People & Horses

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.

Early colonisation

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 [1], 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 [2]. Reportedly the Mataatua and Tûwharetoa tribes of the Bay of Plenty, Rotorua and Taupo Districts owned almost 2000 [3].

New Zealand’s first-nation people, the Maori, adopted and managed herds of horses very soon after European colonisation. The picture comes from Morrow’s (1975) ‘Wild Horses New Zealand’ accompanied by the caption “A field of three in the wahines’ [womens’] race in the Waikato in the 1890s. Maori women were pioneers in riding astride.”


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 [1] – 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.) [1].

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 Dust jacket, front, Morrow 1975where 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 [1]. 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.

Horse capture

Morrow [1] describes catching horses with wire (No 8) snares suspended across worn animal trails that wound through scrub.

Wild horse capture.

Wild horse capture. “Wild horses in the process of a hunt at Maraenui, East Coats, Auckland. According to information at the Turnbull Library, Maoris trapped wild horses in a cutting on the Maraenui Road” – from Morrow (1975) Wild Horses New Zealand.

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.


  1. Morrow, H. (1975) New Zealand Wild Horses. Millwood Press
  2. Mincham, C.J. (2008) A Social and Cultural History of the New Zealand Horse. Ph.D. thesis, Massey University, Albany. 316 pp.
  3. Mitchell, P. (2015) Horse Nations: The Worldwide Impact of the Horse on Indigenous Societies Post-1492. Oxford University Press. 444 pp.

The report from the National Academy of Science. An independent committee’s report on the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program – shocking reading.

The importance of our being critical of ‘official’, often government, estimates of wildlife population size and growth got illustrated this month in the worst way possible…

… with the National Academy of Sciences release of Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward (2013).

Was doing it badly in New Zealand unusual?

Accurate estimates of population size and growth are the foundation of scientifically-based management for the welfare of animals, health of ecosystems, and their wise use. During work with free-roaming horses of the Kaimanawa Mountains, New Zealand, I observed practices generating and using information about population size and growth [1, 2] that I thought dubious.

My intuitions were correct. Colleagues and I subsequently showed that the techniques used were flawed [3]. Methods to estimate population size were inconsistent and estimates not accurate [4]. The sequence of counts dramatically over-estimated population growth [5].

But I did not think my experience in New Zealand during the late-1990s would be typical internationally.  I thought New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC) probably unusually careless in their responsibility for feral horses and stakeholders.

DoC’s important and magnificent work with New Zealand’s native species makes feral horses a peripheral, probably even inappropriate, responsibility. And no one comes to New Zealand to see or hunt horses like they do introduced trout or Himalayan Thar – introduced species with economic value.

cover JWM

The scientific Journal of
Wildlife Management is published by the USA’s Wildlife Society – an organisation of local wildlife professionals and scientists that has been publishing about wildlife science and practice since 1937.

They do it better in the USA – right?

Big mammals are a native and economically important wildlife in North America, where whole university departments, government agencies, and scientific journals are devoted to the biology of big wildlife. Certainly, the quantity and quality of scientific publications on wild horse populations’ size and growth was, although not without flaws, is better than anywhere else.

When a DoC field officer, in response to my criticism of his estimates of Kaimanawa horse population size and growth, told me that the techniques used were OK because they were like those used in the rangelands of the North American West I ‘pulled my punch’. If DoC were following US protocols then who am I to dispute their quality? The DoC field officer would prove this month to be correct but, unfortunately, not in the way expected.

whbprogram_-WidePar-000104-Image_WideParimage_2_2The emperor has no clothes

Writ large in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report is the naked acknowledgement that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), responsible since 1971 for the monitoring and management of around 170 populations of feral horses or asses across 27 million acres in 10 states, has stuffed up. It hasn’t stuffed up once. The BLM has stuffed up consistently on a grand scale.

