ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — This past summer, among the meadow of overgrown dandelions, emerged the bold, black and white stripes and the sweeping, black-tufted tail of a zebra.
The animal, named Joey, was living in Franklin County. He belongs to Shea Inman, 18, who bought him about three years ago from a farm in Texas.
"After seeing the movie 'Racing Stripes,' and the phenomenon of riding a zebra, it absolutely inspired me," Shea, a Franklin County High School graduate, said. "So, I thought to myself, are zebras even possible to own? I looked it up on Google, checked my funds, and it turned out I could afford one. So, I talked to my mother and I convinced her to let me give it a go. So we did."
According to a state veterinarian with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, zebras are not considered exotic animals. Rather, the state considers them horses, so no special documentation or permit is required to keep them.
The idea also wasn't that unusual for Shea, who was well known in the community for buying, selling and training horses. She was involved with the Franklin County High School equine class and hosted trail-riding events on her farm.
Shea lived with her mother, Carolyn "Bunny" Inman, a certified registered nurse anesthetist, at Snow Creek Ranch before going to Virginia Tech this fall.
When Shea was 10 years old, she moved to Franklin County from Columbus, Ga., with her parents and her youngest sister India. Shea started English riding lessons at age 8 and in the summers, the family would vacation at Southern Cross Ranch in Georgia, "which is like a B&B for riders," said Inman. "Shea started buying rescue horses. She was kind of a horse whisperer. She could bond with horses that would run away from other people.
"She wanted more of a challenge," Inman continued. "After seeing the movie 'Racing Stripes'" — a 2005 film about an abandoned zebra who has a dream of racing with thoroughbreds — "and doing all her research and talking to the people in Texas about their zebras, I agreed we'd get one."
In her freshman year of high school, Shea and her mother drove to Willis, Texas, outside of Houston, to pick up Joey (named after the Joey Tribbiani character of television's "Friends"). Shea said she and her mother split his $10,000 cost. But as a broke (trained) zebra, Joey could fetch up to $25,000.
Shea intended to train Joey to be a trail zebra so she could trail-ride him. But despite more than two years of training, Joey can manage only short rides. Shea said the process of breaking Joey has been more difficult than it has with any horse.
"I did know what I was getting into, but nothing prepares you for actually doing it yourself," she said.
According to Shea, zebras have short attention spans, and are not as good as retaining information as horses. She said that she uses a lot of treats to train Joey, such as rubbing peanut butter on the bit to help Joey take it easier.
She rides him bareback, and on a day last fall, she led him by the reins to a dirt riding ring.
She slid her right leg over his back and gently mounted him. Her legs hung low beneath his round belly. Joey measures 13.2 hands, or about 4 feet, 6 inches tall. Shea is 5-foot-7.
"Some days it's like he's been riding for 30 years and other days he acts like he's never seen a human being," she said. "In that sense, it makes it really difficult to work with him. You have to know him really well and read him very well. It's made me a lot more intuitive. We've run into some challenges together."
One of Joey's pasture mates neighed at him from behind a nearby fence. Joey was not affected and did a reverse turn at Shea's command. She patted him on the side, saying "Good boy, good boy."
The session lasted only about 10 minutes. Shea rode Joey out of the ring into the meadow. Joey got frisky as the horses continued to neigh and started bucking, but she remained in control, settling him.
Shea dismounted. Proud of Joey, she kissed him between the eyes on the forehead. His reward for a good job was a flavored ice pop.
Because zebras can be stubborn, Shea has learned to work with Joey until he does what she asks of him. Once he has followed instructions, they are done for the day.
"You always want to end on a good note. Some days that will mean two hours, others five minutes," she said. She generally worked with him every other day to keep him in the groove.
It doesn't always go smoothly. She described her first time out with Joey for a trail ride. "He left a scar on my hand after taking off with a 90 degree turn into the woods where he tried to jump over something he wasn't expecting."
On Dec. 30, Joey left Franklin County. Shea's mother, while going through a divorce, moved to Charlottesville for a job at the University of Virginia's hospital.
Joey is sharing a pasture there with horses on the sheep farm where Shea's mother is renting a log cabin.
"We've done a lot of interesting things along the way," Shea said. "I've taken him to High School FFA (Future Farmers of America) events a few times. He loves people, he's very confident and not shy, he comes right up to you and he just loves attention."
She said she plans to visit Joey often. And, eventually, she will sell Joey now that he's broke. She has an interested party in California.
"If we get the right price, we'll sell him," Inman said. "Shea's busy with school and all I do is pet him and feed him treats."
The last trail ride Shea took with Joey, he took off in a canter.
"I'm used to cantering horses. But, this was unlike anything I've ever experienced. Being that close to the ground, it felt like I was flying, like gliding right across the ground. I was not the least bit scared or afraid that he was going to take off or bolt. He seemed to be perfectly at ease. We were completely one. It was incredible."
Staff writer Chase Purdy contributed to this report.