Europeans introduced horses to New Zealand from the early 19th century. At first horses were uncommon and expensive, so only chiefs owned them. Government officials often gifted horses to chiefs as a sign of goodwill.
Hapū (sub-tribes) banded together to buy horses, paying for them with large numbers of pigs or quantities of flax. Horses made overland travel faster, and probably helped bring neighbouring hapū and iwi (tribes) closer together.
From the 1840s, some tribes had significant numbers of horses and were able to gift them to other iwi. In some areas, Māori owned more horses than local Pākehā communities. By the 1850s, horses were the main form of land transport for Māori.
Horses were used by all iwi involved in the New Zealand wars of the 1860s.
Ngāpuhi were the first tribe to own horses. The first horses in New Zealand were a stallion and two mares, which arrived at Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands on 22 December 1814. One of the mares was a gift from the governor of New South Wales to the Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara.
Eruera Maihi Patuone, another Ngāpuhi chief, was gifted a horse named New Zealander by Governor George Grey. It won at the Auckland races.
Iwi often acquired horses as gifts from other tribes. Te Arawa requested and received a horse named Taika from Eruera Patuone, who also gave a mare to Te Kohika of Tūhourangi.
Ngāti Tūwharetoa were given their first horse by Patuone’s brother, Tāmati Wāka Nene. Tūwharetoa paramount chief Mananui Te Heuheu named his son Te Waaka after Nene, and sent him to live with Nene in the Hokianga. In 1842 Te Waaka returned to Taupō with a horse Nene had given him, escorted by a large Ngāpuhi party.
In 1875, a large group of Ngāti Raukawa visited the Taupō region on horseback. However, Parāone Taupiri and his wife came on foot, as their horses had recently died. Taupiri asked in a waiata (song) for horses from the Taupō chiefs. By then, they had so many that they gave him seven.
Māui Pōmare told a story – possibly apocryphal – about one of the first horses in Wellington, which was brought ashore by a trader. The local Ngāti Tama people ran away when they saw the horse swimming to shore, thinking that ‘a great taniwha [water monster] was making straight for us’. 1 One sailor tied a rope to the neck of the ‘taniwha’ and went to ride it. The sailors called to the local people, but the chief Taringa Kurī (also known as Te Kāeaea) was the only one who would approach the horse and ride it. The tribe then bought the horse by filling the ship’s hold with muka (flax fibre) and covering the deck with pigs.
Te Maitaranui, an important Ngāi Tūhoe chief, first saw horses in the Bay of Islands. The tribe bought their first horse at Tūranga (Gisborne) around the 1840s. It was named Tūhoe, demonstrating its importance to the iwi. Later, Tūhoe members went to Auckland to purchase horses, paying for them with pigs and potatoes. The price of a horse was around 40 pigs.
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.
Two groups of horses are closely associated with particular iwi (tribes).
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.
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 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.
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.
From the 19th century, horses were vital for transport between Māori communities and nearby towns. They were also used in farming. Most Māori lived in rural areas until the 1950s, so remained reliant on horses. In the 2000s, horses were still used to get to school or town in a number of rural Māori communities.
Tribal competitions involving horses have often been held. In the early 2000s, Ngāti Porou’s inter-marae competition, Pā Wars, included horse contests. Rodeos have significant Māori participation, often involving several generations of the same whānau (family).
Māori have long been involved in horse racing. In the early days, these were often informal events run on beaches. Māori also often took part in events organised by Pākehā.
In 1842, a horse race for Māori was included at a race meeting in Auckland. A similar race was run in 1851 in Christchurch, and there was even a 'wahines race' for Māori women at the 1877 Ōhinemutu races.
Māori riders and their horses also often took part in the main events. In the 1870s, horses owned by Māori won the Hawke's Bay Cup, the Tauranga Plate and other important races.
Māori also organised their own races. In the 1850s, race meetings were held at Katihiku Pā in Ōtaki. Meetings under the patronage of the Māori king were held in Ōtaki in the 1860s, and in Karioi in 1870. This led to a desire by iwi to set up their own racing clubs.
Clubs included the Ākura Māori Racing Club (later renamed the Kotahitanga Māori Racing Club) near Masterton, Waiōmatatini Native Jockey Club and the Tūranganui Native Club at Gisborne. However, none of these lasted very long. The Ōtaki-Māori Racing Club, formed in 1886, is the only Māori racing club still operating in 2008. Its first president was Hoani Taipua, who was also a member of the House of Representatives for Western Māori from 1887 to 1893. The club’s first race meeting was held at Rikiriki on 18 February 1887.
From 1899 to 1907 there was a Māori company within the Wellington (Wairarapa) Mounted Rifles. B Company (Wairarapa Mounted Rifles) was based at Pāpāwai, near Greytown. It was supported by Ngāti Kahungunu leader Tamahau Mahupuku, who supplied a large number of horses.
During the 1901 visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York to Rotorua, the Wairarapa Mounted Rifles acted as an unofficial escort. The journey up to Rotorua was arduous, and a large number of the horses died on the way.
Brooking, Tom. ‘The equine factor: the powerhouse of the colonisation of New Zealand to 1945.’ In On the horse’s back, 2004: proceedings of the 2004 conference of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, edited by Lily Baker, 53–56. Auckland: New Zealand Society of Genealogists, 2004.
Mincham, Carolyn. ‘Horse racing in the colonial community, 1841–1911.’ MA thesis, Massey University, 2001.
The website of New Zealand’s only remaining Māori racing club includes information on its history, and its activities today.
This 1999 article by Margaret Orbell explains the 1875 request for horses by Parāone Taupiri of Ngāti Raukawa, made in the traditional form of a waiata (song) to Ngāti Tūwharetoa chiefs.
This story from Māui Pōmare’s 1930 book Legends of the Māori discusses the impact that horses made on Māori when introduced in Wellington.