BLM practice in estimating population size and growth was so bad as to be even worse than those found flawed in New Zealand. BLMs methods have been inconsistent, failed to consider that their populations are not closed, failed to be accurate, provide no measure of estimate reliability or precision, and have not reported or even kept records of their techniques and outcomes so that they can be evaluated.

The truth, detailed in the report, is that after four decades and billions of dollars of investment – BLM’s 2012 budget for the wild horse and burro program was $75 million – accurate estimates of population size and growth for all but a handful of the many-many horse populations DO NOT EXIST.

The report tries to be helpful by offering the guidance that population growth is probably commonly between 15 and 20% per year but this is just a best-guess from poor data without statistical confidence.

ignorance quote‘Wiping the slate clean’ to start again

It is clear that efforts are being made to estimate population size and growth better. It is commendable that the BLM commissioned the work of the committee, and welcomed its report. Clearly there is, at last, some new and progressive thinking in the BLM.

For many involved on both sides of this debate, however, and wildlife scientists who have advocated over several decades for improvements in wildlife practice, this will be too little, too late.


The Wildlife Society Bulletin. Also a scientific publication of the USA’s Wildlife Society.

What sort of groupthink must have existed in the BLM  for it to ignore decades of ‘textbook’ wildlife science and practice from the nation’s, indeed world’s, brightest and most experienced?

What level of self-deception, ignorance, and incompetence must have existed for the BLM to believe for so long it was doing a good job?

What sort of unprofessional ethic must exist for a tax-payer funded government agency to knowingly use dubious data to meet public interest and defend its policy in the face of public concerns?

The BLM  and Department of the Interior have only themselves to blame for the extremely poor confidence and heightened scepticism from yesterday’s and today’s public.

In Africa where resources are less and the challenges are greater, wildlife agencies do a better job of large wildlife science than the BLM. I have been doing wildlife science for 20 years. I have never seen a case of such egregious, sustained incompetence in spite of remarkable opportunities to do better.

The only way forward is to wipe the slate clean…

… but only, I think, after a very public apology. But from who? Where does the ‘buck stop’? A lack of accountability in the Department of the Interior appears to be a part of the problem.

Be vigilant, be critical

The NAS report comes as a confirmatory warning to the many of us that care about wildlife and their environment. Be vigilant to the waste and misuse of tax-payer funds to generate sub-standard estimates of population size and growth that are so bad as to be fraudulent because they are used with false-authority to misinform us.

I am disgusted with the history of expediency and lack of positive leadership amongst government agencies on the issue of horse population monitoring and management.

Amongst my dispassionate weblog posts about the science of appreciating, managing, and conserving odd-toed ungulates like horses, a more emotional response to the topic is occasionally warranted. This was one of those times.

This post serves as a preamble to further dispassionate critique of the information we are fed. I will continue to identify problems and solutions to population size and growth estimation because, as the NAS report demonstrates, it matters very much.

Post-script [3 July, 2013]

Recent re-reading of the scientific literature on feral horse populations in the western USA illustrated to me just how incompetent the BLM have been. The conclusions of the 2013 NAS report that identify deficiencies and plain wrongness of BLM feral horse and burro population size and growth estimates, and their recommendations to address those problems, sadly and remarkably similarly, echo the report published by Michael Wolfe in 1980 [6] – 33 years ago and just nine years after the BLM took responsibility for the populations. It is clear that the BLM has had a wanton disregard for science, evidence and best-practice.


1 Rogers, G.M. (1991) Kaimanawa feral horses and their environmental impacts. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 15, 49-64

2 Department of Conservation (1995) Kaimanawa Wild Horses Plan. Department of Conservation, Wanganui Conservancy

3 Linklater, W., et al. (2001) Estimating Kaimanawa feral horse population size and growth. Science & Research Unit, Science, Technology and Information Services, Department of Conservation

4 Linklater, W.L. and Cameron, E.Z. (2002) Escape behaviour of feral horses during a helicopter count. Wildlife Research 29, 221-224

5 Linklater, W.L., et al. (2004) Feral horse demography and population growth in the Kaimanawa Ranges, New Zealand. Wildlife Research 31, 119-128

