Story: Hōiho – horses and iwi

From the Kaimanawa horses of the central North Island to the adaptable ‘Nāti horses’ of the East Coast, from rodeo riders to Māori racing clubs, the association of Māori with horses has been long and rich.

Story by Basil Keane
Main image: Riding a horse to market

Story summary

All images & media in this story

Introduction of horses

When horses were first brought to New Zealand in the 19th century, they were expensive. Only Māori chiefs could afford them.

Later, many horses were bought, paid for with pigs and flax. Horses made travel faster, and by the 1850s were the main form of land transport for Māori. They were also used as gifts to other tribes.

All the tribes who fought in the New Zealand wars of the 1860s had horses.

Tribes and early horses

Ngāpuhi was the first tribe to have horses. In 1814 their chief Ruatara was given a mare – one of the first horses in New Zealand. Ngāpuhi later gifted horses to the Te Arawa and Tūwharetoa tribes.

Māori who saw a horse swimming ashore at Wellington were said to have been frightened, thinking it was a taniwha (water monster). However, their chief was not afraid. He rode the horse, and the tribe bought it.

Horse names

Some Māori found horses so strange that they called them ‘taniwha’ or ‘tipua’ (supernatural creatures). Others thought they were similar to dogs, because they have four legs, so they called them ‘kurī’ (dog). Mostly people used the word ‘hōiho’, based on the English word ‘horse’.


The prophet Te Kooti had a white horse and a black horse, which were believed to have spiritual power. Later, the Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana was said to have ridden Te Kooti’s white horse.

Tribal associations

  • Kaimanawa horses, which run wild in the central North Island, are associated with Tūwharetoa people, who see them as kaitiaki (guardians) and taonga (treasures).
  • Nāti horses live on the North Island’s East Coast, with Ngāti Porou people – who are also nicknamed Nāti.

Rural communities

Horses became important for transport in rural Māori communities, and were used on farms. In some remote areas, they are still used to get to school or town.

Horse racing

Māori took part in races organised by Pākehā, or in races just for Māori. A number of Māori racing clubs were set up. One, the Ōtaki Māori Racing Club, started in 1886 and was still going in 2008.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Hōiho – horses and iwi', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 February 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 24 Nov 2008, updated 1 Jul 2015