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.

North & South - - In This Issue -

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.

Left: For Waara’s Kaimanawa horses, his mostly fence-free land is the next best thing to the wild.

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