Story: Hōiho – horses and iwi

Page 2. Horses in Māori culture

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For some, horses seemed so extraordinary that they called them taniwha or tipua (supernatural creatures). Others saw these four-legged animals as similar to dogs, which Māori had known for centuries. So horses were sometimes called ‘kurī’ or ‘kararehe’, which had previously just meant dog. A Tūhoe chief, Te Maitaranui, described these new beasts to his people as 'kurī waha tangata' (people-carrying dogs).

However, the most common name was hōiho, a transliteration of horse. An 1875 Māori-language advertisement for the sale of a stallion (transliterated as tāriana) used two different terms for horse: ‘He hōiho kaha, he kurī kakama ki te haere’ – it is a strong horse (hōiho), it is a fast horse (kurī). 1

One uncommon word for horse was ‘kāmia’, which came from Māori hearing Pākehā saying ‘Come here’ to horses. Ngāti Porou people called a large horse a ‘hōiho pūru kāta’ – a pull-cart horse.


While horses were not incorporated into Māori mythology, they sometimes became mystical symbols. The prophet Te Kooti was famed for his white horse, in one tradition called Pōkai Whenua (travel the land), in others Te Panerua. It was believed to have spiritual power. Te Kooti also had a black horse, which shadowed his group and was considered tapu (sacred). Both were seen as horses of the apocalypse, after the four horses of different colours in the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

Later, the Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana was said to have ridden the same white horse (named Te Ia in this tradition) into the Rongopai meeting house at Repongaere on the East Coast. The house had been built to receive Te Kooti in 1887.

Associations with iwi

Two groups of horses are closely associated with particular iwi (tribes).

Kaimanawa horses

Wild horses inhabit the southern Kaimanawa mountains in the central North Island. They are descended from horses which were released by or escaped from their Pākehā or Māori owners. Kaimanawa horses are associated with Ngāti Tūwharetoa, and the Ngāti Tama Whiti hapū in particular. They are seen as kaitiaki (guardians) and taonga (treasures), and a Waitangi Tribunal claim was lodged to prevent them being culled.

Dog tucker

One man buying a ‘Māori horse’ from the East Coast found that the locals were tough negotiators. After he offered $50 for a horse, its owner went inside and came back with a gun, saying that he might as well shoot the animal for dog meat if it was only worth that much. The purchaser hastily made a better offer, which was accepted.

Nāti horses

Nāti horses are found on the East Coast and associated with the Ngāti Porou tribe – who are also nicknamed Nāti. These horses are a mix of breeds, including Clydesdales and thoroughbreds. They have a sleepy disposition, and are relaxed but intelligent. They are seen as versatile, whether ascending mountains, going into water or the bush, or travelling over stony ground.

The Māori horse

In many rural Māori communities in the North Island, horses became an integral part of the community. This close association with horses probably led to the coining of the term ‘Māori horses’. These are mixed-breed saddle horses, generally from Northland, the Bay of Plenty, King Country and East Coast regions. They often live in a semi-feral state, with mares being run with a stallion in a herd and foals weaned naturally. They are not wild – every horse has an owner, and breeding is controlled by culling unsuitable animals and bringing in fresh blood. This makes for sound, sure-footed horses that are suited to a range of activities.

  1. Te Wananga 21, (25 September 1875), book 2, p .235. › Back
How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Hōiho – horses and iwi - Horses in Māori culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 August 2022)

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