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.