The Horse in NZ Culture

22 Dec 1814

3 horses arrive on "Active" (landed on shore 23rd)*

200 years 1814-2014

“On the arrival of the boats with the cattle, they appeared perfectly bewildered with amazement, not knowing what to conclude respecting such extraordinary looking animals. Cows or horses they had never seen before, and diverted now from everything else, they regarded them as stupendous prodigies. However, their astonishment was soon turned into alarm and confusion; for one of the cows that was wild and unmanageable, being impatient of restraint, rushed in among them, and caused such violent terror through the whole assemblage, that imagining some preternatural monster had been let loose to destroy them, they all immediately betook themselves to flight."

But when Marsden mounted a horse, and rode up and down the beach, he was, by common consent, given a status of more than mortal... JL Nicholas

New Zealand’s history and culture are closely intertwined with the horse, as an agricultural, transport, military and sporting animal. Tom Brooking, Associate Professor of History, University of Otago describes the horse as vital to New Zealand’s History and development*

The first horses were brought to New Zealand by the Rev. Samuel Marsdon arrived in Rangihoua, in the Bay of Islands, in December 1814.

By 1840 when the first thoroughbred arrived in New Zealand, horse races were already underway. The soldiers ran meetings at Auckland and Onehunga using their own troop horses, the officers acting as officials (Racing History). By the time the first rugby game was played in 1870, horse racing was so popular that official racing clubs and racecourses were being formed.

Maori were keen to own horses (hoiho), and quickly recognised that the horse was an ideal way to travel across the country. Ngāpuhi were the first tribe to own horses. Prior to the arrival of the horse much travel was via waterways, as cross-country travel through the dense bush and rugged terrain was arduous.

Iwi quickly became associated with breeding horses to suit their requirements. Te Maitaranui, an important Ngāi Tūhoe chief, first saw horses in the Bay of Islands. The tribe bought their first horse at Tūranga (Gisborne) around the 1840s. It was named Tūhoe, demonstrating its importance to the iwi.

read our bicentenary press release here >>

Kaimanawa horses are associated with Ngāti Tūwharetoa (although these wild horses are also descendents of military, and agricultural horses), and the Ngāti Tama Whiti hapū in particular. While 'Ngati' horses, from the East Cape region are closely associated with Ngati Porou.

One of the great sources of pride for colonial immigrants was the ability to own their own land, and their own horse! 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 Photographs of New Zealand settler families often show the entire family and horse outside the front of their home. A photo they sent home (to England) to show how well they had done in this new land.

Trooper Walter Stackwood on his horse, 1899 - New Zealand History Online


horse racing is NZs first organised sport - Bay of Islands


Trooper Walter Stackwood on his horse, 1899
NZ Mounted Rifles Assoc

First thoroughbred 'Figaro' arrived

1841 - first official horse races held in Akld and Wgtn

Importing horses really begins as the nation establishes


Canterbury Cup first run


Pakuranga Hunt

In the 1880s New Zealanders had 6x the horses per captia of Britain.

NZ 1 per every 3 people; Britain 1 per 18 people


Polo Clubs formed, Auckland Trotting Club est.

1891 NZ Polo Assoc


first New Zealand Trotting Cup run


10,000 horses sent to Egypt, Europe, Samoa WW1


The New Zealand Horse Society founded (later NZEF, and currently ESNZ Equestrian Sport NZ)

*1814 saw the first of all livestock arrive in NZ; a stallion and two mares, one bull and two cows sent by Governor Macquarie from the Crown herd in Sydney, a few sheep, and some turkeys, geese, and other poultry

We celebrate and remember the efforts of New Zealand soldiers in many campaigns, but unlike our Australian cousins there is no national memorial to the thousands of horses (or other animals) that also served their country.

Some 10,000 horses left NZ to campaign in Europe and North Africa in WW1. Only 4 were ever returned to NZ. A further 8000 horses were sent to South Africa during the Boer wars.

However, it is the horse's greatest contribution is the least recognised; to our agriculture, transport and day-to-day life.

The high country drover on his horse is an iconic image, however access for horse riders into the high country is becoming harder and harder.

Equestrian sportsmen and women have (and continue to) ranked top in the world, yet equestrian sports are barely shown on television, and our many of our sports reporters know little if anything about equestrian sport . Of the other equestrian sports, despite New Zealand's international profile, the kiwi audience barely appreciates the efforts of its top international riders let alone their horses. One who has managed to break through into the non-equestrian mind is Mark Todd, with double Olympic champion Charisma.

The general populace recognise champion racehorses like Phar Lap, Rising Fast, or Balmerino or more recently Bonecrusher, Empire Rose, Sunline or in harness racing the mighty Christian Cullen, Most people remember not just the remarkable win of Kiwi in 1983, but also look to the story of the horse that was used for stock work around the farm as quintessentially NZ.

New Zealand Racing does not have any official retirement or retraining program or monitoring.

NZ has no registered national horse breed.

* Brooking, Tom. ‘The Equine Factor: The Powerhouse of the Colonisation of New Zealand to 1945’ in Baker, Lily, ed. On the Horse’s Back: Proceedings of the 2004 Conference of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists (Auckland, 2004)