Hoping for colour

The cold wind, in waves from across Mount Ruapehu, has washed the sky of its blue. High and thin, ice-grey cloud has been super-smoothed from horizon to horizon.

A balaclava frames my view of the range above and the basin below. Turning my head slowly and methodically – scanning left to right, top to bottom – I search the patchwork brown land.

Distant brown horses – Kaimanwa horse band near Waiouru township and army base. Source: David Pike, reproduced from Morrow 1975 [1].

Distant brown horses – Kaimanwa horse band near Waiouru township and army base. Source: David Pike, reproduced from Morrow 1975 [1].

In the clean, clear air a first attempt to stand by a shaggy brown foal, although four kilometres distant amongst similarly brown manuka scrub, focusses me suddenly.

And from that small, distant movement an entire band is gradually revealed. The foal gambles down-slope like its legs are still waking up. First, the foal leads me to its mother. Then others, spread around them across the hillside, are unveiled.

Starting from scratch

‘Dumped’ in the middle of the southern Kaimanawa Ranges, I had the vague expectation that the Argo Basin before me would serve as the central study area for my research. I was part of a team contracted to trial a new contraceptive for managing the population. The trial would require that I know horses’ living, breeding and dying, how they use the landscape, and their relationships with each other. And to grow this data, I first needed to reliably identify each horse.

I wasn’t, however, even slightly équestre – a ‘horsey person’. I didn’t ride, I still don’t. I’d never owned a horse, although my two younger sisters had childhood ponies. I didn’t know a whither from a fetlock or, for that matter, a bay from a chestnut. To my untrained eye, my first band of horses on that distant slope, all looked, well …, brown.

But I knew coat colour variation could be a useful tool in a horse identikit. Domestic horse breeds vary incredibly in colour. And when they rewild – escape or are released to form free-ranging herds – their cross-bred descendants carry and mix that variation. The colour variation and patterns, then, become the unique marks of individuals, even more so than in most other wild animals.

Wild North American herds, particularly, are a beginning researcher’s dream, being a melting pot of many nations’ idiosyncratic breed preferences. The 18th and 19th century Spanish, British and French contributed an enormous variety of domestic stock to the continent’s wild herds. My first impressions, however, on that cool, clear August day in 1994 was that Kaimanwa horses were not nearly as variable.

But New Zealand’s wild horses have not always been so lacking of coat colour and pattern. Harvey Morrow described an enormous variety of feral horse stock in the early 20th century [1]. Black, chestnut, grey, roan, blue and piebald (pinto black and white) coats are mentioned. Tony Batley too, in his research and writing about wild horses of the central North Island, reported horses captured from the Kaingaroa Plains being iron grey [2]. And New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Maori, who rapidly adopted and adapted the horse after its introduction and cultivated wild herds, were reported to have a preference for piebalds and skewbalds [3]. What happened to all this variation? Why are the Kaimanawa horses of today not like those more colourful in North America?

To answer that question I should first find out about the genetics of coat colour and how it is inherited in horses – my next post.




  1. Morrow H. 1975. New Zealand Wild Horses: Millwood Press.
  1. Batley, RAL. 1977. Wild horses of the south-west Kaimanawa Range. Unpublished manuscript.
  1. Mincham, CJ. 2008. A Social and Cultural History of the New Zealand Horse. Ph.D. Thesis, Massey University.

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