The New Zealand wars
Horses were used by both sides fighting in the conflicts of the 19th century. During the first four months of 1864, 1,000 horses were shipped to New Zealand for use by the Colonial Defence Force.
Māori prophet and military leader Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki and his men rode horses, and in the late 1860s captured many of their enemies’ mounts. When Te Kooti was defeated and fled, the horses were abandoned. It is possible that these, and other abandoned and escaped horses, are the origin of the wild horses found in the Kaimanawa Mountains.
Of the 18,000 New Zealand horses that were involved in the South African War and the First World War, no more than five or six came home. Major, belonging to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Porter, returned to New Zealand after serving all over South Africa. Colonel C. G. Powles’ horse Bess served in the First World War, and a memorial to her stands near Flock House in Manawatū.
The South African War
About 8,000 horses were sent to the South African War (1899–1902, also known as the Boer War), the first overseas conflict involving New Zealand soldiers. This campaign was notorious for the demands it placed upon horses. Once they reached South Africa, after a stressful sea journey, the horses were constantly on the move. After the war, it was thought to be too difficult to transport the battle-weary animals home, so they were sold to local farmers and other military units.
The First World War
During the First World War, New Zealand horses were used mainly in the desert campaigns in Sinai, Palestine and Egypt. Although shipping conditions had improved from the time of South African War, the horses arrived in poor health. Again, they were not brought home at the end of the war. Some were given to the British Army. There was the option of selling them to local Egyptian and Arab farmers, but they were infamous for treating animals badly, and the troops decided it would be more humane to shoot the horses.
In the mid-1950s Charles Upham, double Victoria Cross winner, established a herd of horses on his North Canterbury property. There was a variety of horses, including ex-racehorses and retired stockhorses. Within a few years the herd became feral, and when Upham’s property was sold in the 1980s there were an estimated 120 horses, running in five separate herds.
Conditions for war horses
In overseas conflicts horses were used to haul heavy artillery, and as transport or pack animals. The horses worked extremely hard, carrying their riders and equipment on long marches, often with little food or water.
The horses suffered greatly from exhaustion, starvation, dehydration, and extremes of heat and cold. Some died from disease, injury or wounds. The companionship of the horses, and the job of caring for them, helped soldiers cope with the pressures of war.
New Zealand horses gained an excellent international reputation during the South African War, proving to be superior to British and Australian horses. The Rough Riders, as the soldiers of the Third Contingent were known, won renown as horsemen and marksmen.
Action in the First World War further strengthened the reputation of New Zealand horses as being some of the best bred in the world.