Horse-lovers with the inclination to save the life of a Kaimanawa wild horse have just days left to apply for a horse from this year's Department of Conservation muster.
DoC is responsible for maintaining the wild horse population in the area at 300, to help preserve rare native plant life in the area.
The official count from the aerial census conducted by DoC in March indicates there are 469 horses within the designated management zone and another 38 horses outside the management area.
About 180 horses will be removed in the muster, which is planned for late May and the Kaimanawa Heritage Horses Welfare Society (KHH) is seeking suitable homes for as many of the animals as possible.
"Any horses not purchased will be going for slaughter," KHH spokesperson Simone Frewin said.
"Kaimanawa horses are the closest direct descendants of the original horses that helped colonise New Zealand and fought in our wars.
"They are a part of our heritage that is worth acknowledging and preserving. We really need good homes for these incredible horses. It's tragic to see such beautiful animals being trucked to the abattoir."
Ms Frewin says Kaimanawa horses have shot to fame in equestrian circles since the last muster in 2012.
"They've earned their celebrity status by proving trainable and talented. Some which were mustered and rehomed in 2012 are already out competing and winning in open competition."
Mares, stallions and young stock will be available from the muster and Ms Frewin said mares were the most likely to be unwanted and sent for slaughter.
"Most of the mares will have a foal at foot and will also be pregnant. People want the foals and the younger horses as, being younger, they are easier to tame and train, although people adopting a mare and foal 'package' can end up with three horses for just $400."
Ros Rowe of Hawke's Bay's Leg-up Trust uses horses to help rehabilitate troubled young people. Benny, a wild Kaimanawa from the 2010 muster, is one of the trust's therapy horses.
"He was a scared and very ugly foal when he arrived here but has turned into a beautiful horse with a real empathy towards the young people who come here.
"He has a very giving nature and so much to offer. You don't have to be a competitive rider to adopt and enjoy a Kaimanawa horse - they are suitable for gentle riding, trekking or simply as companion animals. It's the mares and foals who are not wanted that I feel for - if people can find it in their hearts to take on a mare and foal combination, they won't be disappointed."
Applications for the mustered horses close on April 30, and KHH will conduct an inspection before approving applications at the Waiouru Military Training Grounds.
"These are wild horses and need to be handled by capable horse owners, with appropriate facilities. However, if people want a horse but don't have the skills or the facilities we do have a list of trainers who will take the horse on the owner's behalf and do the initial handling and training," Ms Frewin said.
There are also options for people to sponsor a horse that will be placed with a suitable owner.
KHH chairman Elder Jenks said he hoped the Chinese Year of the Horse proved lucky for Kaimanawas this year.
"Time is running out for the 180 horses that are about to be removed and we currently have applications for less than a third of them".
For more information and to apply for a horse from this year's muster, go to kaimanawaheritagehorses.org.