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by  Emma Meyer

European settlers used horses to carry everything – from their worldly possessions to babies in cradles. Before cars and trucks, horses were essential for transport and farm work. These days, horse riding and racing are still popular recreational activities.

Introduction of the horse

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.

First horses

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

Horse numbers

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.

    • Tom Brooking, ‘The equine factor: the powerhouse of the colonisation of New Zealand to 1945.’ In On the horse’s back: proceedings of the 2004 conference of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, edited by Lily Baker. Auckland: New Zealand Society of Genealogists, 2004, p. 45. › Back
    • J. L. Nicholas, Narrative of a voyage to New Zealand. Vol. 1. London: James Black & Son, 1817, p. 34, 171. › Back
    • Māui Pōmare, Legends of the Māori. Wellington: Harry H. Tombs, 1930, p. 119, (last accessed 2 July 2008). › Back


Draught horses

Draught horses (or heavy horses) were used for heavy tasks such as hauling and ploughing. They were the main type in New Zealand until about 1950.

Scottish Clydesdales were imported from the 1860s. They became the main draught breed because of their strength and easy temperament. Other draught breeds included the Shire and Suffolk Punch, but their numbers remained low.

After motorised vehicles and machinery began to replace working horses in the early 20th century, horse numbers declined.

A Kiwi horse?

Unlike countries such as Australia and Canada, which have their own national horses (the Australian Stock Horse and the Canadian), New Zealand has not developed an official national breed.

Light breeds

Light horse breeds are more active, and were used mainly for riding or pulling lighter loads.

Hackneys were imported in the 1880s to pull carriages. Cleveland Bays were another carriage type, but were also used for riding and carting. Arabians and Thoroughbreds are specialist riding horses, and Thoroughbreds are the most popular racing breed. The Standardbred is used in harness racing.

Horse language

A bridle is the bit, chin-strap, headpiece and reins used to control a horse. Bucking is when a horse jumps up, arching its back. A canter is a three-beat step – faster than a trot and slower than a gallop. A gelding is a castrated male horse. Hands are 4 inches, and are used to measure a horse’s height. A mare is a female horse. A stallion is an uncastrated male horse.

Cobs, which were popular riding horses, are a type rather than a breed. They are between 14 hands (1.4 metres) and 15 hands (1.5 metres) in height, stocky and strong, with a steady disposition. Crossing different breeds was very common when horses were the main means of transportation. Often a Thoroughbred would be bred with a draught horse to produce a strong and less highly strung horse, which would be useful for a variety of tasks.

In recent years some American breeds, such as the Palomino, Appaloosa and Quarter horse, have become popular sport horses.


A pony is less than 14.2 hands (1.44 metres) at the withers (between the shoulder blades), while horses are taller. Ponies often have thicker manes, tails and coats than horses. They also tend to be heavily built, with thicker necks, proportionately shorter legs and stouter bodies.

Ponies are able to thrive on poorer quality pasture and were bred for driving and hauling. They are now popular for children to ride, and for cart competitions.

There are many different breeds of ponies. The two most well-known in New Zealand are Shetland and Welsh ponies.


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.

Horse riding

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.

All aboard

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.

Horse-drawn vehicles

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.

Public transport

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.

  1. Sarah Courage, Lights and shadows of colonial life. Christchurch: Whitcoulls, 1976 (originally published 1896), p. 38. › Back

Horses and farming

Horses were indispensable on farms until the introduction of motor-driven machinery and tractors from the 1910s. By the mid-1950s, farmers’ transition from horse power to tractor power was almost complete.

Draught teams

Teams of draught horses, usually Clydesdales, were busy on farms throughout the year.

In spring they were hitched to ploughs, discs, grubbers and harrows, which were dragged across the soil to prepare it for planting crops. Horses pulled the seed drill for planting, and hauled the bags of seed and the fertiliser.

In summer they pulled the mower, tedder and hay rake for haymaking, and hauled hay to the stack. When the grain was ready, horse teams pulled the reaper-binder and transported the sheaves. After harvest, they were used again to lightly work the ground and sow it in pasture or a greenfeed crop.

In winter horse teams were busy carting hay for stock feed, or hauling firewood from the bush. They carted wool bales and bags of grain to town, and brought back supplies.

Many horses were required on large farms – some Canterbury and Otago estates had hundreds.

Horse on the hill

The work of Clydesdales in the development of agriculture in the Waimate area is commemorated by a statue of a white horse on the hillside overlooking the town. It was built in the late 1960s, made from 1,220 concrete slabs. Its head weighs more than 2.5 tonnes.

Caring for working horses

Compared to maintaining a tractor, looking after a team of working horses was a big job, and teamsters (people who drove the horses) worked hard. They started early in the morning to feed, groom and harness the horses, which took two hours, before heading to work. There were another two hours of feeding and grooming again at night.

