Kaimanawa muster: Wild west comes to Waiouru

Dan Hutchinson
Dan Hutchinson

Waikato News Director

The dramatic muster of wild horses on the Central Plateau returned this year with the NZ Defence Force’s Waiouru Military Training Area transforming from firing range to horse yards. Dan Hutchinson tagged along for a mild ride into the wild side.

In between Anzac services at the Waiouru Military Camp and the National Army Museum, a small convoy of civilian vehicles is checked at the security gates before slipping out the back into a 68,000ha firing range and training area.

The collection of barracks and courtyards quickly gives way to a vast swath of tussock country. To the east, the wide valleys and mountainous terrain of the Kaimanawa Range are reminiscent of the South Island high country and to the west, the three volcanic peaks of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe are a reminder that Mother Nature holds the real firepower.

It’s a unique place, full of special plants and creatures, regular army exercises and a population of wild horses that has been doing very well in recent years, galloping out to about 540.

On Anzac Day it could be the scene out of a movie - somewhere between The Man From Snowy River and Apocalypse Now, as nimble helicopters work in tandem to round up mobs of horses and drive them into a specially prepared trap.

It’s a gravel road with a 30km/h speed limit so it’s a sedate 20-minute drive to the yards. They were set up a few days earlier to take the horses rounded up from the surrounding hills. Once there, the convoy of observers is ushered into a camouflaged hide to watch proceedings from a strategic position atop a ridge.

Department of Conservation senior ranger for the Central Plateau biodiversity team, Sarah Tunnicliffe, says the plan is to keep the population to about 300 Kaimanawa wild horses. That’s enough to maintain the population’s genetic diversity but not enough to cause unsustainable damage to the flora and fauna in the area.

That target hasn’t been realistic in recent years thanks to Covid-19 and then the punishing wind and rain of Cyclone Gabrielle last year that wreaked havoc in the North Island, including many of the places owned by those involved in the muster and those who would otherwise be prepared to give the horses a new home.

“A lot of those people were trashed. The whole infrastructure for the horses after they leave the range was up in the air so it was better to leave it for another year and then regroup and let people sort their own places out.”

As a result, the population of horses stands at 540 when the muster begins, before 84 horses were rounded up and taken out of the area on Thursday to begin a new life of domestication.

Tunnicliffe says she is okay with the numbers for now because they have a second muster planned this year that involves rehoming more horses and the continuation of a trial that sees mares given a contraceptive injection, further slowing the population growth.

Aerial ballet

There’s not much happening at first as a handful of bamboozled horses meander about in the pens below but then the vibration of helicopter blades heralds a bit of action on a ridge about 1km away.

Helicopters are used in the Kaimanawa wild horse muster at Waiouru on April 25.
Helicopters are used in the Kaimanawa wild horse muster at Waiouru on April 25.

Horses crest the hilltop, silhouetted by the grey early morning sky as the two helicopters buzz away behind them, forcing the stallion and his mares to flee down the other side into the Moawhango River Gorge.

The horses are all located in handy locations for today’s muster, otherwise, a third helicopter would be necessary, Tunnicliffe says.

As the horses reach the river at the bottom of the valley, they try to escape the constant buzzing of the giant mechanical beast in the sky above them. Still, the pilots have the advantage of lightning speed and manoeuvrability, dancing back and forth to block the escape, at times not much further off the ground than the tops of the horses.

Still, it’s not unusual to lose a portion of the herd - it is only wind and noise that keep them in check.

Before long the horses are wading across the river and heading for the mouth of the trap but they still need to be pushed further into the fenced-off paddock, while half a dozen vets and handlers run a length of white plastic along the exit.

Eventually, the horses opt for the only path visible to them, and the trap is complete. The gates are closed, and the horses are left to calm down for a while and catch their breath before heading through the sorting gates to be checked for age, sex and health. They are sorted into pens until the end of the day when they are loaded into trucks for the next chapter in their new lives.

Helicopters herd  Kaimanawa wild horses at the  muster.
Helicopters herd Kaimanawa wild horses at the muster.

Joint effort

Kaimanawa wild horse management is not as basic as it was when it began in 1993. Large numbers of horses meant more drastic culling methods were used. Since then, advocates for the horses, public sympathy and a general desire by all involved to find less lethal methods of reducing the population have seen the development of the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Management Plan, prepared by the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Advisory Group.

The group is made up of representatives from DoC, NZ Defence Force, Ngāti Rangi, Mōkai Pātea, adjoining landowners, horse rehoming group Kaimanawa Heritage Horses (KHH), SPCA, Forest and Bird and the NZ Veterinary Association. It advises DoC on the management of the herd and representatives are present for the muster operations.

Lethal methods of population control have not been required for seven years, says Tunnicliffe, who has been involved with most musters since the beginning, in different capacities.

“Nothing has been culled for seven years. There are ones that don’t make it through the yards, whether they are found on the range injured or those kinds of things but we are not having to use that as an option at this stage.”

She says the model of control used here attracts attention in other parts of the world too, because often these kinds of programmes are managed in a confrontational way.

“Everybody says ‘this is how we are going to do it’, not listening or not working together ... they end up with a big problem and have to do something about it. We have been there, done that 20 years ago and worked through that – what to do and how to do it.”

 Kaimanawa wild horses at the  muster at Waiouru on April 25.
Kaimanawa wild horses at the muster at Waiouru on April 25.

Kaimanawa Heritage Horses chairwoman Carolyn Haigh oversees one of the most vital pieces of the puzzle - finding homes for the horses.

Finding enough homes each year is a big job but adopting a Kaimanawa horse is not quite as daunting as it sounds for prospective new owners.

The harsh and variable conditions of the area means Kaimanawa horses must be adaptable simply to survive. That adaptability is naturally bred into them and it also means they are perfect for a range of disciplines and activities. They are intelligent and quick to learn.

Haigh says the welfare team goes out to all the homes of those who apply to take a horse and check the properties as early as possible because quite often they need adjustments to the yards.

“They should have another horse on the property because horses are used to living in herds so it is very stressful for them to be by themselves.”

Most of the horses will first go to a trainer this year, otherwise, the new owners need to have someone available who is experienced in wild horses.

Closing the trap at  the Kaimanawa wild horse muster at Waiouru on April 25.
Closing the trap at the Kaimanawa wild horse muster at Waiouru on April 25.

“They will go to their homes when they are able to be handled and have a halter on and can be safely loaded onto a truck or float and then their training will continue at their home.”

The horses capture the imagination of many people and one of the ways KHH raises money to continue its work is by running bus tours out into the range to see the wild horses in their element. They took 600 people through last year and the tours sell out quickly.

Special competitions are held each year for rehomed Kaimanawa horses to demonstrate how far they have come in various disciplines.

Finding new homes for the horses often comes down to the last minute, with a rush of late applications.

Haigh hopes the contraceptive programme will ease the pressure on having to find so many homes for them.

Managing the population has been beneficial for the health of the wild horses, to the point where their breeding success rate has also increased, from 16 per cent increase each year to 25 per cent, Tunnicliffe says.

 Kaimanawa wild horses.
Kaimanawa wild horses.

“They are continuing to improve which is great but also problematic because it means there are more foals.”

She says the primary goal is to ensure the unique flora and fauna of the area is protected from the horses, which are an introduced species.

The area contains at least 16 species of plants that are listed in the New Zealand Threat Classification System. Many of these plants are in habitats that can sustain very little disturbance from horses.

The area is also one of only three major landscape refuges for red tussock grassland below the tree line in the North Island and contains unique hard tussock grasslands in basins that have probably not supported forests since the last period of glaciation.

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