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The Kaimanawa Stallion Challenge

Kaimanawa horses in the wild

The Kaimanawa Stallion Challenge

Just about every horsey kid (or grown up) has had a day dream about taming a wild horse.  This became a reality for a group of talented NZ horse trainers in 2014.

Talking about wild horses has become common place around the WashBar, but outside the office we get blank stares.  So what are these National treasures roaming around the Kaimanawa Ranges? What is the Kaimanawa Stallion Challenge, how does it works, why did it start and why did WashBar get involved?

The history
High up in the middle of the North Island, New Zealand, the Kaimanawa Mountain Range is a unique and ancient landscape.  In amongst the mountains and plateaus, this remote area just off the Desert Road is the Waiouru Army base and NZ’s unique wild horses.

Much of the land is held as a national park by the Department of Conservation (DOC).  The land around the mountains is scrubby, generally poor quality and very rough – Desert Road is often closed with snow drifts and ice during winter.  It’s the perfect place for the NZ Army’s training exercises and hardy wild horses to roam.

During the mid to late 1800’s horses escaped from sheep farms and these were added to by a number of people including the mounted rifle cavalry who released their horses in 1941 to join the growing wild herd. The horses broke into ‘family’ groups and are now recognised as a unique breed to New Zealand. They are of special genetic value and are compared to other feral horses such as wild Mustangs but what makes Kaimanawa horses of real value is their lack of interaction with humans.

In the early 1990s DOC identified that up to 31 unique plants in the area were at risk of extinction if the horse population continued to grow in their uncontrolled numbers. At the same time, the health and well-being of the horses was in danger due to high numbers and lack of grazing.

A management plan was implemented to keep the horses out of particularly fragile areas and to reduce the population to a sustainable level of around 300 head. It has at times been a bumpy road balancing the protection of the environment, the well-being of the horses and managing public scrutiny.

Every two years DOC counts the herd and decides how many horses will be surplus and mustered that year. The horses are mustered by helicopters into yards under the supervision of a veterinarian.  Excess horses are re-homed where possible or ‘trucked off’ to slaughter.

The Kaimanawa Heritage Horses organisation came together in 2003 to find ways to secure a better outcome for the horses. The organisation is committed to preserving the heritage of these horses as a national treasure and to running a program to re-home as many of the horses in suitable homes as possible

The sad truth
When enough suitable homes can’t be found, the unwanted horses go to slaughter.    The slaughter numbers make for sad reading – from 1993 over 2000 horses were ‘trucked off’; in the 2012 muster 72 went to slaughter.

Over the years this has meant almost all of the older stallions didn’t make it as they were considered too difficult to re-home.

It was clear that it had been a crazy waste of beautiful talented horses.  Many had cottoned onto how versatile these horses but it wasn’t until 2012 when Tegan Newman put them on the map after winning the prestigious Pony of the Year title with her Kaimanawa ‘Watch Me Move’.

Later that year at the 2012 muster the Wilson sisters re-homed 11 older wild horses and went onto successfully train them. Most of them went onto compete and others proved to be easy rides for their kids camps. At Horse of the Year they demonstrated the diversity and ‘bombproof’ nature of the breed with kids jumping over a pony using a mini-trampoline and then a jumping a calf – the Kaimanawa they used was only 250 days out of the wild. The crowds were impressed.

The Challenge
In 2014 Kaimanawa Heritage Horses launched an ambitious competition to highlight the beauty, versatility and trainability of these horses’ and save the stallions from slaughter.  This Challenge would show the nation just what these amazing wild horses could do – the Kaimanawa Stallion Challenge was born.  Top New Zealand trainers were invited to take part in the challenge with a prize pool totalling $50,000 this is currently the richest wild horse challenge prize pool in the world.

Suitable stallions (over 3 years old) were herded into a pen and numbered and randomly assigned to trainers. The first time trainers saw their stallion was when it arrived at their property a day or two later.

They then had 150 days to geld, worm, have their teeth attended to and work with the stallion before competing for cash and prizes at Equidays in October 2014. Classes included in-hand and ridden.

After another 100 days they will compete at the largest and most prestigious equestrian event in the southern hemisphere – Horse of the Year 2015.

Equidays had been going for 4 years and in 2014 – the intense interest in the inaugural Kaimanawa Stallion Challenge drew big crowds that saw the catering vendors run out of food on the first day.

After all the publicity of The Challenge in 2014 only 15 horses were slaughtered – 8 were unsuitable (due to injuries etc) and 7 didn’t have homes.

The trainers
17 horses, 11 trainers, all experienced in horse training from varied backgrounds – including running a trekking business in the back blocks, a trainer who represented NZ at Burghley & Badminton and a successful grand prix show jumper. All these trainers came together to make a difference.

Why we support the Challenge
WashBar supports the Kaimanawa Stallion Challenge for a raft of different reasons but the two biggest are sustainability and partnership. We have a profound belief in sustainability and the fact that we need to tread more lightly on the earth. Keeping the Kaimanawa wild horse population at around 300 ensures that our delicate and unique environment is protected and the horses have plenty to eat keeping them in good condition.

Partnership is one of our core values – from our WashBar Ambassadors to our Supplier and Distributor partnerships. We find organisations and people who understand what we are trying to achieve. It’s not about getting a better deal – it’s about working collaboratively to make a difference.

The trainers who are approved to enter the Challenge all work with the horses, gaining their trust and respect. This is truly about creating a partnership, these horses can’t be forced or rushed they have never seen or been touched by a human before. This gives trainers a new perspective on patience and the bond created between trainer and horse is incredibly strong.

We believe that the publicity this event has created will ensure that none of the horses will go to slaughter again – we would like to see a waiting list for these special wild horses each muster as their value is appreciated by the public after these talented trainers have brought out the best in them.

The other partnership is the brilliant relationship with have with the team at Kaimanawa Heritage Horses who work tirelessly to ensure these horses get the best possible deal. It has been a pleasure working with all of them, and we’ve built lifetime friendships.