Horses have always been a part of the recreational activities of many New Zealanders. In the early 2000s participation in horse sports was common and activities such as horse trekking formed an important part of New Zealand’s tourism industry.
Horses of Middle Earth
The battle scenes in the third instalment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the rings trilogy used 250 horses. Filming took place on Ben Ohau Station, near Twizel, in 2000. Horses and riders were well looked after on set, and one rider said of his experience: ‘I wouldn’t miss this for anything. I’m putting on weight, and so is my horse.’ 1
Horse racing was one of the earliest organised sports in New Zealand. The first horse race was probably in the Bay of Islands in 1835, and a military garrison organised to race their troop horses in 1840. Other official meetings were held in 1841 in Auckland and Wellington. In that same year, a race along Petone beach featured Figaro, New Zealand’s first Thoroughbred horse.
Horse racing flourished throughout the country, attracting many participants, both Māori and Pākehā. It quickly became a highly organised and lucrative industry, producing some of the best bloodstock in the world.
Horses and mad Englishmen
In 1846, Scotsman Alexander Marjoribanks bemoaned the English settlers’ love of horse racing: ‘It is curious that the English cannot settle down quietly, even in a new country, without wasting their time and money on these two most absurd of all absurdities, namely horse races, and public dinners.’ He thought it especially ludicrous ‘in a wilderness’ such as New Zealand, where ‘a couple of working bullocks are intrinsically more valuable … than all the race horses in the world.’ 2
In winter racing often includes steeplechases, in which the horses jump over obstacles such as fences or water hazards. The first New Zealand Grand National Steeplechase was held at Waimate in 1875, but is now held annually at Riccarton, Christchurch.
Harness racing was a later addition to the horse racing calendar. The Auckland Trotting Club was established in 1890 and the first New Zealand Trotting Cup was run at Addington, Christchurch, in 1904. The inter-dominion series, competed for between Australian and New Zealand horses, is one of the world’s great harness racing competitions. It began as the Australasian Championship in 1935–36.
Although harness races are colloquially known as the trots, there are races for both trotters and pacers, which have different gaits or running styles. Trotters have a diagonal gait (they move their front leg and opposite rear leg together), whereas pacers have a lateral gait (they move the front and rear legs on the same side at the same time). Most harness races involve handicapping with staggered starts, but in free-for-alls all horses start from the same mark.
New Zealand equestrian activities have been largely modelled on British traditions, and have been important events at A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows. In 1950 the New Zealand Horse Society (now known as Equestrian Sports New Zealand) was established to administer the sport, following Fédération Equestre Internationale rules. Equestrian events include dressage, cross-country, and show jumping, at which several New Zealand riders have found Olympic success.
Hunting and polo
Other horse sports include polo and hunting. Polo clubs were formed from 1890, and the New Zealand Polo Association was established in 1891. New Zealand hunts are modelled after British fox hunting, but instead the quarry is a hare and the horses jump over wire fences. The first was the Pakuranga Hunt, in 1872.
New Zealand’s first pony club was established in Heretaunga, Hawke’s Bay, in 1946, modelled closely on English pony clubs. Pony clubs provide instruction in riding and pony handling, and hold gymkhanas – multi-game equestrian events. Today, with over 8,500 members, the New Zealand Pony Club Association is one of the largest sporting organisations for young people in the country.
Organised rodeo did not appear in New Zealand until the early 1960s, and a national championship began in 1973. In the early 2000s, rodeos were held all over the country, and some New Zealand riders were successful on the American and Australian rodeo circuits.
Events involving horses include the bareback and saddle bronc ride, barrel race, rope and tie, and steer wrestling (or bulldogging).