Hamilton's resident war horse Gunner - the 300kg bronze statue in Memorial Park - had a VIP equine visitor on Sunday in the form of Joey - the 64kg life-sized puppet and the star of The National Theatre of Great Britain's stage production of War Horse.

The meeting of two inanimate beings, both created in tribute to the thousands of horses that were sent to the World War I battlegrounds of Europe, may sound like a surreal scenario to play out by the Waikato River on a sunny afternoon.

But the moment Joey walked into the park with an authentic gait and a totally believable snort and toss of the head it was clear this was a puppet with heart, and why the show is described by reviewers around the world as an astonishing piece of theatre.

The life-sized puppets created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, bring breathing, charging horses to life on the stage.

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Joey makes friends with a real horse from Hamilton's War Horse Commemorative March Group. Photo / Peter Tiffany
Joey makes friends with a real horse from Hamilton's War Horse Commemorative March Group. Photo / Peter Tiffany

The Tony Award-winning production of War Horse is coming to The Civic, in Auckland in June and Joey's visit to Hamilton and to Gunner was to launch a promotional visit for the New Zealand season of the show's international tour.

Gunner, the statue of a Waikato Mounted Rifles horse, was unveiled at Memorial Park on Armistice Day 2017. The creation of former New Zealand Defence Force artist Matt Gauldie, it honours the 8000 New Zealand horses sent to the South African War and 10,000 sent to World War I.

Of all these horses only four came back from the Western Front and one from South Africa. The last, named Bess, died and was buried in Bulls in 1934.

Dr Ngapare Hopa tangata whenua adviser on the Gunner project (right) and president of the War Horse Board, Noeline Jeffries, meet Joey, held by actor and puppeteer Shaun McKee. Photo / Peter Tiffany
Dr Ngapare Hopa tangata whenua adviser on the Gunner project (right) and president of the War Horse Board, Noeline Jeffries, meet Joey, held by actor and puppeteer Shaun McKee. Photo / Peter Tiffany

At Memorial Park, Joey was met by a contingent from Hamilton's War Horse Commemorative March Group - astride their very real horses - and led by John King, riding Buck.

Because Joey - manipulated by three actors who are specially trained as puppeteers - is so realistic, the initial meeting with the real thing was a hesitant moment.

Luckily, Buck led with calmness and confidence and the actual horses seemed at ease with the star.

The welcoming party included many of the people behind the Hamilton war horse statue, including the president of the War Horse Board, Noeline Jeffries, and Margaret Evans, of the Theatre of the Impossible (TOTI) charitable trust.

"When I first saw Joey I thought it was a real horse, the ears and the tail, the movement. It just looked so real," says Noeline, a long-time equestrian tutor. "I just thought it was amazing."

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She said: "I've seen the movie War Horse and I just cried, so when I see the production in Auckland I am going to need loads of tissues."

Margaret said: "It's pretty obvious that they have had advice from people who know horses. Every movement, even when it was with the children, the way it moved its tail and its ears. It was just magnificent, what a fabulous thing."

Joey, star of the show War Horse, meets New Zealand's war horse Gunner at Memorial Park in Hamnilton on Sunday. Holding Joey is actor and puppeteer Shaun McKee. Photo / Peter Tiffany
Joey, star of the show War Horse, meets New Zealand's war horse Gunner at Memorial Park in Hamnilton on Sunday. Holding Joey is actor and puppeteer Shaun McKee. Photo / Peter Tiffany

Also on hand was Dr Ngapare Hopa of Ngati Wairere who worked with TOTI throughout the project as tangata whenua adviser, and gave Gunner the Maori name Te Utu, which references the cost of something, in Gunner's case the cost of war.

She was impressed as everyone else by the visiting war horse. "You look and see him and think he is alive," she said.

She decided on the spot on Sunday that Joey too should have a Maori name .
"I think a good name for Joey is Te Wairua, which means The Essential Spirit; it refers to the universal quality of life, as all life emanates from water," Dr Hopa said.

To which Margaret added: It is a good name; that what it is all about, it links all living things."

Since its 2007 debut in London, War Horse has been seen by more than eight million people worldwide with productions touring to 97 cities in 11 countries,

The winner of more than 25 international awards, including a Tony Award for Best Play on New York's Broadway, War Horse is based on the book by Michael Morpurgo about a young boy called Albert and his horse, Joey.

At the outbreak of World War I, Joey is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France where he is soon caught up in enemy fire. As fate takes him on an extraordinary journey, Albert, who remained on his parents' Devon farm, cannot forget Joey.

Though still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find Joey and bring him home.

War Horse has 23 puppets, including horses Joey and Topthorn - and Joey as a foal - as well as a goose, two swallows and two crows.

The horses are each operated by three puppeteers - the Head - the Heart and the Hind. They work together to create the character of each horse and to produce the horse noises. Photo / Peter Tiffany
The horses are each operated by three puppeteers - the Head - the Heart and the Hind. They work together to create the character of each horse and to produce the horse noises. Photo / Peter Tiffany

The horses are each operated by three puppeteers - the Head - the Heart and the Hind. The three work together to create the character of each horse and to produce the horse noises.

The horse puppets weigh approx 43kg for the body, including the puppeteers backpacks, and another 7.7 kilos for the head.

They are made of cane, leather and tyvec, a material used in book-binding (for the manes and tails). The torso is reinforced with aluminium and able to carry a rider on top.

War Horse is coming to The Civic, Auckland from June 21 for a strictly limited season. More information: warhorseonstage.co.nz