May 20, 2020
Issue 06

Saving the Kaimanawas

Wild horses are the stuff of legends. They have an almost mystical presence, symbolising freedom, beauty and peace. They wander the ranges in herds, untamed and out of touch with every form of domestic civilization. It almost seems absurd that people would take these horses from their natural habitat, away from their home and family groups and attempt to break them in, saddle them up and go for a ride, but that’s exactly what I did.

The history of the Kaimanawa horses began in the late nineteenth century when a herd of domesticated horses were released into the wild. For just under 100 years they were left to grow in numbers until 1993 when the Department of Conservation started a population control programme in order to keep the herds at a practical level. Population control is important for protecting and maintaining our native fauna, reducing the negative impact the horses have on the land and improving the general health of the horses. Up until 2003, this population control resulted in hundreds of Kaimanawa horses being slaughtered annually. In recent times though, Kaimanawas have started being rehomed as opposed to being culled, giving them a second chance at life.

In 2016, my family and I were lucky enough to adopt a wild stallion from the annual muster. We completed an application form at the end of 2015 and included some preferences as to what age or gender horse we wanted but of course, neither was guaranteed. When adopting a wild horse, you get what you’re given, so when the day finally arrived and the transport truck came rattling up our driveway, we had no clue what was about to walk off it.

So there we all were, waiting in eager anticipation and ready to meet our new wild horse, yet before it even walked off the truck we encountered a problem. Despite the home and family checks that the Kaimanawa Trust carried out before approving our application to ensure we were suitable to rehome a wild horse, the yard we were to keep our horse in was apparently too low and we needed to raise it by just under a meter to ensure the horse wouldn’t jump out. So with all hands on deck, we set to with our hammers, nails and some planks of wood we thankfully had spare, and in just over half an hour we had our yard ready to go.

Our pony, which we later named Marvel, came off the truck quickly and ran a few laps around the yard before retreating to a corner furthest from where we were standing. We couldn’t believe our luck. He was young, 14 hands (56 inches) and bay with four white socks and a star – pretty much the cutest pony we could have hoped for.

For the next few days we only worked on getting him used to being around humans, going from standing in the same yard as him and slowly working our way up to being able to touch him. We found him trusting and quick to learn and within the week we were able to put a blanket over him and have him eat out of our hand.

Flash forward a few months, after a lot of time, patience, bonding and hard work, Marvel could be saddled up and ridden out over forestry and down at the beach. We were really lucky not only with the appearance, height and age of Marvel but with his super easy going temperament. Older Kaimanawa horses that have spent more time in the wild are typically more nervous around humans, and take a lot more time and energy to break in and train. Watching the famous “Keeping up with Kaimanawas” television show and following other Kaimanawa trainers stories had us buckled in for a rollercoaster ride, and we expected to encounter far more problems and challenges than we ever did which made us really thankful. Of course, every trainer's journey with their Kaimanawa horse is completely different which I feel makes it all the more exciting.

We kept Marvel up until the beginning of this year. We were able to crack stock whips whilst standing on his back, jump over logs, ride underneath diggers, gallop through the bush, walk through obstacles and give little kids pony rides. He was always the first to greet somebody at the gate, loved following people around the paddock and would sell his soul for a slice of apple and a belly scratch. He has now gone on to an RDA where he is a therapy horse teaching children with disabilities how to ride. Kaimanawa horses are famous for their gentle, calm and inquisitive nature and Marvel was really a shining example of this.

2020’s Kaimanawa muster was meant to be carried out in May this year, but due to Covid-19 it was cancelled. The muster is always carried out at the same time each year to ensure the welfare of horses surrounding foaling season. This means that at next year's muster, around 200 horses will need to find new homes which will be a great challenge for the Heritage horse team who work in conjunction with the Department of Conservation in managing and mustering Kaimanawa horses.

You can find out more about these beautiful animals - even sponsor one - here at https://kaimanawaheritagehorses.org/.