SPCA New Zealand

Wild Kaimanawa Horses

22 May 2019
Wild Kaimanawa Horses

Follow the rescue and rehabilitation efforts of the Kaimanawa Heritage Horses .

It’s a cold, misty, April morning in the mountaintops of the Kaimanawa Ranges. In camouflaged tents a small group of people are looking over their plan and anxiously anticipating the huge job that lies ahead. All of a sudden helicopters fly over the hill, accompanied by thundering hooves and anxious neighs that echo through the valley. The first group of wild horses have arrived. It’s the start of this year’s Kaimanawa horse muster.

Kaimanawa horses first came to New Zealand in the 1870s, but growing numbers in the 1990s lead to horses in poor condition with lack of food, and destruction of their unique habitat. To manage these concerns, the Department of Conservation suggested a systematic programme of culling the horses through aerial shooting in 1992. But animal welfare groups knew there had to be another solution – that’s how Kaimanawa Heritage Horses was born.

For over 20 years, Kaimanawa Heritage Horses has been working closely with DoC and the New Zealand Army to keep the wild horses at an agreed population of 300 individuals. Each year countless of horses are mustered and the Kaimanawa Heritage Horses team does their best to re-home every single one. The work they do is a full-time job; their love, and their passion. They are dedicated to the welfare of these horses and their hard work has paid off. Since the first official muster in 1997, they have rescued and rehomed over 1,000 horses.

How it began

Marilyn Jenks, Sarah Bates, and Michele Haultain are the welfare team of Kaimanawa Heritage Horses. Marilyn and her husband Elder are the ambassadors and founders of the group. “Elder and I got involved because we got a horse from a friend called Holly. She was a foal from the trial musters in 1993 and we completely fell in love with her,” says Marilyn.

One year after the first muster, Michele joined, and Sarah became involved when she bought a Kaimanawa horse from Michele 11 years ago. With help from 27 area representatives, the group advertises for homes, conducts home checks throughout New Zealand, helps each horse settle into their new home, and offers constant help and advice for as long as the new owner needs.

“It is a very emotional and stressful time,” says Michele. “Last year there were two big musters done in April and June and 305 horses were taken out of the Ranges. We managed to rehome all of them except for seven horses who were euthanised for health reasons.”

But 9 months later, Kaimanawa Heritage Horses are still feeling the effects of such a large muster. “Many of the horses were older, and some of the mares were foaling,” says Marilyn. “People who started with one horse now have two horses. Some people are still working with their handlers who help train their Kaimanawa and get them used to domesticated life.”

Already, Marilyn and the team is concerned for the 2019 muster. “Unfortunately, this year a lot of our handlers have said they can’t take any,” says Michele. “This is something we rely on. When people can’t take them straight from the wild themselves, they go to handlers first.”

“Not having any handlers is going to make rehoming the horses very difficult for this year’s muster.”

The process

The 2019 muster will be the 19th year Kaimanawa Heritage Horses meet in the central North Island. But months before the muster even begins, the team is gearing up. As soon as they know how many horses there are, they will be doing as much publicity as possible to find them homes.

After two decades of musters, the Kaimanawa Heritage Horses team knows they have to be organised for what is a challenging, tiring day.

“All of our applications will go into a spreadsheet and taken down to the muster on the day,” says Michele. “The team in the helicopters round all the horses up and herd them into the yards where they are sorted out. The foals are weaned from the mares, and the stallions, old horses, and young horses are all grouped. They are sexed – blue dot for males and pink dot for females – and are all drafted to go to satellite yards depending on what areas they will be travelling to.” Most of the horses travel to Huntly before travelling further north to their individual homes, but there are some who travel to satellite yards in Hawkes Bay, Levin and Taranaki.

“As they come off the truck, we give them a pour on drench to get rid of worms and lice, and they are drafted into more trucks to travel to their individual homes. We try to make this process as quick as possible because it’s very stressful for the horses,” explains Michele.

The team at Kaimanawa Heritage Horses experience a whirlwind of emotion as they scramble to do their best for each individual horse. It is an extremely draining and challenging task dealing with wild horses who are separated from their tight family groups, put into trucks, contained, drenched, and transported into a completely new environment, away from everything they’ve ever known.

“You are dealing with wild horses who have never been behind fences or around people,” says Michele. “They aren’t used to anything, they’re reactive and flighty, and the stallions fight.”

One of the worst parts of the process is when the foals are separated from the mares. “Unless we have a home who can take a mare and her foal we don’t have a choice but to split them up. It’s awful,” says Marilyn. “The ultimate goal is to make sure we can find a home who can take them both,” she says.

While it’s a difficult few days, it makes it easier that everyone works together. “In the beginning nobody got along that well, but things have really improved. Everyone works together for the welfare of the horses.”

Life becoming domesticated

It might be difficult for some people to first understand a Kaimanawa’s true nature. Those who have no experience with these horses might expect them to remain wild at heart, untameable, designed to remain in the volcanic hills of the Kaimanawa ranges. But these harsh conditions of the ranges mean that Kaimanawa horses are actually extremely adaptable, intelligent, and bond intensely to their new owners.

