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Saddle up! The future rides on a zorse

Born to run: A cross between a horse and a zebra may revolutionise equine pursuits

He has a slate brown coat fit for any horse, and stripes a zebra would be proud of. This is the zorse, the latest product of cross-equine breeding and "the horse of the future" according to his owner.

The six-month-old foal, named White Cloud, is the offspring of a Grant's zebra and a mare who was artificially inseminated in California, as part of the experimental breeding programme.

Diane Richards, who breeds horses in Big Bear City, hopes White Cloud will combine the best attributes of both animals. The horse is placid and receptive to training, while the zebra is known for its strength and endurance.

"The possibilities are endless. If you breed zebras with a thoroughbred they'll be jumping and running, and with Quarter horses they can be used for cutting and leisure riding," Miss Richards said. "A breeder with 28 Arabian racehorses wants to get some of these on the race circuit."

While zebras have been successfully crossed with ponies and donkeys in the past to produce "zonies" and "zebroids" it is unusual to cross one with a horse, which is significantly larger.

This makes zorse breeding a delicate process. The animals would not mate naturally because of the difference in size.

The hybrid zorse is also infertile, because horses and zebras belong to the same genus, equus, which dates back 58 million years, but are different species and have a different number of chromosomes.

Although there have been rare cases of mules, a cross between a donkey and a horse, naturally producing offspring in China and Brazil, the zorse would always be dependent on artificial help to breed.

There is also concern that the different temperaments of the two animals will not complement each other. The horse was domesticated 6,000 years ago, while the zebra still runs wild and is aggressive.

"It's the same sort of relationship between a jackal and a wolf, and this kind of inter-breeding happens naturally in wildlife parks in Africa between zebras and donkeys," said Dr Juliet Clutton-Brock of the Natural History Museum.

"But you can't really domesticate zebras, they would not be dominated by humans. The behaviour patterns are very different and I'm not sure where this exercise would lead you."

The challenge of crossing zebras and horses has fascinated biologists since the last century, and the Victorians pro- duced a series of crossbreeds.

The most famous work was conducted by Professor Cossar Ewart in the 1890s. He was anxious to solve the problem of telegony, a theory whereby Victorian dog breeders were convinced if their pedigrees mated with mongrels they would be contaminated for ever, even if they were crossed with another pedigree in the future.

More recently academics crossed zebras and horses in Britain for research into why the body does not reject an embryo, even though it consists of material that is foreign to it.

Professor WR Allen, an expert in equine breeding at Cambridge University, is sceptical that Miss Richards' programme will produce a superior horse. "These experiments to see whether the hybrid will show useful characteristics if you cross the two animals are limited," Prof Allen said.

"A zebra is a fat little thing, and it's no more useful in producing a superior racing creature than I am."

There is also concern among the horse racing fraternity at suggestions the zorse could be introduced to the competitive racing world. Experts in Britain are adamant it would not be welcome.

"How very inelegant, poor creature. A thoroughbred is such a graceful animal, and zebras are so beautiful in their own right, why would you want to mix them?" asked a spokesman for the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association.

Since all racing horses are registered in the International Stud Book, a passport to compete, after owners have proved they are descendants of the world's three original thoroughbreds from the Middle East, the zorse may struggle to find any competitors.

According to the British Horse Racing Board, the sports governing body, zorse breeders would have to hold alternative racing events, similar to those run for Arabian horses. "There is no question of these animals being registered, because you simply could not name the mother or father as a zebra," said Simon Clare, executive assistant of the Board. "I certainly don't think we'll be seeing a zorse winning the Gold Cup at Cheltenham this year."