They shoot horses—don’t they?

Written by      

Marilyn Jenks

Under the heading “Animal Pests” on the Department of Conservation’s (DoC) website, and sandwiched be­tween “Judas Workshop 2002” and “Mustelids”, can be found a man­agement plan for the wild horses of the Kaimanawa Mountains, animals many regard as honorary natives. Developed by the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Working Party, this consid­ers three possible approaches to the management of the animals, and also discusses population control of the herd.

The first option is to maintain a manageable population in the area the horses occupy. The second is to maintain a herd in the southern or south-western zone of the current range. The third is to relocate the herd to a new area. Each option is evaluated in a matrix that consid­ers the effects on the ecosystem the horses inhabit (particularly on rare native plants) and on public and equine safety. For years there has been a conflict between the welfare of the horses and the well-being of plants in the native grasslands the horses roam.

However, according to Bill Fleury, DoC’s technical support manager in the Wanganui conservancy, the analyses are complicated by effects of the horses on the Kaimanawa flora will not be clearly understood for an­other 40-50 years. Some monitoring of plant life is being carried out by the army, and there is ongoing research into the state of red tussock in the area. Data have only been collected for a few years—too little for trends to merge. “Some plants seem to be thriving while others are not,” says Fleury. Little more can be concluded.

DoC’s preferred option is to shift the horses out of the northern zone of the Waiouru military training area, and in the June 2004 muster 27 horses were removed.

“The northern Waiouru military training area has the most important environmental conservancy values and is the most fragile, and it is at higher altitude and less modified,” says Fleury. “So that area will be managed as a horse-free zone—a zero-density area. It usually has first priority when we’re mustering. If there are horses there, we try and get them out.”

Originally, DoC proposed shooting the northern horses; however, after receiving submissions opposed to this course, it settled on mustering them instead. Horses still roam on private land in the north and east.

Another 198 horses were re­moved from the Argo management zone and adjacent Awapatu catch­ment in the June muster, leaving a herd of about 500 to roam over 20,000-25,000 ha. Since DoC’s first muster in 1993, 2647 horses have been removed from the ranges. The largest muster was in 1997, when 1069 horses were removed, but this was exceptional. Most years only 100 or so have been taken, although the number has increased to about 200 over the last three years.

Some of those outside DoC who have handled Kaimanawa horses have never been happy with the decision to remove the northern animals. Horse trainer Robyn Sisley says these are the “real” Kaimanawa horses. “The northern area is more remote, and there have been no domesticated horses let loose there. Now we are going to lose the purity of the breed, which is a tragedy.”

Sisley, with her dressage instruc­tor, Heike Ehrlenbach, trained 50 horses from the 1997 muster with a view to preparing them for new homes, although not many were keen to take them.

“There was a negative precon­ception about them, that they were wild-looking and ill-behaved. It made people reluctant to get one,” says Ehrlenbach. “But a lot of the time you can’t tell the difference between a trained Kaimanawa and a show pony.”

Bay of Plenty rider Hannah Eagle is one who has dispelled the stere­otype of the untamable Kaimanawa horse. She is the 12-year-old owner of Kaimai Keeper, a 13.2-hand bay mare. The pair have just made the Bay of Plenty Pony Club team—Ea­gle is the youngest rider to have been selected—and are successfully show jumping.

However, not all relocated Kaim­anawa horses go on to do so well. Some people who initially expressed an interest in taking a mustered animal did so for altruistic reasons, says Sisley, and had little or no ex­perience with horses. Consequently some relocated animals weren’t handled for a number of years, lead­ing to calls to organisations such as the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Welfare Trust (KWHWT) requesting the horses be rehomed yet again.

Because the horses were wild, their senses are very acute, says Sis­ley. “Their brains are still active, and they are switched-on horses.”

Ehrlenbach agrees: “They are smarter than the average domesti­cated horse and they have better instincts,” she says. “Natural horse­manship techniques work really well with these horses. Trying to dominate them doesn’t work; you need to work with the horse, get it to cooperate with you, rather than you dominating it.”

KWHWT chairman Elder Jenks and welfare officer Marilyn Jenks say part of the problem with rehoming has been that homes haven’t always been checked first. In some cases, say the Jenks, it would have been more humane to shoot the horses immediately after the muster than place them in what turned out to be unsuitable homes.

From the 2005 muster onwards, three organisations will be respon­sible for the rehoming of mustered horses, say the Jenks. But it is not that easy to find good homes, and pro-horse groups would like to see other humane solutions to the herd’s perpetual growth. In the meantime, DoC is continuing to investigate ways of managing the population and minimising the horses’ impact on the ecology of the Kaimanawas.

Immuno-contraception is one approach that has been considered, although it is more expensive than mustering. Injecting a mare with a protein extracted from pig ova caus­es its immune system to produce antibodies that block fertilisation for about a year. However, there are significant associated costs and diffi­culties, says Fleury. Research carried out in the mid-1990s has also raised questions about the effectiveness of immuno-contraception, although the quality of the vaccine used in the trial was suspect.

A follow-up study became embroiled in further controversy after a number of horses to be used for the research died or were shot on an Ohingaiti, Waikato property. They were undernourished, and their plight was highlighted on TV3’s

20/20, which featured footage show­ing them to be bony and exhausted. None of the parties involved—MAF, DoC, the farm owner, the Veterinary Association or Massey University—appeared willing to take responsibil­ity for the animals.

Fleury says new research on an improved immuno-contraception technique may reduce the cost, al­though expense is likely to remain an issue for DoC. Difficulty of adminis­tration is another possible obstacle. To administer the vaccine, Fleury argues, the entire herd would need to be mustered, in contrast to the approximately 20 per cent mustered each year. KWHWT’s Diane Sealey disputes this, pointing out that DoC already musters more than 20 per cent of the herd annually.

“If 97 mares were vaccinated (the number mustered for the 1995 vaccine trial’, and the vaccine was only 90 per cent effective,” she says, “it would almost halve the number of horses needing to be removed the following year.”

For now, the Kaimanawa horses are in a holding pattern. DoC’s plan calls for annual musters to restrict the herd to 500 animals, while organisations such as KWHWT will continue to search for good homes for the horses that are uprooted from the wild each year.