A new series on Maori TV celebrates the bonds between Maori and their horses, writes Scott Kara.
When it comes to horse riding, there's nothing like seeing a little Maori kid hoofing it down a hill on bareback. Take a tiki tour up to the Far North to remote settlements like Matauri Bay, or a place like Pawarenga, an isolated spot on the west coast halfway between the Hokianga and Ahipara, and you'll see plenty of kids racing around without a saddle and reins.
"What really stands out to me about Maori horse riders, especially in the Far North, is that they are absolutely courageous," says Annabelle Lee-Harris, presenter of new Maori Television series, Hoiho, which traces the 200-year history of Maori horse culture.
"Up there they like to start their kids young [and] on bareback because they are all about connecting with the horse and earning your stripes. And until they can gallop across the paddock bareback they don't get to ride in a saddle," she laughs.
It's at the Pawarenga beach races where Hoiho begins. As well as taking in the 600m beach sprints, and a gruelling cross-country race to end the day, there's also a scene of a young boy speeding effortlessly down a steep hill.
Lee-Harris, who grew up riding horses and is the daughter of former politician Sandra Lee, rates it as one of the best pieces of horsemanship she has ever seen.
"They [the kids] are some of the most amazing riders you will ever see. Because they are learning to ride without saddles they have the most amazing seat, they can gallop around and you won't see any space between the horse and the rider. They are so firmly planted on to those horses."
Hoiho came about because producers Michelle Lee (Lee-Harris' sister) and Brent Job-Iremonger, owners of production company Kapu Ti Productions, wanted to tell the story about the close bond between Maori and their horses.
On researching the subject more they found the most reliable date for the first horses being introduced to New Zealand was December 1841, when missionary Samuel Marsden brought a stallion and two mares over from Sydney.
"That was nearly 200 years ago and we thought, 'Oh, that's interesting'," remembers Job-Iremonger, "and pretty much every Maori family we know has a story about a horse, so we just kept going."
For Lee - who describes herself and her sister as part of a "horsey family" from Waiheke Island - there are a number of reasons why these stories need to be told, ranging from the social and economic impact horses had on Maori in the 1800s to the important part they still play today.
"Even most urban Maori, or even those ones living in Aussie, have a horsey story, and those stories seem to be embedded with stories about our family, our ancestors, and our place of belonging. So I think that's one reason it's still relevant today.
"But also coming from a political family we were interested in history and by telling a horsey story you can't help but tell a historical story.
"They had such a profound impact on New Zealand history, and particularly for our people, they changed the way we travelled and they had a tremendous impact on economic development before the Land Wars.
"So for us, Hoiho was an opportunity to celebrate Maori culture but also to present our history to our people in a way it hasn't been portrayed before."
Not that the show is just for Maori, because Lee believes New Zealanders in general have a great connection to their equine friends.
"We have a nostalgia for our rural roots and it reaffirms our own identity. And it's a little bit like Maori and Pakeha both loving rugby and fish and chips. Maori and Pakeha love horses too."
She also says there is a special majesty that comes with riding a horse - "and it's an even greater majesty when you are riding a horse among your own people and on your own land".
She's talking about people like Charlie Dunn who is one of the stars - albeit a very low-key one - of the first episode. He's a former New Zealand heavyweight boxing champion from the 1970s and dedicated horseman who lives in Mitimiti, just north of the Hokianga Harbour.
He grew up in the coastal settlement in the 1950s with his parents and nine brothers and sisters. In 1971 he left to travel the world and pursue his boxing career but was drawn back "home" in the early 90s.
"And a big part of being home are the horses," he tells TimeOut on the phone from the nearby Panguru Tavern where he is the publican.
"I never used a saddle until I was about 20. Not because I couldn't afford one, I just couldn't ride on one. But I couldn't do it now," he laughs. His main horse these days is called Rena who's "just an old country horse".
"They are the best for round here. All those flash townie horses can't handle this kind of country. You've got to feed them every day on bought food. But our horses, you just let them go into the bush, or on to the sand dunes, and they handle it really well - and they always come home."
Later in the series, Hoiho also examines the whakapapa of the Kaimanawa horse, visits Otaki Maori Racing Club, which has been going since the 1880s, and meets riders like Hoera Eriha (more commonly known as Koro Nut Nut) who saddles up every year as part of the Whanau Trekkers in Dannevirke. These intrepid horse riders do a 200km round trip from the small Manawatu town, out to the coast and back again, trekking through various farms, including Owahanga Station - the largest Maori-owned station in the North Island - on the way home.
"Koro Nut Nut is an example of the colour and character of people who love horses," says Lee.
"And for me too, the series is as simple as having a little Maori boy bareback on a horse. I think it's one of the great iconic images of New Zealand."
What: Hoiho, new series about Maori horse culture and history presented by Annabelle Lee-Harris
When: Sundays, 8pm, Maori Television
- TimeOutBy Scott Kara @scottkara Email Scott