Kaimanawa horse in tussock

Image: Sian Moffit | DOC

Introduction

Learn how and why we manage Kaimanawa wild horses, and how you can help.

Highlights

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.

How is the horse population managed?
  • Conducting an annual wild horse 'census'
  • Mustering every 2 years to keep the population stable
  • Rehoming as many horses as possible from the muster
  • Advocating for horse welfare
  • Monitoring herd movement to ensure public safety on SH1

Wild horses of the central North Island

Wild horses were first recorded in the area in 1876.

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

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

Land development, increased competition with human activities, and hunting drove down the number of wild horses. By 1980 they were limited to the southern Kaimanawa area where only about 174 wild horses remained.

New Zealanders were concerned these horses would be lost, so in 1981 a protected area for "horses known as the Kaimanawa Wild Horses" was established. But once protected, the horse population surged – threatening the area's fragile ecology and the horses themselves.

In consultation with all stakeholders, a plan was prepared. Horse numbers are now managed in accordance with the approved plan which includes operations such as annual counts, musters and rehoming of surplus horses.

Threat to native plants

In 1997 the horse population was about 1,700. These 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 has not been farmed for decades, or ever converted to pasture. It 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 threatened species. Eleven species are known only in the area. One was discovered in 1996 and there may be others yet to be found.

Unlike the horses this environment is unique to New Zealand. Managing the horses is just one activity aimed at maintaining this unique landscape.

Wild horse management

DOC began a population management programme in 1993 to keep the horse herds to a practicable level. A smaller horse population protects the habitat, improves the horses' condition, and reduces effects on the land. 

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 the 1997 muster. A remnant herd of around 500 horses was 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". 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 2017.

In 2010, the herd was reduced to 300 – 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 rehoming groups. The herd has been kept to 300 since.

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.

You can help

If you'd like to own a Kaimanawa wild horse you need to consider the following information. It has been prepared by DOC 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)

Every two years horses are 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 these groups.

To be allocated any horse, you'll need to meet criteria set by the agents. In general you'll be required to prove that you have suitable land and facilities to manage horses, and have no history of animal abuse.

More information

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