Beginning with his first chase aged 15 in 1915, Harvey Morrow caught his first wild horse in the winter of 1916 around Arapuni in the Waikato. He wrote a small book, New Zealand Wild Horses (1975, Millwood Press), describing his experiences catching horses. Within his anecdotes and stories is a rich vein of information about the distribution of herds of feral, free-ranging horses during the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. As well as the places he hunted, Morrow mentions, in passing, many other places where herds of wild horses roamed and were chased for sport or mustered for sale.
Wild horses, it seems, were common wherever there was deforested, less developed ‘rough’ land between working farms and remnant forest, especially in the foothills and mountains of the central North Island.
Morrow mentions the earliest written reports of free-roaming horses are in the diary of Mr R. T. Batley who described track and sign in the headwaters of the Maowhango River on 15th March 1876. But horses were certainly present before this time in other places in North Island – releases and escapes from Maori and migrant, travelling European colonists.
Notable herds of horses are recorded on the Rangitaiki Plans, 36 miles to the northeast of the Moawhango headwaters, and around Waiouru, 18 miles southwest, in the last 5 years of the 19th century. On the west side of the volcanic peaks of Ruapehu, Ngaruhoe, and Tongariro herds were also reported in what is now Tongariro National Park.
And so herds of feral horses in the central North Island became ubiquitous by the beginning of the 20th century. From the Paeroa Ranges in the north near the southern bay of the Hauraki Gulf and Coromandel Peninsular to Taihape in the south herds were numerous and some herds grew to number in their thousands.
Harvey Morrow reported horses and horse capture as common in 1906 in the back-country around Te Puke, and Te Teko and around Mt Edgecumbe, in northern and southern Bay of Plenty, respectively, and also to the south around Galatea. There were particularly large herds around Te Waotu (near Tokoroa), Atiamuri, and Mokai in the 1920s. The area was negotiated via horse and foot tracks but is now dissected by New Zealand’s State Highway 1 between its capital city, Wellington in the south, and its largest city, Auckland in the North.
Herds of size were still present on the plains around Taupo and Valleys northeast of Taihape after the second World War (1947) – hard to imagine given the intensity of agriculture in those landscapes today.
So large did some herds become, that they inevitably come into conflict with the aspirations of farmers to develop land. Large numbers were sometimes shot to liberate grazing for sheep and cattle – reminiscent of the longstanding and ongoing conflict between ranchers and wild horses in the USA. Morrow reports 4000 horses being shot for bounties from around Tokoroa.
And so, beginning with Harvey Morrow’s accounts, we might beginning building a map of feral, free-roaming horses in New Zealand to furnish our interest in the history and geography of horses. I have begun with the map displayed here and would welcome any other contributions to it. If you have oral or written histories about wild horses in New Zeland you can send me the years and places for adding to the map to my e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.