by Rebecca Glover. — Wild horses galloping through wild country, manes and tails flying as they bound through the tussock, snow capped volcanoes in the background.
It’s a romantic image, one that appeals to our love of the landscape and wide open spaces and speaks to the freedom we all yearn for. But the horses of the Kaimanawa ranges have had a long struggle that’s been far from romantic, not only against one of New Zealand’s most inhospitable environments, but also against hunters, environmentalists and the expansion of human activities. Wild horses have inhabited the Kaimanawas since the 1870s. The origin of the herd is as obscure as the mist that often wreaths the rugged hills. It’s suggested that escaped or released army remounts or farm hacks formed the foundation stock, with rumoured additions of unwanted racehorses or deliberate releases of stallions from Arabians to British moorland breeds. Whatever the truth of the matter, the Kaimanawa horses of today are small, hardy, nuggety animals often showing the ‘mealy’ colouring of Exmoor ponies. Through the 140-odd years of the herd’s existence the horses have had to be tough to deal with the harsh conditions of the volcanic plateau. With bitterly cold winters, the coarse tussock grass often scarce, at risk from poachers and the army training around them, the animals have been figuratively and literally dodging bullets. Appreciation of New Zealand’s own wild horses was sparked in the 1970s, when the population declined to a critical level. In a classic case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’, the Kaimanawa herd gained timely protection under the Wildlife Act in 1981. As numbers burgeoned and ecologists feared for fragile ecosystems, the problem turned from too few horses to too many.
Management of the herd was crucial, but how to do it? Many interest groups were involved, with those who wanted to save the horses on one side, environmentalists on the other and the army, whose land it was, somewhere in the middle. The public was galvanised at the prospect of hundreds of horses being rounded up and sent to slaughter, and organisations were formed to provide alternatives. Most active and enduring of these is Kaimanawa Heritage Horses (KHH). KHH have achieved a minor miracle in persuading DoC to cooperate in saving an introduced species, albeit in the interests of botany. Even more miraculous is the long term effort this bunch of volunteers has put into persuading people to take on wild horses by the hundreds and turn them into useful and versatile mounts and much loved companions. Herd numbers are now controlled to a level of 300 by biennial musters, when excess horses are rounded up by helicopter into holding yards, assessed by vets, and those deemed suitable are trucked off to new homes. Such is the success of the campaigns to find new homes for the mustered horses that virtually all have been adopted in recent times. The horses’ welfare is paramount. An enormous amount of work goes into organising the muster and ensuring prospective adopters and their premises also pass muster. Mainstays of KHH, Pukeoware pair Elder and Marilyn Jenks, have been involved since 1995. They are among an army of volunteers who travel the country inspecting facilities, sourcing transport, taking hundreds of phone calls, liaising with sponsors and the never-ending
task of fundraising. Their tireless efforts earned them a Queen’s Service Medal each in 2015. Elder also won an SPCA award, the irony of which doesn’t escape him as he admits to being a latecomer to animal welfare. “For 50 years I had no interest in animals whatsoever. Then I met Marilyn – and God, am I paying the price now!” Marilyn says she’s loved animals all her life. She’s an inveterate rescuer of animals – dogs, cats, goats – and the plight of the Kaimanawas pressed all her buttons. Elder didn’t stand a chance. Now totally immersed in KHH activities, (“I used to play golf, wash the car”) Elder has fallen under the spell of the horses. He and Marilyn still have some adopted from the 1997 muster. Others have gone to a wide variety of homes and have made their mark in disciplines from showjumping to endurance. High profile trainers like the Wilson sisters and Tina Fagan have showcased the breed at Equidays and on TV. Kaimanawas have achieved success at the Horse of the Year show, and are also spreading much joy as everyday kids’ ponies. Meeting Kaimanawa horses less than a month after coming off the ranges, what’s striking is how chilled they are.
“Kaimanawas grow up in a family unit,” Elder explains. “With mum, dad and a few siblings, they learn social skills and bond with each other in a way that domestic horses don’t. When they are adopted they naturally look to bond with their new human family.” Dedicated horse people wanting to experience that bond have another chance to adopt a horse this year, with an unprecedented second muster planned shortly. The ‘census’ of the wild population, carried out by helicopter some months ago, found numbers had increased. The April muster garnered 175, but another 150 need to be removed, and the KHH team has been flat out assessing potential homes. “We’re hopeful that we can be as successful in finding suitable placements as we were for the earlier muster,” says Elder. “With fewer horses to feed on the range, conditions have been improving over the years and we believe the next lot will be bigger, around 15 hands.” It’s an expensive exercise, but sponsorship has helped to the tune of over $20,000 for the last muster, including drench from Bayer and Equibrew nutritional supplements for each horse. Massey University is conducting research into the worm burden carried by the horses, which Elder says is “enough to kill a normal horse”. Promotion of the breed is a top priority for KHH so that lives can continue to be saved. The very successful Stallion Challenges, where professional trainers transformed newly mustered stallions from wild to willing in the space of six months, showed what can be achieved with these intelligent creatures. This year the emphasis is on amateur handlers in the three day Freedom to Friendship competition, to take place at Equidays in October. And for those who can’t accommodate a wild horse, there’s an opportunity to shoot some. Only through a camera lense, of course, in the trips to the ranges organised by KHH in cooperation with the army. Nothing beats seeing them in their natural state. To quote Eric Theodore, range controller at the Waiouru military training area: “They define the land which they inhabit, as much as the land defines them”.