The central North Island of the 1800s and early 1900s was a remote, difficult and inhospitable terrain. It was the place where New Zealand’s first-nation peoples, the Maori, maintained ownership and sovereignty of their lands to the greatest extent despite the European onslaught. But populations of feral horses, sometimes numbering in their thousands, became common through the region for most of the late-19th century and persisted during the first half of the 20th.
The earliest report of free-roaming horses in New Zealand is in the diary of Mr R. T. Batley in the upper catchment of the Moawhango River, 15th March 1876, on the high volcanic plateau of the central North Island , but they were certainly present at, and before, this time in other parts of the central North Island too. Indeed, as early as 1857 owned horses were widespread amongst North Island Maori . Reportedly the Mataatua and Tûwharetoa tribes of the Bay of Plenty, Rotorua and Taupo Districts owned almost 2000 .
And so horses colonised much of the landscape before farms and Europeans did. Some were escapes and releases from Maori communities, and migrants travelling through. Later, farms and the small towns – many of which no longer exist – along remote North Island roads provided sources of feral stock. Many horses were just turned out, especially old horses and those not useful because they had become lame or unreliable, but also mares with foals, and young horses such as yearlings and 2-year-olds  – sometimes with the expectation that they, or their offspring, might be captured later.
Maori developed relationships with domestic and free-ranging horses similarly to North America’s first-nation people. The new European colony’s requirement too for horses was sporadic in ways that grew free-ranging populations. Mounted constabulary teams formed temporarily, for example, captured and then released horses when constables returned to their ordinary lives. In these ways populations of feral horses were founded, cultivated and grew.
The populations, some of just a few horses but others with thousands, varied in their feralisation and wildness. Some met with very few people – being in remote and difficult country. Others lived a somewhat connected existence with their liberators and might be regarded as semi-feral. Farmers re-caught wild-bred horses for use on farms and released others. Mustered horses were also used to graze out the grasses from rough pasture that were less palatable to sheep and cattle, like chewings fescue (Festuca rubra) and toetoe (Austroderia spp.) .
Feral horse economy
An economy grew around horse capture for use on farms and sale for slaughter. Large numbers of horses were mustered, especially where they were abundant and the topography allowed it. Some efforts to capture and provide them for sale where they might reach best price were extraordinary. Horses caught around Atiamuri in the 1890s were driven to Fielding and Palmerston North over central North Island’s imposing country for sale – 140 miles as the crow flies before there were roads . Those events are probably reported because they were amongst the farthest wild horses were driven but they provide an understanding of the motivation and extent of the industry. The last feral horses were mustered and sold in Fielding and Palmerston North during the 1930s.
On a smaller scale many caught horses for their own purposes or sale locally – being more selective – and so a cottage industry developed around horse capture and it is this small industry that Harvey Morrow (1975, Millwood Press) describes. Harvey Morrow lived, worked and chased wild horses in the upper central North Island during the early part of the 20th century, beginning during the first World War. Living in Pairere in Hinuera Valley, he and friends rode 25 miles southwest to the Waikato River, up river past the Hora Hora Power Station (now submerged below Karapiro Power Sation Dam), on to Arapuni around which wild horses roamed.
Morrow  describes catching horses with wire (No 8) snares suspended across worn animal trails that wound through scrub.
The horses were caught by the neck as they fled from chasers on horseback. The snare would be tied to an anchor, like a small bush or tree that might uproot and drag when the horse was snared to absorb ‘gently’ the impact of the horse at full gait. A second, more robust, anchor was sometimes tied to the first to guarantee capture.
Riders would chase to direct the fleeing horse along the booby-trapped trail and even so close as to grab and pull sideways its tail to unbalance it – like cow tipping, but at speed. Dismounting and quickly sitting on the grounded horses neck secured it while it was roped to a riders mount for the journey home.
Morrow called horse capture ‘sport’ and described the techniques used as only rarely injuring a horse. For the modern-day reader and horse enthusiast, especially those who have watched a horse at full gait trip, fall, and cartwheel, to somersault into a slide, head and neck prone, along the ground or seen a horse cut on wire fences, the image of tripping and capturing horses in a wire neck snare will probably be about as far from sport as they could imagine. Our expectations about the treatment and welfare of horses have, mostly I think, changed very much.
- Morrow, H. (1975) New Zealand Wild Horses. Millwood Press
- Mincham, C.J. (2008) A Social and Cultural History of the New Zealand Horse. Ph.D. thesis, Massey University, Albany. 316 pp.
- Mitchell, P. (2015) Horse Nations: The Worldwide Impact of the Horse on Indigenous Societies Post-1492. Oxford University Press. 444 pp.