimated at 38-40 mph. While this would be a significant difference if the two were racing, even 38 mph is still very fast! Zebras are also remarkably agile, able to switch direction at high speeds to evade predators.
Zebras vs Horses: Manes and Tails
Both the manes and tails of these two animals are also strikingly different. We are all familiar with the flowing manes and tails of the domestic horse. A common misconception about a horse’s tail is that it consists of multiple long hairs that begin at the rump. If you feel a horse’s tail, however, you will realize there is a tailbone that extends well past the rump of the horse – similar to the fluffy tail of a dog. The individual hairs come from the length of this tailbone.
Zebras have that same tailbone, but there are no individual hairs that extend the length. A zebra’s tail is more similar in appearance to that of a donkey: a long tail with a covering of fur, with a tuft or hair at the very bottom.
The zebra also does not boast the long, flowing mane of the horse. Instead, the zebra has a short, erect mane, similar to that of the wild Przewalski’s horse. The zebra also does not have a forelock: the “bangs” that cover the forehead of a horse.
Zebras vs Horses: Sounds
Zebras and horses share many of the same sounds. For example, you will recognize the snort of a zebra as the same sound a horse makes. The difference is in their calls to one another; horses let out a whinny also called a “neigh” to both alert their fellow herd members of a potential threat and also to locate one another. The zebra does not whinny, but rather lets out a high-pitched bark to communicate with its herd mates. This sound is similar to the sound a wild dog makes when communicating with members of its pack.
Zebras vs Horses: Diet
Zebras and horses are both herbivores, but horses have a somewhat more restricted diet. Both can eat grass and grains, but zebras are happy to eat shrubs and twigs when they are short on grass. In this sense zebras are both browsers and grazers, while horses are more strictly grazers.
Zebras vs Horses: Lifespan
These two animals also differ when it comes to lifespans. While both can live a remarkably long time, you may be surprised to hear that zebras live longer than horses. In the wild, a zebra will live an average of 20-25 years, but in captivity will live up to 40 years. While 40 years is not unheard of among horses (I know a hardy chestnut gelding who will be celebrating his 40th birthday this year), it is certainly not the average. On average, a domesticated horse will live about 30 years, while in the wild a horse will live closer to 15 years.
Can Zebras And Horses Breed?
Zebras and horses are not all different, and one of the ways they are similar is in their reproductive abilities. Zebras and horses can breed; the offspring of a zebra stallion and a horse mare is called a “zorse.” The offspring of a horse stallion and a zebra mare is called a “hebra.” As is the case when a donkey and a horse mate, the resulting offspring is not able to reproduce itself. Zorses and hebras, like mules, are sterile.
Perhaps you had never heard of zorses and hebras, but you were very familiar with mules. There are so many more mules in the world than zebra/horse crosses. Both horses and donkeys have been domesticated for thousands of years, and the value of their offspring has been known for almost as long. Mules are strong and level-headed when compared to their two parents and serve several valuable purposes on the farm.
Zebras have never been domesticated. They are completely wild and therefore do not get many opportunities to meet a horse, let alone get to know one well enough to mate. Most cases of zorses and hebras have occurred in captivity. Of course, captive zebras are most often living in zoos, where they are in a strictly controlled environment, and no horses are sneaking in.
The Many Differences Between Zebras And Horses
Reading through this post, you may think zebras and horses could hardly be more different. In truth, though, they share more similarities than they do differences. Zebras and horses are both equines, and it shows – if you were to swap the coat of a zebra with a bay or a chestnut coat, you may think you were looking at a donkey or a pony at first glance.
Zebras and horses share similar herd behaviors – when in the wild, both animals live within a herd that is generally led by a single stallion. They have similar lengths of gestation, and their foals are born fully developed and able to walk shortly after birth. It’s no wonder these two species can live together in harmony when in captivity. If you love horses, you probably also have an affinity for zebras. While there are many similarities between the two, the differences are fascinating and fun to learn.
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