Until the First World War, when motor vehicles became more widely available, New Zealand’s development largely relied on the power of horses. While early economic development was based on income from meat and wool, it has been said that ‘New Zealand was built as much on the horse’s as the sheep’s back’. 1
In the early 2000s, New Zealanders’ involvement with horses is still widespread, but is more often recreational than utilitarian.
The first horses in New Zealand were a stallion and two mares brought from Australia by the missionary Samuel Marsden. They arrived at Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands on 22 December 1814, on board the Active. Also on board was Ngāpuhi leader Ruatara, who had been visiting Sydney. He had been gifted one of the mares by the governor of New South Wales.
Marsden’s companion J. L. Nicholas believed the settlers would benefit greatly from ‘so serviceable and necessary an animal as the horse’. According to Nicholas, the local Māori, who had never seen such animals, ‘appeared perfectly bewildered with amazement’, and regarded them as ‘stupendous prodigies’. 2
A Māori account
Another account, possibly apocryphal, tells of the first time a group of Māori in the Wellington region saw a horse. It was swimming ashore from a ship. ‘We who were gathered on the beach immediately ran for our lives, for we knew a great taniwha [water monster] was making straight for us.’ After the chief Tāringa Kurī rode the horse, the tribe bought it and ‘all the members of the tribe … took a ride on the taniwha.’ 3
The importation of horses, mainly from Australia and to a lesser extent from Britain, really began in the 1840s.
By 1900 there were more than 260,000 horses in New Zealand. At its peak in 1911 the horse population reached 404,284 – about one horse for every three people. By 2004, horse numbers had reduced to 76,918.