Horses were essential for trade and communication, carrying people, freight and mail all over the country, until the advent of trucks, cars and trains. When mechanical engines were introduced, their power was measured in terms of horsepower – the power to lift 33,000 pounds (15 tonnes) one foot (30 centimetres) high for one minute.
Horses made travel easier and faster through the rugged New Zealand landscape. Before their arrival, people travelled on foot or by water.
Until proper roads were constructed, settlers relied on bridle paths and packhorses to transport their goods. Packhorses carried everything imaginable – all kinds of equipment, household items, and even babies in their cradles.
Horses made it easier to cross waterways – a rider could cling to the mane or tail of their horse as it swam across deep or flooded rivers.
Before there were school buses to take children to school, they walked or rode ponies or horses. Some children rode up to 30 kilometres to get to school. School ponies rarely had just one rider – the whole family would clamber aboard. Ponies waited in a paddock by the school until the end of the day, and then took the children home.
Wagons and carts
Wagons or drays were wooden carts without springs, which were used by farmers and general carriers to transport a wide variety of goods. At first, heavy four-wheeled wagons pulled by bullock teams were used on untracked country. As road surfaces improved, horses took over from bullocks, cutting travel time in half.
Two-wheeled wooden carts sometimes had sprung suspension. They had many uses – carrying rubbish, night soil or mail, or as ambulances, police vans and fire engines. Butchers, bakers, grocers and milkmen all made deliveries with horse-drawn carts.
Carriages were more lightly constructed than wagons and carts, and were used for transporting people and light loads.
There was a wide variety of carriage types.
- A gig was a light two-wheeled sprung cart pulled by one horse.
- A dogcart had two wheels and was pulled by one horse. It had back-to-back seating for four, and large wheels.
- A buggy was pulled by one or two horses.
- A trap was a light two- or four-wheeled carriage that could take two or four people.
- A surrey was a four-wheeled, two-seater pleasure carriage.
A hairy ride
Sarah Courage describes her rough coach journey from Kaiapoi to Leithfield in 1862: ‘My arms and shoulders for days after testified to the severity of the journey, and they were all the colours of the rainbow; while my vital organs felt as if they were getting mixed up and entangled together, the coach creaking and rolling for all the world like a ship at sea.’ 1
On steep and winding routes women often carried brandy and smelling salts.
The first coach services started in the 1860s. Travelling across country by coach was slow and uncomfortable. It could sometimes be dangerous, especially on mountain roads or when attempting to ford rivers. Punts were later developed to transport coaches and horses across rivers. In the 1920s coaches still operated in areas not yet reached by the railway.
In towns, horse-drawn omnibuses (buses) appeared from the 1870s. They were replaced by horse-drawn trams in the 1880s. Those who could afford it could hire horse-drawn cabs.