“They come from a family unit and when they leave that you become their family,” says Marilyn. “They are like a dog with how much they bond with their people. If you take the time with them from the beginning, and earn their trust, you’ve got that trust forever,” she says.

“I always tell people they are street smart,” says Michele. “They know so much already. If anything is happening on the farm or in the area, my Kaimanawa horses pick up on it before any of my other horses. They are so aware because they’ve had to be to survive.”

“They are definitely smarter than domesticated horses,” laughs Sarah.

However, you can’t expect these horses to immediately trust you, or instantly adapt to a completely foreign environment. It takes time, and not just every home is suited for these horses. When a Kaimanawa Heritage Horse area representative does home checks for potential adopters, a lot has to be taken into consideration.

“People need to think ahead of the potential costs,” says Sarah. “If you get a horse who is underweight, or needs some extra care, you need to make sure you can afford the ongoing costs of the horse for its life. You also need to make sure you have time. You can’t just sit with the horse for 15 minutes a day and expect them to be out competing 6 months later,” she says.

When a Kaimanawa horse first arrives at their new home, they need to be unloaded into a cattle yard that is a minimum of 1.8m high. “They can start in a fairly small yard, but it’s good to have a small paddock off your yard too,” says Michele.

It’s also necessary to have an older, quiet, domestic horse to show the Kaimanawa horse about fences, and other mundane objects they aren’t used to. “The older horses don’t react to things like water troughs, dogs, or tractors, so it shows the Kaimanawa there is nothing to be afraid of,” says Michele. “We don’t place a Kaimanawa unless there are other horses. It helps them settle a lot faster.”

To train a Kaimanawa, you need to have plenty of time and no expectations. “A good initial first contact with them is picking up fresh grass and seeing if they will come up to you for it,” says Michele. “They have to get used to feed, and food is the best way to a Kaimanawa heart,” she says.

“Once you have them hooked on hard feed, you are able to medicate them, or lead them anywhere.”

Their commitment to them

Kaimanawa Heritage Horses don’t just rehome the Kaimanawa horses, but they also jump to the rescue when a horse is in need.

“We take on the responsibility of any Kaimanawa once they are out of the muster, no matter how old they are, or what has happened,” says Marilyn. “If we get a call to say that a horse is starving, or a horse needs rehoming, we work with the owners to sign them over to us. It’s our commitment to the Kaimanawa,” she says. Kaimanawa Heritage Horses currently have 15 horses in their care who have been rescued from various situations.

Kaimanawa Heritage Horses and SPCA worked together to help two Kaimanawa horses called Effie and Carla in 2017. Their owner had died, and her relatives were rehoming them because they needed to sell the property. When Marilyn visited the property, she noticed they were both extremely lame and showing signs of laminitis. Marilyn and her team, as well as two SPCA Inspectors helped transport Effie and Carla off the property, and into the care of Kaimanawa Heritage Horses. Sadly, the prognosis wasn’t good and X-rays showed their feet were beyond repair.

“The vet advised both Effie and Carla were in pain and distress and recommended they both be euthanised as soon as possible. Both the girls passed away that morning and are buried side-by-side in our back paddock,” says Marilyn.

“This was a terrible end for two beautiful mares who had been loved by their owner. If only she had a contingency plan for when she couldn’t care for them any longer.”

A difficult but worthwhile job

Those cold, misty, April mornings in the mountaintops of the Kaimanawa ranges are never easy. The horses desperately call out to each other as they gallop down the hill, and it pulls at the heartstrings. They are being taken away from their family units, and their home, but the alternative is much worse. It is hard to imagine what would happen if Kaimanawa Heritage Horses didn’t dedicate their lives to rescuing these special horses.

It’s a tough job. But Sarah says it’s the happy outcomes that get them through stressful days. “We have given a horse a forever home where they can have a happy life.”

“We are saving their lives,” says Michele.

A path towards a sustainable solution

Leaving the population of Kaimanawa horses to grow unchecked would have serious negative consequences, both on the health and wellbeing of the horses and on the sensitive ecosystem and the survival of the unique native plant species. Unfortunately, the muster of wild horses is a hugely traumatic event, requiring separation of tight family groups, and it is challenging to find new owners who are able to deal with unique challenges of caring for a Kaimanawa horse.

There is hope in sight however: fertility control (using immunocontraceptive vaccines) offers the possibility of slowing population growth to a manageable level and may have a role to play as a humane, sustainable, long-term solution for the management of Kaimanawa wild horse populations. This technique is used in a number of countries to manage their wild horse populations and considerable research continues to offer further refinements of this tool.

SPCA strongly encourages fertility control be adopted by the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Advisory Group as a tool to reduce the need for mustering and allow these beautiful animals to live out their natural lives in the Kaimanawa ranges.

To contact Kaimanawa Heritage Horses:


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