NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents -

Cap­tur­ing the strength, beauty of and majesty of New Zealand’s horses

NEW ZEALAND’S FIRST horses, a stal­lion and two mares, were off-loaded from the brig Ac­tive just be­fore Christ­mas 1814. They came with mis­sion­ary Sa­muel Mars­den but New Zealand did not re­main a three-horse land for long. The horse quickly be­came an es­sen­tial tool of sur­vival for both Māori and Euro­pean. Over the fol­low­ing few years the Ac­tive con­tin­ued to make the month-long trip be­tween the Bay of Is­lands, Thames and New South Wales, bring­ing horses for breed­ing and trans­port.

Horses made it much eas­ier to ex­plore this rugged, and in some places for­bid­ding, land­scape. They also en­abled the mis­sion­ar­ies to reach and “ed­u­cate” their flocks with greater speed. Soon horses spread down coun­try and were traded for com­modi­ties such as flax through posts set up by the likes of Hans Tapsell, a Dan­ish trader, who es­tab­lished a trad­ing sta­tion at Maketu in the Bay of Plenty in 1828.

By the 1850s, Euro­pean set­tlers ea­ger to de­velop sheep and cat­tle sta­tions in the Wairarapa were frus­trated with hav­ing to walk over the Re­mu­taka Ranges or around the coast. Charles Bid­will, from Devon, could have been the first to bring two pack­horses into the Wairarapa when he set out with 350 meri­nos from East­bourne, though it is un­clear whether the horses made it past the cross­ing into Pal­liser Bay.

By April 1845, 12 sheep sta­tions were es­tab­lished in the Wairarapa, in­clud­ing Bid­will’s, which had sheep, cat­tle, and horses, and just a few years later in 1852, horses were be­ing raced on the Wairarapa plains.

Come 1900 and there were more than 260,000 horses in New Zealand with the pop­u­la­tion peak­ing in 1911 at about 404,300. But by the early 2oth cen­tury, cars were be­gin­ning to re­place horses. Trac­tors, too, be­gan to pull their weight on farms, dis­plac­ing four-footed work­ers. Still, be­fore the ad­vent of quad bikes, farm­ers re­lied on horses for lamb­ing beats, mustering and mov­ing stock to fresh pas­tures.

When wars came, New Zealand’s horses proved in­valu­able in bat­tle, and to­day they are im­mor­tal­ized in art, de­sir­able for ther­apy, and con­tribute to the econ­omy.

In 2010 Agrib­ase, a New Zealand farms database, es­ti­mated that there were 120,000 horses in this coun­try, but these of­fi­cial statis­tics, which mostly counted race­horses, are un­re­li­able be­cause they do not ac­count for free-roam­ing and leisure horses and ponies — at a guess there are prob­a­bly an­other 120,000 horses graz­ing the hills, plains and spare sec­tions on the out­skirts of sub­ur­bia.

The two cen­turies of horses in Aotearoa are a mere blip com­pared with the 56 mil­lion years they’ve walked on the planet, and hu­mans have en­joyed a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with horses for mil­len­nia. New Zealand’s re­la­tion­ship with horses con­tin­ues to be strong and will un­doubt­edly con­tinue long be­yond their use to build and de­fend the na­tion.

THESE PAGES: Built in the 1860s, the sta­bles at the Beetham fam­ily’s Bran­cepeth Sta­tion, 19 kilo­me­tres from Master­ton, look as if stock­men, grooms, coach driv­ers and sta­ble hands have merely stepped out­side. The liv­ery, sad­dlery, car­riages and feed bins are sit­ting wait­ing for their re­turn. These days only Ed Beetham (below right), great-grand­son of founder H. H. Beetham, lives on the prop­erty where once 300 were em­ployed.

THESE PAGES: The Castle­point Races are held every year on the flat, hard, golden-sand Wairarapa beach that sweeps from Whakataki to the Castle­point light­house. This nat­u­ral race­course has hosted horse races since 1872. Nearly 150 years on — if the fierce winds haven’t ex­posed rocks and forced its can­cel­la­tion — the race book fea­tures eight sprints, in­clud­ing one for “bona fide sta­tion hacks”.

We have three copies of The New Zealand Horse (Massey Uni­ver­sity Press) val­ued at $80 each to give away. See

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