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Legendary 'zebra whisperer' who tames Queen's horses

By Sheena McKenzie, for CNN
updated 11:12 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
No, your eyes are not playing tricks. That is a girl riding a zebra. No, your eyes are not playing tricks. That is a girl riding a zebra.
Zebra crossing
Magic of the 'horseman'
Strike a pose
A long way from home
Healing hands
Special connection
Four-legged friend
Llama lunge
Royal reception
One is amused
No horsing around
Obstacle course
Historic curiosity
Real deal?
  • Ever thought zebras couldn't be tamed? Think again
  • Gary Witheford has broken four zebras, plus donkeys and llamas
  • Celebrity trainer has worked for Queen, Sheik Mohammed, Wayne Rooney
  • He kept zebras as pets in English countryside, says they behaved like dogs

Editor's note: Winning Post is CNN's monthly horse racing show. Click here for videos and features.

(CNN) -- What started as a night drinking in the pub, turned into a morning riding a wild zebra.

If it sounds like the kind of story generated by one-too-many beers and a vivid imagination, then there's no doubting legendary horse trainer Gary Witheford's photos.

Yep, that's a girl riding a zebra, all right.

Nicky Davies on Mombassa the zebra.
Gary Witheford

While other trainers usually take six to eight weeks to break in a horse, British equine expert Witheford says he can do the job in just 20 minutes, as revealed in his new book "If Horses Could Talk."

Not just horses -- but donkeys, llamas, and a black-and-white striped animal better associated with the African savannah than the English countryside.

"I've done four zebras," says the 54-year-old, who has also broken race horses belonging to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed, and England's national football team captain Wayne Rooney.

Breeding the world's 'smallest' horse
Winning the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe
Training with Avenir Certain

"They said zebras can't be broken, they can't be ridden. But the first one was broken in 40 minutes. And the next one, which was completely wild, was broken and ridden away in 20 minutes."

Wild ride

In his 30 years in the business, Witheford, who prefers to be called a "horseman," says he has never encountered an animal that was not tameable.

And that includes zebras -- the horse's exotic equine cousin, which for centuries has roamed the African plains unsaddled.

Witheford made a boozy boast to that effect while drinking with friends at a local bar one night in 1996.

Little did he realize he was overheard by a woman who worked at nearby Longleat Safari Park in the south of England.

"I can get you a zebra," she said.

True to her word, the following morning Witheford was confronted with two zebras -- one of them so flighty it dashed straight out onto the motorway, where it narrowly escaped oncoming traffic.

These creatures were wild, even by the "horseman's" standards. One kicked him so hard with its hind legs that it split his hand open.

"Zebras are at the bottom of the pecking order," explains Witheford. "The lions and the hyenas are always on their backs.

"So they're sharp -- they have to react to sounds, smell, and sight very quickly or they'll get eaten. They're always on guard."

Meet Mombasa

Nonetheless Witheford set to work on the first zebra, called Mombasa, much like he would any other horse -- though rather than bending down to attach the saddle, he kept his distance by using a type of pulley system.

He allowed Mombasa to race and rear around the pen until the three-year-old colt tired himself out to the point of compliance.

When it comes to the details of Witheford's taming technique however, the fast-talking trainer makes it sound so simple.

I just go into the pen, put a saddle on it, let it have a little buck and a rear, and then within two minutes it wants to come back to you
Gary Witheford

"I just go into the pen, put a saddle on it, let it have a little buck and a rear, and then within two minutes it wants to come back to you," says the grandfather-of-three, speaking by phone from his stables in Wiltshire, in the south of England.

"It's about reading the animal -- understanding it by the way it licks and chews, its ears and eye contact, how the body language is working.

"Once it starts to trust you, it does what you ask it to do."

Peculiar pet

Once Mombasa was settled, a small jockey was needed for the zebra, which stood just 12 hands high.

Schoolgirl and keen rider Nicky Davies was enlisted for the task, and within 30 minutes was happily trotting the animal around the pen, much to everyone's amazement.

Three more zebras followed Mombasa, eventually living on Witheford's farm as among the most unusual pets the English countryside had ever seen.

Mombassa was a striking sight in the English countryside .
Gary Witheford

"You'd call Mombasa and he'd come galloping over, braying like he does," Witheford says.

"He was like my dog, he was so friendly."

Healing horses

Could Witheford's magic touch come from a deeper, spiritual connection, given the issues of childhood trauma that he reveals in his book?

"I threw myself into horses, and I learned to stay away from people -- people hurt you, horses don't," says Witheford.

"I think they understood that I might have come from a broken family -- they see the innocence in me, and I see the innocence in them."

They see the innocence in me, and I see the innocence in them
Gary Witheford

Today, the celebrity trainer "breaks in" anywhere between 600 and 800 horses a year -- not that he sees it that way.

"Break is a bad word," says Witheford. "You don't want to break the horse. If you went to school for the first day in your life, and you got knocked about and frightened, you wouldn't want to go back the second day.

"It's more about starting something new. 'Start' is a nicer word I think."

A new start, not just for the horses -- but for the legendary "horseman" himself.

Read: Horse yoga? Yes, it's a real thing

Learn: Thoroughbred therapy on Cape Town coast

See: Inside the world's 'Tee Pee Capital'

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