New Zealand’s wild Kaimanawa horses

Kaimanawa horses on the ranges.
Kaimanawa horses on the ranges. © Kaimanawa Heritage Horses / Suezette Shaw

New Zealand’s only true Wild Horses have grazed the rugged Kaimanawa Ranges south of Lake Taupo for more than 100 years, but now their future existence is threatened by the Army and the Department of Conservation.

The first recorded horse in the Central North Island was presented to the son of Te Heu Heu Tukino by Tamati Waka Nene of Hokianga in 1844, 30 years after horses were introduced to New Zealand in the Bay of Islands by the Rev. Samuel Marsden. Horse trading increased and by 1876 there were wild horses in the Kaimanawa Ranges.

Between 1858 and 1875, Major George Carlyon imported Exmoor ponies from England and crossed them with local horses to produce a breed called the Carlyon, and during the 1870s some of these were released into the Ranges, and the distinctive ancestry of the Exmoor ponies (mealie muzzles and underbellies) is evident in many of the Kaimanawa Wild Horses today.

Surplus Army Horses were also released into the Ranges during the first half of the 20th century.

By the 1970s the Wild Horse population had been decimated by amateur hunters, pet food suppliers, Rodeo outfitters and others, to the extent that in 1981 the Kaimanawa Wild Horses were finally granted Protected Status under the Wildlife Act and listed by the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations as a special herd of genetic value.

Kaimanawa horses on the range.
Kaimanawa horses on the range. Photo: Kaimanawa Heritage Horses Society

The horses flourished despite their harsh environment, but their indomitable spirit was to prove their undoing.

By the early 90s they were said to be inconveniencing the Army, on whose Training Ranges they graze, and threatening the survival of certain endangered plants in the area.

The Department of Conservation’s management Plan for the Wild Horses was adopted by Parliament in May 1996, and the horses’ Protected Status was lifted. All horses have now been removed from the “ecologically fragile” Northern Ranges, and the herd size in the Southern Ranges has been drastically reduced “to protect the environment”, which can apparently withstand damage from army tanks and vehicles, and from other grazing animals, but not from horses.

In August 1996 in view of overwhelming public opposition and a pending election, the Prime Minister reversed the Governments decision to cull the horses by shooting.

Instead, there was a muster of around 1000 horses in May-June 1997 and a second smaller muster in June 1998, to reduce the horse population to the Government Approved figure of 500, as quoted by the 1996 Management Plan. A further muster is planned this year, as the Department of Conservation’s recent Census puts the Wild Horse population at 622.

ILPH has requested details from Dr Nick Smith, the Minister of Conservation, of the precise location of the horses counted — to ensure they are on DoC land, not private adjacent Maori land blocks and therefore immune from persecution — and of the demographic mix of the family groups counted.

If the population falls below 500, or if the number of horses in the Wild does not include enough mares of breeding age, the Kaimanawa Wild Horse could become extinct in the wild. The horses left in the Kaimanawa Ranges have No Protected Status, meaning that they are at the mercy of the DoC and the Army.

But maybe they are still the lucky ones: they are still free and can go in search of food.

Some of the Kaimanawa Wild Horses in captivity have not been so lucky. Sixteen of them starved to death in June 1998 on a Central Plateau Farm, waiting for Massey University to carry out immuno-contraception trials. There was an ownership dispute between the University, the grazier and DoC, and no-one took responsibility for feeding hay to the horses. The Ministry of Agriculture (MAF) held an enquiry into the tragedy but decided in December 1998 that there was not enough clear evidence of criminal liability for prosecution. So once again the horses are the losers.

Of the 1100 or more horses removed from the ranges in 1997 and 1998, at least 500 are known to have gone for slaughter, and some are known to have died. The survivors are at private properties all around New Zealand.

Some are being kept in a semi-wild state by members of the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Preservation Society and other Breed Preservation Groups. Some have been broken to saddle and have become riding horses, performing well in competitions.

The ILPH-Approved Wai Valley Kaimanawa Horse Training Centre, near Raglan, set up in 1997 specifically to handle Wild Horses on behalf of new owners, has trained 70 Wild Horses, many of which are now being ridden by their owners, with good success in competitions. ILPH is running a Sponsorship Scheme for three “Special Needs” Kaimanawa Horses from Wai Valley – horses with old injuries that could never be sold as show ponies.

One of these, a young mare named Kaimanawa Pinta, only recently halter-broken, came to the ILPH Office in March 1999 to join the ILPH Pony Parade in honour of HRH The Princess Royal. It was Pinta’s first outing in public and she behaved perfectly, in spite of lots of people and cameras. Pinta’s Wai Valley colleague Kaimanawa Sophie was paraded under saddle and enjoyed strutting her stuff for the Princess. This proves how adaptable these little horses are, and everyone who owns one has stories to tell of their curiosity, eagerness to learn and, despite all odds, readiness to trust.

The future may look secure for some of the Kaimanawa Horses in captivity, especially the ones that have been saddle-broken, but the semi-wild herds in private hands are an ongoing worry, as financial difficulties, land and grazing disputes can flare up at any time, and the horses are continually at risk.

As for the horses remaining in the wild, the future looks bleak indeed. Caught between the interests of DoC and the Army means that the wild horses are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Waitangi Treaty Claim by local Maori Iwi, that the Kaimanawa Horses should be protected as “Taonga” (Natural Treasure) is yet to be considered by the Waitangi Tribunal.

The newly established Official Wild Horse Management Advisory Group appears to have little or no authority to protect the interests of the horses, so once again it is left to the independent pressure groups to speak up for these special horses that have become a much-valued symbol of the declining free spirit of New Zealand.

A joint approach has been made to the Prime Minister by ILPH, the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Preservation Society, the Auckland and Wellington Branches of the SPCA, Save Animals from Exploitation (SAFE) and the Franz Weber Foundation of Switzerland.

Under the banner of the Kaimanawa Consortium we have called upon the Prime Minister to delay further culling until such time as the results of Massey University Research into the Wild Horse Population Growth Rate have been published and assessed, and the demographic mix of the existing population has been established.

We have also appealed to the Prime Minister to recognise the “Taonga” (Natural Treasure) status of New Zealand’s Kaimanawa Wild Horses and to grant them a Sanctuary in a non-ecologically fragile area of the Kaimanawa Ranges, where selective herd management can take the place of draconian culling.

A Wild Horse Sanctuary for the New Millennium would pay tribute to the role played by the horse in the historic settlement of this country, and would offer exciting possibilities for Iwi-managed Eco-tourism enterprise, cf Kaikoura Whale Watching, as well as further Scientific research into this unique breed of horse, which has adapted so admirably to its harsh habitat.

It would also protect the Kaimanawa Wild Horse from the fate of the Enderby Island cow. The last of these unique sea-weed eating cows was rescued by the Rare Breeds Society from extermination by the Department of Conservation, subsequently recognised as being genetically unique and this year cloned at enormous expense by the Ministry of Agriculture. So much has been lost to this planet by man’s incompetent stewardship. The Kaimanawa Wild Horses need our help now, before it is too late.

You can help by writing to your MP, and writing, faxing or emailing the Minister of Conservation.

Marilyn Bright

Writing for the Kaimanawa Consortium, Marilyn Bright is the administrator for the International League for the Protection of Horses (New Zealand).

One thought on “New Zealand’s wild Kaimanawa horses

  • January 2, 2021 at 9:03 pm

    Such a tragic story and thoughtless treatment of this special group of horses! Sure hope their situation improves in the coming year. Very enlightening article. … No wonder it was so hard for me to get access to see them when I was there in 2019!


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