Learn about the Kaimanawa wild horse working plan, how wild horses put native plants at risk and how you can help the horses.

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Wild horses inhabit the central North Island Waiouru Military Training Area. The herd is managed by the Department of Conservation with input from the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Advisory Group.


Kaimanawa Horses. Photo: A MacKintosh.
Kaimanawa horses

Wild horses have inhabited the central North Island since the 1870s.

Prior to 1981 there was no official monitoring of horse numbers, movements or range, or any formal management. It was believed that generally there were plenty of wild horses.

Pressure from land development, increased competition with the activities of people and hunting, drove down the number of wild horses and reduced their range to a fraction of its original extent.

In 1979 it was found that about 174 wild horses remained in the southern Kaimanawa area and in 1981 a protected area for "horses known as the Kaimanawa Wild Horses" was established in response to a public concern that the horses would be lost from the area.

Following establishment of the protected area horse numbers increased and their adverse effects on the environment became a concern.

A plan was prepared to address these concerns, in consultation with all involved stakeholders. Horse numbers are now managed in accordance with the approved plan which includes operations such as annual counts, musters and re-homing of surplus horses.

Research shows that the Kaimanawa wild horses are not a genetically unique population. They have roughly the same genetic makeup as standard domesticated horses, although they are of mixed breed with diverse genetic influences. They have most in common with the Thoroughbred and Station Hack breeds.

Threat to native plants

Ranunculus recens (Moawhango Buttercup). Photo: C Ogle.
Renunculus recens
(Moawhango buttercup)

At the time of the 1997 muster, the horse population was estimated at about 1,700. This number of horses took a heavy toll on the environment through grazing and trampling. Fragile and unique wetlands and tussocklands and many special plants were under threat.

Much of the area where the horses live has not been farmed for decades or ever converted to pasture. It therefore contains many native plants and plant communities that have now been lost elsewhere. 

The area is also geologically and climatically unusual. As a result it has many special plants, including at least 16 species which are threatened. Eleven species are known only in the wild horse range in the North Island. One was discovered in 1996 and others might yet be waiting to be found.

Unlike the horses this environment is unique to New Zealand, being found nowhere else in the world. Managing the horses is just one activity aimed at maintaining this unique landscape.

Animal welfare

Horse welfare issues remain paramount. A key objective in the Kaimanawa Wild Horses Plan (1996) is that treatment of the horses is humane and that horses must not suffer undue physical or behavioural trauma.

The essence of ethics (or welfare) is almost always a matter of doing what will have the best consequences, given the existing constraints.  On this basis, the ethics of using (or not using) a particular control method depends on what the alternatives are and the consequences of not using any method for controlling the population.  For feral animals this may involve significant suffering if no control is practised. 

Without natural predators the horse population would continue to increase until they starved.  Horses taken from the range in the early musters were in very poor condition. Since the herd was reduced the condition of the horses has improved resulting in more births.

Kaimanawa horses following muster.
Kaimanawa horses following muster

Wild horse management

In May 1996, the Minister of Conservation issued the Kaimanawa Wild Horses Plan. The plan is based on keeping some areas free of horses and controlling their numbers in remaining areas. 

In accordance with the plan, the herd was reduced significantly in 1997 with a remnant herd of around 500 horses retained in the southern section of the Waiouru Military Training Area. Since 1997, annual musters contained the herd within the chosen boundaries and attempted to remove the equivalent of the annual population increase.

This management regime has become the generally accepted "status quo" and in 2004 a revised Kaimanawa Wild Horses Working Plan was prepared to reclarify the goals and objectives of this regime and guide its implementation until 2009. It is currently under review.

In 2010, the herd was reduced to 300, which is the minimum number agreed in the plan. This means musters can be carried out every two years, significantly reducing costs to both DOC and the horse re-homing groups. 

Management is required for two main reasons:

  1. To mitigate the impacts of wild horses on the unique environmental values of the area
  2. For animal welfare reasons

You can help

Kaimanawa horses. Photo: J Lythgoe.
Kaimanawa horses

If you think you would like to own a Kaimanawa wild horse you need to consider the following information. It has been prepared by the Department of Conservation with the assistance of the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the New Zealand Veterinary Association.

A Kaimanawa wild horse is wild. You cannot expect it to behave like a domesticated or trained horse. Kaimanawa wild horses do not know anything about:

  • being left alone
  • fences
  • being tied up or stabled
  • grazing inside confined spaces
  • vehicles, people, pets or other things we have around domestic livestock
  • being handled
  • being transported (float or truck)

In 2014 horses will be offered to the public through two horse preservation groups, as approved by the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Advisory Group (KWHAG):

If you wish to have some of these horses, you will need to register your interest with this organisation. The group charges a standard fee and uses an application form with standards to assess each applicant. A sample of the application form can be viewed from the following link. The group will advise of transport costs to be met. The group also offers follow up and support.

Horses will be available only for a limited time and only a limited number of horses are available biannually. To be allocated any horse, you will need to meet certain criteria as set by the agents. In general you will be required to prove that you have suitable land and facilities to manage horses and have no history of animal abuse.

You may be interested to view a documentary video "Wind Eaters" and follow social media pages "Keeping up with the Kaimanawas" made by the Wilson sisters that follows the story of Kaimanawa wild horses from the 2012 muster being trained for show jumping competitions.

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