Horses also had to be shod regularly. Some big stations kept their own blacksmiths, while others used a smith from the local township.

Horses ate as much as eight men or four sheep, so large amounts of valuable farmland were taken up in growing oats for them. Not surprisingly, the advent of the tractor was a great relief to farmers.

The packing team

Packhorses were often the only means of getting goods and stores to remote places. For example, fencing material had to be carried to the fenceline, as did materials for mustering huts, which were built in remote places on high country stations.

When it was time to gather the sheep for shearing or to bring them down off the high country for the winter, a packman, or packy, and his team carted out supplies for the musterers. In the morning the packy cooked breakfast for the men and, once they had left to muster the sheep, he packed up camp and moved on to the next hut or campsite to prepare the evening meal. Musters could last a month or more.

Horses and farming today

Horses are rarely used on modern farms, except on a few stations where the terrain is too difficult for four-wheel-drive vehicles or motorbikes, or where the farmer prefers working with horses rather than noisy machines.

Horses are particularly useful when working large mobs of cattle. On the country’s largest station, Molesworth, the property is so vast and the stock so widespread that horses are trucked to wherever they are needed.

In the 1990s there was a revival of draught-horse breeding. Today, several teams are maintained by enthusiasts throughout the country and feature in demonstration ploughing matches at events such as A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows.

Women and riding

New Zealand women appear to have had a more progressive experience with horses than women in Britain. They had more freedom and independence when it came to riding horses, and often learned to ride as children.

Riding side saddle

At first women rode, and in some cases raced, their horses with side saddles. These required sitting with both legs on the same side of the horse, with one leg secured around a padded peg. Side saddles were restrictive – women generally needed assistance mounting and dismounting, and they wore flowing, cumbersome clothing.

Riding astride

Around 1900 women began to ride cross saddle, at first wearing divided skirts, and later breeches under a knee-length jacket. By 1910 most women were riding astride.

An English newspaper reported on the experiences of a Miss Shaw riding horses on her visit to New Zealand: ‘[T]he great majority ride cross-saddle, and personally, out there I am convinced it is best, as it makes one more independent, and one has a chance of getting on again if one falls off … New Zealand … must be the jolliest country in the world to ride in.’ 1

Māori women

Māori women also took up riding and participated in races, where they were the first women in the country to ride astride. In a ‘wahines race’ held in Waikato during the 1890s, the women rode cross saddle, tying their gowns to their ankles.

  1. Quoted in Rollo Arnold, Settler Kaponga 1881–1914. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1997, pp. 310–311. (last accessed 2 July 2008). › Back


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.

War horses

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.

Upham’s 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.

International reputation

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.

Horses and the environment

Transforming the landscape

Horses played a vital part in transforming New Zealand’s landscape in the 19th century.

Millions of acres of forest, tussocklands and swamp were converted into pasture with the help of horse power. Horses were used for stumping (pulling out tree roots) and hauling away logs so the area could be grassed.

Horses carted settlers and their supplies, and provided the power for ploughing and cultivation. They also carted wool and grain to ports and, later, to the railway.

Kaimanawa wild horses

There have been wild horses in the central North Island since about the 1870s. They are thought to originate from both military and Māori horses, as well as some released or escaped from local sheep stations.

In 1979 there were 174 horses recorded in the southern Kaimanawa area. Official monitoring began in 1981, and a protected area for the horses was established. Since then, horse numbers have increased, and in April 1997 there were about 1,700.

The large number and range of the horses caused concern about their effects on rare native plants in the area. In August 1997 the herd was mustered and many were sold at auction. Musters have continued to control the size of the herd.

Boy racers

Boy racers, who race their cars around the streets of cities and towns, are seen as a modern problem, but the phenomenon is not new. In colonial New Zealand young men from farms would come to town on a weekend and gallop their horses up and down the main street. Many were charged with ‘furious riding’ in the Monday sessions of the magistrate’s court.

Horses and urban areas

Many early settlements developed around 16 miles (26 kilometres) apart – the distance a horse could travel in a day. Towns such as Cust in Canterbury and Havelock North in Hawke’s Bay developed from places where stage coaches stopped, and some settlements grew up around blacksmiths and farriers (who care for horses’ hooves).

Until the early 20th century, towns usually had stables and horse paddocks in the suburbs. There were water troughs on the street, and hitching posts on hotel verandahs and shop fronts. Heavy horse-drawn traffic often turned the streets to mud. In summer they dried out, and the problem was dust blowing about.


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

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

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.

Equestrian sport

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.

Pony clubs

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).

  1. Quoted in John Keast, ‘Rings riders deny ill-treatment,’ The Press, 16 October 2000, p. 2. › Back
  2. Alexander Marjoribanks, Travels in New Zealand. London: Smith, Elder, 1846, pp. 45–46. › Back

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How to cite this page: Emma Meyer, 'Horses', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Emma Meyer, i tāngia i te 24 o Noema 2008