TALKING WITH HORSES
THE STRENGTH, BEAUTY AND MYSTERY OF THE HORSE IS CELEBRATED IN A NEW BOOK FROM AWARD-WINNING PHOTOGRAPHER JANE USSHER, WITH WORDS BY DEBORAH CODDINGTON
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”.