History - In Brief

It was way back in 1876 that the first wild horses were recorded in the Kaimanawa mountain ranges.  The Kaimanawa horse originated from Exmoor and Welsh Mountain pony stock released in the1870’s.  These ponies came to New Zealand on sailing ships and were a huge part of pioneer life selflessly working to aid European settlement.  Escapees and releases of horses from farms and the cavalry at Waiouru have added to the gene pool as have “Desert Road Drop-offs” of other unwanted horses.

Today, the characteristics of the Thoroughbred, Arab, Standardbred and Clydesdale can be seen in certain geographical bands within the Kaimanawa population.  Historically, population numbers reaching into over two thousand across a wide area resulted in horses struggling in poor condition due to lack of food.

In 1992, the Department of Conservation (DOC) reported that up to 31 different unique plant types exist in the area and are threatened with extinction due to horse trampling and grazing damage.  A systematic programme of culling horses through aerial shooting was put in place.  Animal welfare groups opposed these slaughters and brought public opposition to the programme through the media and by informing the general public.

The first muster was undertaken in the winter of 1993 when 310  horses were culled from a total population of 2,000. The largest muster was in 1997 when 1,100 horses were culled off the ranges.  To date approx 2,000 horses have been removed from the Kaimanawa Ranges.  Over half have been slaughtered. Today, a total population base of three hundred horses is managed in the Ranges.

In the early muster days, the re-homing of horses was undertaken in an ad-hoc way with little or no checking of the suitability of the new home or follow-up afterwards. This meant many Kaimanawa horses saved from slaughter at the muster went on to lead miserable neglected lives.  Since 2003, Kaimanawa Heritage Horses (KHH) has ensured that around 600 mares and younger males and female horses have found new careers domestically.

There have been a number of changes since those early muster days. The management decisions relating to the wild Kaimanawa horses are now the responsibility of the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Advisory Group (KWHAG).  This group that includes DOC, KHH and other interest groups, develops the management plan that DOC implements.

2011 was the first year in which there was no annual muster as part of the new bi-annual muster programme.  KWHAG is also researching the possible introduction of immunocontraception.  Immunocontraception is a population management tool that KHH fully supports and encourages as a way to better manage the wild population and reduce the slaughter of horses in the future.

While the first horses were introduced into New Zealand by Samuel Marsden in December 1814, it was not until 1876 that the first wild horses were recorded in the Kaimanawa Ranges.

Between 1858 and 1875 Major George Gwavas Carlyon imported Exmoor ponies to Hawkes Bay. These were crossed with local stock and a sure-footed pony known as the Carlyon pony resulted.

Sir Donald McLean imported two Welsh stallions, Kinarth Caesar and Comet. When crossed with the “Carlyon” a small statured, sure footed, robust horse resulted. These horses became known as the “Comet” breed.

During the 1870’s McLean released a Comet stallion and several mares on the Kaingaroa Plains. In later years this bloodline was reportedly apparent in the wild population.

Over the years that followed, other horses contributed to the bloodline of this wild population. There were escapes and releases of horses from sheep runs in the area and in 1941 horses from the mounted rifle cavalry units at Waiouru were released when a strangles epidemic threatened. It is also reported that Nicholas Koreneff released an Arab stallion into the Argo Valley region during the 1960’s.

With the varied gene input that followed their origins, the horses have generally become larger in stature than their pony forebears and there is also some variance in their conformation and build. The horses are however, generally known for their calmness and inquisitiveness and in many of the bands, the classic characteristics of the Comet breed are still clearly exhibited.

The landscape and habitats in the Kaimanawa Ranges are both ancient and unique. Because of this, the management plan for the horses requires they be kept out of especially fragile areas. Elsewhere, the herd is kept to around 300, so that there is some balance between the horses and the environment they live in.

Each year, around April, a herd count is undertaken by the Department of Conservation (DoC) using helicopters with a GPS (Global Positioning System). The number of surplus horses are identified and mustered around the middle of June.

Christine Cornege/ Waikato Times

The horses are mustered by helicopters to a set of yards where the drafting team takes over. They run a very tight and smooth operation where the horses are sorted with the utmost care and the minimum amount of fuss. The resident veterinarian, keeps a very close eye on all phases of the muster.

The horses are relatively strung out as they mainly trot down to the yards, where they are sorted by age and sex. The weanlings and yearlings are sent out to new homes as soon as possible (within 24 hours, they are often at their new home). The older horses are kept overnight to allow time to settle down and become aware of the concept of a fence. They are fed hay and water while in the yards. The yards are 1.8m high and the drafting and loading race is lined with rubber matting halfway up the sides.

If you are interested in obtaining a Kaimanawa horse, please complete an application form. After the due process has been successfully completed, a horse is selected for you at the next muster, if one is available. It is not possible to view these horses at the Waiouru yards before delivery because of safety considerations (for people and horses).

The selected horses are then sent to central yards from where they are transported to their new owners. The transport costs from Waiouru to these central yards is free, but all costs of transport from drop-off yards to the purchaser’s property are paid by the purchaser. We organise things this way to reduce the overall stress of transportation and handling for the horses.

Ten years ago, a core group of six people asked themselves “How can we stop the slaughter of the Kaimanawa horses?”  It was 2003 and they had had enough of seeing horses culled off the Kaimanawa ranges in the annual muster (around 300) and being sent to the abattoirs to be turned into pet food.  They wanted to secure a better outcome for these horses and formed the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Welfare Trust (KWHWT) to do exactly that. Since 2003 KWHWT has placed around 600 wild Kaimanawa horses from the musters.

In more recent years, the KWHWT saw a sharp increase in the number of re-homed Kaimanawa horses.  The KWHWT uplifted and re-homed hundreds of abandoned, neglected or unwanted Kaimanawa horses to save them. This kept our network of twelve Area Representatives and our Welfare Officers busy year round.  In addition to this, the increase in Kaimanawa ownership meant an increase in the need for ongoing education and support.

As a result of these changes, the KWHWT changed its name to Kaimanawa Heritage Horses (KHH).  We felt that it was important to recognise the Kaimanawa Horse as an important historic link to New Zealand’s pioneer past.  The activities of the society will always remain focused on welfare, both of the wild herd and domestic Kaimanawas, and to assist owners with their horses.  Kaimanawa Heritage Horses promotes Kaimanawa horses to the public and maintains a breed register.  We undertake a number of fundraising activities and offer a variety of membership options to assist our continued work to save this unique, living piece of New Zealand heritage.