6 Wolfe, M. L. 1980. Feral horse demography: a preliminary report. Journal of Range Management, 33, 354-360.



Horses transformed human societies. The domestication of the horse, more than any other animal, altered the trajectory of our species – accelerating knowledge, resource and cultural exchange and conflict, leading to cycles of technological revolution [1]. And yet…, ironically, we almost exterminated them all.we hunted horses to ext, text box

 Twenty thousand years ago, in the midst of our planets last ice age, perhaps one million or so modern humans like you and me were living as hunter-gatherers. They had no domestic plants or animals – relying entirely on what they could win from a biologically diverse wilderness for survival. They hunted horses… and a number of other large herbivorous mammals besides.

Palaeolithic people hunting horses and aurochs at Olga Grande, Portugal. Source: artist Marcos Oliveira,

From 20,000 to 12,000 years ago northern Europe and Asia were dominated by the mammoth fauna, including bison, rhinoceros, horse and reindeer. In some places our species were relatively sedentary and made shelters of mammoth bones, tusks and hides. In the south we were more nomadic and followed migrating herds of horses and reindeer. Our late-Palaeolithic ancestors drove horses up against rocks or into corrals – helped by commensal dogs –  and slaughtered them with spears [2]. Horses roamed Eurasia in enormous numbers. Their broken remains after slaughter and consumption are common where Palaeolithic people lived.

Paintings of mammoths, a horse, and a rhincoeros by Palaeolithic people in Kapova Cave, Burzyanskiy, Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia. Source: Photo by Ivan Shkalikov via Panoramio.

Planet temperature rose by a staggering 7 degrees Celsius after the final cold-snap of the ice age – called the Younger dryas 12,800 to 11,500 years ago – rapid climate change. Forests advanced over Europe’s receding steppe and the ice-age mega-fauna of gigantic mammoths and woolly rhinoceros retreated to the still cold and far reaches of northern Europe and Asia to finally disappear between 8,000 and 3,800 years ago. Horses still lived in parts of Eurasia but in smaller herds.

It is unknown what contributed most to the mammoth fauna’s collapse and the final demise of the wild horse over most of Europe and Asia – climate and habitat change or hunting – probably a combination. It is certain, however, that we hunted horses and the Eurasian wild horse is now extinct.

But then, sometime, just before extinction took the last Eurasian wild horse, some were domesticated.

Today we seven billion people and our few domestic animal species, a fragment of the planets vertebrate biodiversity, populate the world. Together we are the majority – a staggering ~97% – of the world’s land-living vertebrate biodiversity by weight (biomass) [3]. The 65% of vertebrate biomass attributable to domestic stock is made up largely of the five big herbivores- sheep, goats, pigs, cattle and horses [1].


Horses transformed the relationships of our species races and cultures. The forty metre tall statue of Genghis Khan on horseback, Tov Province, Tsonjin Boldog, Mongolia. Source:

Horses were domesticated last of the ‘big-five’ domesticates but are most responsible for the composition, distribution and relationships of our species races and cultures today. Horses transformed agriculture, industry, medicine, communication, and conflict because they were adaptable as beasts of burden, for food and clothing, and more rapid transportation. Almost 60 million horses again populate our planet – check out the informatoin available from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.

There is a lesson our relationship with horses for the conservation of other species and their habitat. A few domestic survivors of the horse – an animal we exploited to extinction in the wild – became fundamental to advances in the quality of our lives. How many species extinctions since were, or in the future will be, plants and animals with yet unrealised potential to make our lives better?

In future posts under the category ‘People & Horses’ I will explore the relationship between our species and the horse, beginning with what we know about how they were domesticated and the consequence of that new relationship for both our species.


1 Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond, J. (1999) W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

2 Animals as Domesticates. Clutton-Brock, J. (2012) Michigan State University Press

3 Eating Our Future: The Environmental Impact of Industrial Animal Agriculture. Appleby, M. (2008) World Society for the Protection of Animals

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