3 WILD HORSES
Once a year, horse lovers are permitted access to army land at Waiouru to witness the Kaimanawa herds running free. Nicola Edmonds joins the equine enthusiasts.
Once a year, horse lovers are given access to army land at Waiouru to see Kaimanawa horses running free. Nicola Edmonds went along for the ride.
High in the Kaimanawa ranges, among billowing tussock, a brown mare stands calmly as a stallion goes about the business of extending his bloodline. The pair are tightly hemmed by the herd as the deed is completed. Apart from a warning show of teeth by the stallion, the horses seem unconcerned by our presence as we crouch just metres from the action.
Free-range intercourse is an everyday occurrence for the wild horses that roam the 63,000ha of army territory in the Kaimanawas. But getting close to a herd is a rare privilege for this small group of photographers and horse lovers. These are scenes that usually take place well away from civilian view.
Each year, a team from the Kaimanawa Heritage Horses society, in collaboration with the Department of Conservation and Waiouru Military Training Facility, allows a group of paying visitors to witness the spectacular sight of Kaimanawa horses running free. The funds raised help support the society’s efforts to care for and re-home horses taken from the
ranges during annual musters.
Elder Jenks, fond of a few beers and spinning a good yarn, is treasurer for the society and an irreverent frontman for the visits. He’s an unlikely hero for the Kaimanawa horses. Not especially interested in animals, Jenks hadn’t touched even a cat or dog until the age of 50. The retired lighting wholesaler says it was his horse-mad wife who first got him involved with the wild herds 20 years ago. He went on to help establish the society and has come to love the horses along the way.
The Kaimanawa horses today are a motley progeny of escapees and cast- offs. Their forebears came from disparate keepers: nearby farms, colonial surveyors and, in 1941, New Zealand’s World War II cavalry troops whose mounts were turned loose on the army’s land when it was discovered they had contracted Strangles disease (a bacteriaborne respiratory infection).
By 1981, there were as few as 170 wild horses in the area. The government awarded them protection from hunting and musterers. But 10 years later, the count had jumped to more than 2000; a rapid population increase that put unwanted pressure on the natural environment and created headaches for the horses’ military neighbours. With competition for dwindling resources, the animals became malnourished, diseased and undersized.
DOC began an annual stock-take and muster programme in 1997 to maintain a population level
of around 300 horses, a count considered sufficient to sustain their genetic variability while allowing the grass and tussock lands to recover.
A scattering of loners and small family groups that graze in the remote outer reaches of the ranges more closely resemble their forebears in size and condition, but most of the horses we see are tall and strong. If not for a certain proud and distant look in their eyes, they could easily pass for their paddock-bound cousins.
Major Patrick Hibbs, Commandant at the training facility, has been involved with DOC musters for the past 10 years and acts as an army liaison and guide for the Kaimanawa Heritage Horses tours. Hibbs deftly shepherds visiting civilians, preventing us from inadvertently stumbling into the middle of an army manoeuvre. Kaimanawa horses have a good sixth sense as to when to make themselves scarce on the firing ranges, he says. “They’re pretty cool about it, they’ll just stand on the hill and watch. We’re a bit like TV – we entertain them.”
During his time at the base, Hibbs has seen only one horse hit by gunfire. There’s an occasional horse vs vehicle episode, but in general the vehicles come off worse.
As part of the Kaimanawa Heritage Horses experience, we also visit Tom Waara’s property to meet some of the take from past musters – and to be shown the horses’ potential, given the right human guide.
Jenks describes Waara as “real back-block stuff”. The two met during the 2015 Wild Stallion Challenge, hosted by the society. Waara competed for the title by successfully breaking in two
six-year- old muster stallions within just eight weeks. The two horses were so docile, Jenks was fooled into thinking they were the domestic kind. When Waara persuaded Jenks, who doesn’t ride and has a “bung leg”, to mount one, the horse didn’t flinch.
Waara is Ngati Uenuku, but could be straight from the screen of an American Western movie when he rides out clad in Stetson and suede, oozing calm from every pore. The depth of his gaze felt remarkably similar to those of the horses we saw on the range.
He lives on a piece of paradise within the steep hills near Raetihi. The mostly fence-free land has belonged to his family for more than 150 years. For the Kaimanawa horses that he’s handled since the stallion challenge, the property is the next best thing to the wild.
The bond of trust between the horse handler and his steeds is evident. He leads Tuki and Te One – the two stallions he trained for the challenge – to a standstill on top of a sawn- off log while he brews a billy for afternoon tea. The animals appear relaxed and almost asleep as the photographers snap away below.
Waara says his technique has less to do with horse-whispering magic than to a never- ending reserve of patience and perseverance. “You think something is never going to work, then suddenly the horse changes… Just like that. And he’s with you forever.”
Left: Wild mares traversing the tussock-clad Kaimanawa ranges.
Opposite page (clockwise from far left): Brooding clouds cast a shadow over Mt Ruapehu at sunrise; a Kaimanawa stallion issues a challenge to his human observers; keen photographers from the Kaimanawa Heritage Horses tour group brave the biting wind. Lef
Below left and right: The bond of trust Waara (Ngati Uenuku) shares with the horses is absolute.
Opposite page, top left: Tom Waara leads friend and fellow Kaimanawa devotee Nicola Megaw over his Raetahi property, which has belonged to his family for more than 150 years.