A beginning

The air is so clear. The distant hills are close with me. Looking around I feel like I am everywhere at once in the river basin below. Clean lines of brown-greens, grey-blues and living blacks peppered with snow turn me inside out into this landscape.

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Argo River Basin, Kaimanawa Ranges and army training area, east of Waiouru township after light snow, late-winter 1994.

Deep cloud hugs these high lands today. I live in the narrow space between. The ceiling of cloud is penetrated occasionally by the sun illuminating groups of horses spread over hillsides. Relaxed, they take best advantage of the first warm rays in days.

Like a visitor in a new place, everyone looks the same to me. All horses are brown, but then also black-brown or yellow-brown. Then some have white socks and some have blazes. Patterns of colour and imperfection are who they become to me. But it takes a long time to distinguish and learn the many patterns. Some horses, though, still look the same, especially from a distance. They also flee at my approach – galloping around or over a ridge from view before I can identify or describe their pattern.

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Freeze brand ’63’ on right croup of mare. A muster in July 1994 gathered and branded 139 horses 1 year of age or older prior to the start of the study.

Fortunately, numbers also mark my horses. The wild horses of Argo Valley were mustered by stockmen on horseback, motorcycle and helicopter and freeze-branded just five weeks ago. Two large (8 X 5 cm, 3 X 2 in), new, and white numbers are beginning to reveal themselves to me on each horse’s right rump (or croup) as hair from patches shaved to receive the branding iron grows back. White hair grows back over the brand slowly but after three weeks we are starting to read numbers. In late-August 1994 we read our first freeze-brand, 6 over 4, on a mare and call her Vicki. Brands 47 and 6 over 0 follow. Within three months all brands are clear outstanding numbers. We name our first band (breeding group) Ali’s band, then Mary’s band. By mid-October we had seen over 100 brands and were seeing many each day. Eventually with brands and natural marking we would reliably identify 455 horses.

Army training zones are my guide as I move about the study area in search of horses. Military lines on a map that tell me where I can go and where I cannot because soldiers are being trained, vehicles manoeuvred, and weapons tested. A snow drift at the end of Zone 29c halts my progress up Maowhango Bridge Road. I am surprised by horses with freeze-brands in Zones 27, 21 and even 17 and 18. There is army activity in Zone 30. I cannot go there – but I can peer into it from the hillock in Zone 28. My landscape is a colour-by-numbers for a palate of horses branded with numerals I do not yet know. I am an amateur again – re-learning colours and numbers.

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Viewing Mount Ruapehu from the central volcanic plateau and southern Kaimanawa Ranges east of Waiouru Township. We negotiated greater distances on an all-terraine vehicle in our search for branded horses early in the study.

I would spend most of each month for the next four years roaming the ridges and valleys of military zones on foot or all-terrain vehicle. The foreign would become familiar – landscape and climate. Wild horses identified would became characters in my study of their behaviour and ecology. Not before a ‘horse lover’, I would become one. Scientific discovery was my path to an appreciation of horses and other Perissodactyla. But for the moment this was just a beginning. I was excited but nervous – naïve about what the next four years would bring.

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