The heartbreak of Watching Helicopters Round Up New Zealand's Wild Horses
15th April 2018
I’ve just returned from watching the first day of the Kaimanawa Horse Muster and I am in equal parts filled with anticipation, and heartbreak. Anticipation because I love the journey of taming wild horses; there is nothing as rewarding as knowing you’ve saved a life and earning the trust of a once wild animal. But in order for that journey to begin, there first must come the heartbreak of the horses losing everything they have ever known; something that is impossible to grasp unless you’ve witnessed those final moments as a wild horse loses its freedom.
As the first herd of bachelors were bought in by the helicopters yesterday I watched as four young stallions used all of their speed and cunning, which they’ve honed throughout their lives on the range, to remain free. These horses did not want to be captured. It’s the third Kaimanawa muster I’ve witnessed and of the hundreds of wild horses I’ve seen bought in by helicopter, these bachelors were the most challenging; yet there was not a moment where I had anything but huge admiration and respect for the man in the hovering bird, swooping and diving as he gently guided these horses down the hill, across the river and into the yards.
While mustering by helicopter is undoubtedly controversial in America, here in New Zealand these stockmen have a lifetime of experience working with animals. Having mustered the Kaimanawas since 1993, it is as instinctive art. Watching them work is a study in feel and timing, which rival the best horsemen in the word; the Kaimanawas are not rushed, often times bought in at a walk or trot as they pick their way over the contour of the land.
So unlike people would expect, the heartbreak does not come from the muster process itself, because I agree that these horses benefit from human management and truly believe New Zealand is a leader in a global struggle to maintain wild horse populations. Rather it comes from the moment that gate is closed and the horses, for the first time in their lives, are contained. Their days of freedom are over and everything they once knew will be but a distant memory in the days, weeks and years to come.
And then comes the sorting process, where the stallions, mares and young stock are drafted into separate pens; sorted by their age and gender. In less than five minutes these wild horses have not only lost their freedom but also their families. As more horses are gathered, and the day draws on, the stallions especially cling to the rails – remaining as close to their mares, sons and daughters as possible as they watch over them for the last time.
Within 24 hours they will be loaded onto trucks; not only losing their freedom and families, but also the only home and way of life they have ever known. Now two options face them, yet they have no idea what is in store. The lucky ones will be saved and the unlucky ones will go to slaughter.
This muster (unlike the second muster in late May where currently 60 adult horses are still in need of homes) all of the horses have been saved by people like you and I. But I can assure you these horses will not think they are lucky. They will never understand that slaughter was their only other alternative. To them they are our prisoners and the high yards that contain them are their prison cells.
The horses that arrive at our properties will not be the fiery eyed, sleek and well conditioned horses that I have just seen being mustered off the range. Instead, by the time they arrive at new homes around the country, they will appear as shadows of their former selves. Unless you’ve seen them coming in from the wild it’s hard to grasp how truly depressing and shocking it is to see such a swift change in these horses in less than 48 hours. They are mourning everything they’ve lost and are confused and wary of everything they’re facing.
Having saved 29 Kaimanawas since 2012 we know first hand that they can, and do, come to enjoy life in domestication and thrive on the care and love we give them. But we need to remember the importance of restoring some fun, adventure and freedom into their lives so they come to embrace their new reality.
From the first muster we witnessed in 2012, of which we saved 11 wild horses, we have striven to see life through our Kaimanawas eyes and imagine the struggles they’re going through. By doing this you will understand how crucial it is to train them with sensitivity, respect, kind words and a gentle hand. And remember; regardless of whether the horse you are assigned is what you requested, or something else entirely, it is a living soul. Your Kaimanawa may be young or old, it may be the pick of the crop or the ugliest by far, and it might be sound or have injuries from a live spent struggling for survival in the wild. The Kaimanawas we’ve personally tamed have represented all of these scenarios and more. Yet, no matter the horse, I can promise you it has come into your life for a reason.
Of the 40 Mustangs in the 2015 Extreme Mustang Makeover, there was only one horse I didn’t want; a temperamental and mean spirited black mare who I wasn’t sure I had the ability, or confidence, to tame. When she was drafted to me I remember being so disappointed, but within days I loved that horse and was so thankful she’d come into my life. I only had 100 days with her, before she was rehomed to a veteran soldier, but that horse remains one of my favourites and I’ll always be thankful for the lessons she taught me.
Likewise, Shyla, my small and plain Brumby, which I trained as part of the 2016 Australia Brumby Challenge, was a horse I would never have chosen myself. I remember thinking, that of all an estimated 400,000 to 1 million wild Brumbies across Australia, how on earth did I end up with this one. Yet she had the most beautiful soul of any horse I’d ever worked with and I quickly saw past her mere appearances and appreciated the horse for her true worth.
So as I eagerly await the arrival of the 17 Kaimanawas we’ll be training, of which one will be mine, I don’t mind what comes off that truck. Apart from requesting and adult stallion, since they are the least requested, I didn’t even state preferences of colour, type or markings. Sometimes having no expectations leads to the least disappointment. I know that no matter what, the journey ahead will be life changing and this horse will teach me something that only he can – I just have to be open and willing to listen.
As with my new Kaimanawas appearance, I have no expectations of how fast he will transition to life in domestication. Wild horses have taught me that less is more, slow is fast and that timelines only exist in a human world. I was riding Shyla, my Brumby, just 10 days out of the wild, yet Elder, a 17-year-old Kaimanawa stallion which I saved in 2014, took 500 days. Likewise, Momento (a mare from the 2012 muster) took 18 months to reach this stage and Redemption, Amanda’s stallion from 2016, was never ridden due to an injury sustained in the wild.
Would we change any of this? No. Each of these horses were worth our time and love, regardless of their level of talent or aptitude for embracing their new lives. As a trainer you’ll know when your horse is ready for more, so trust your instincts, always strive to do right by your horse and remember it is NOT a race. They’ve lived wild their whole lives, so appreciate every little milestone they make as they tentatively place their trust in us.
Winning over the friendship of a wild horse and keeping their spirit intact is a very rare and special thing, but it requires patience and perseverance. There will undoubtedly come a time when you’ll second guess yourself, or compare your journey to others and find yourself lacking (the joys of social media). Someone once said that they didn’t have a ‘Wilson Sister Experience’ with the Kaimanawa they saved from the last muster and my question is this; did you only focus on our successes, rather than learning from our struggles? For without fail it is the difficult horses that we have learnt the most from, but it is our enduring desire to put the horse’s best interests first that allows us to love and learn from every horse that enters our lives.
So take your time. Enjoy the ride. And lose your expectations.
This blog is the first in an ongoing series about the 17 Kaimanawas we are saving from slaughter from the 2018 muster. Follow me on social media to keep up with the wild ride ahead as I strive to share with you, as honestly as possible, real-time updates of these wild Kaimanawas as they transition to domestication.