Roaming on the magical lands of the Kaimanawa Ranges live New Zealand's wild horses, The Kaimanawas.
KAIMANAWA HORSES HERITAGE ARTICLE
I have been an equine photographer for the past 15 years photographing many disciplines, but it has always been the horses I found in the middle of nowhere, happily living in areas in New Zealand off the beaten track, 'free and natural', that I was drawn to.
These horses were often our Stationbred east coast horses, or those from the far north of New Zealand, sure footed, with a mix of the Clydesdale in varying colours of paints, roans and palominos. Add in the odd Appaloosa and I was a happy girl. I would drive the countryside to find them, as they often grazed in herds and in large rugged paddocks which would give the illusion they were ‘wild’ within my photos.
I have an affinity with everything western and I was working towards a trip to the wild west in the USA to stay with ranchers, visiting the Black Hills Sanctuary where I hoped to photograph their work and learn from the native Americans they have affiliations with. This is still my goal and I plan to head over there once the world becomes a little more settled.
I had become aware of the Kaimanawa wild horses having followed Kelly Wilson and her sisters and in recent years meeting my good friend Jan Vadonovich. When Jan shared she had been involved in photographing the 2002 muster (and again this year), it became my goal to do the same. So when I was offered a chance to go on the Ranges Photography Tour in November 2020 I jumped at it.
The tour included two days and two nights. The first day was a visit to meet the revered Tommy Waara, where we enjoyed billy tea in the forest, met Te One, his stallion from the 2015 muster, followed by a BBQ lunch before Tommy demonstrated his horsemanship skills. Tommy seemed to be a kindred spirit with native American philosophy and I immediately felt right at home.
Upon returning to our lodgings Kelly shared her experiences with not only New Zealand’s Kaimanawa wild horses but with wild horses throughout the world and presented the guidelines for the next day’s trip into the ranges.
The morning finally came and we were on the bus at 4.30am heading to the army barracks for a short debrief. It wasn’t long before we were driving through the vastness and into the unknown world of the Kaimanawas.
With Kelly’s guidance we stopped at a band of bachelors who were located reasonably close to the army barracks. It wasn’t a great sunrise that day and it was a blue light casting against the dawn, different to the soft golden hour we had hoped nature would provide. The crispness of the air enveloped around us as the bachelors noted our presence with a cool, calm but sharp intrigue. Although they seemed surprised as to why we were watching them, they kept their distance while continuing to face us, giving us ample opportunities to photograph. Another young stallion suddenly appeared from an adjoining area behind us which created a stir amongst the bachelor band. I was in awe of what I was already seeing and I knew this was lining up to be a great day.
We were driven to the next zone where Scotty, one of the Army’s favourite stallions, resided with his band. Behind this band trailed another bay stallion, known as Satellite. Kelly explained Satellite was now an outsider who relentlessly followed this band, refusing to leave because of his devotion to who was once his mare. A tragic love story which really touched me. Satellite would never be included in this herd, he would be forever ostracised and kept on the outskirts by the other stallion and I have since wondered how lonely this existence might be for him. To be the mare witnessing the loyalty and devotion that her old flame still held for her seemed to be a story of undying love found in fairytales.
And so, from a distance, I crouched down preparing to photograph the group when suddenly Satellite unexpectedly turned and started trotting directly towards me, holding my gaze. I was using my 200mm lens so I knew he was still a little way off, but I was caught in the most mesmerising and surreal moment in which I could not remove my eyes from. While I never felt in danger, after all I was within the perimeter of Kelly’s instructions and with other photographers around, I was still forming an exit plan should the need arose.
I will be forever grateful for that moment, because I captured what is one of my most favourite and emotional photographs. As I anticipated Satellite veered to my left becoming too close for my camera to focus on him. I stood, turning to watch as he ran towards the lead stallion. Of course he wasn’t going to win any challenges that day and nor would he be likely to win any challenges from thereon in.
When I processed the photos of Satellite I remember looking into his eyes and (for me) seeing and feeling such a deep sadness. Yes, as I write this there are tears forming because it always continues to move and amaze me that so often from deep sadness and pain, there emerges an incredible depth and beauty, which I have experienced in both the horse and human worlds.
Following this experience I wondered what could top this moment and I returned to the bus feeling very grateful, with a growing excitement of what may happen next.
Kelly led us to another zone and no sooner had we disembarked from the bus, two stallions rushed out of the hills and put on a jaw dropping display of rearing, challenging and biting in front of us. When I say in front of us, remember we were using 200 and 300mm lenses, so when looking through these camera lenses we feel as though we’re in there amongst the action. Hence the incredible fighting scenes that many of you have no doubt seen multiple times on social media from those on the same trip. The photos I took weren’t too dissimilar!
What shocked me when I studied the photos I had taken were the shapes of their hooves which were in mid air due to rearing up. I had only seen the varying conditions of hooves of domesticated horses so seeing how overgrown and misshapen the hooves were in my photos made me realise how much I had fantasised about wild horses. Witnessing the multiple bite marks and scars scattered over their bodies also brought home to me the seriousness of their life in the wild. At this moment I felt torn as a photographer. I wanted to watch with the naked eye in real time and soak in the movie that was playing in front of me, imprinting it in my mind and yet I wanted to capture their display through my camera, forever immortalising this memory. It was truly Magnificent! Again, I returned to the bus wondering how could it get any better than this.
One of the moments I felt very fortunate to have experienced was after crossing a small river and walking a fair distance up steep, undulating hills. I was thankful for the gumboots I had chosen to wear as I sloshed across streams, following Kelly into unknown territory. We stumbled on several small groups of wild horses before walking into what felt like another world. We had reached a valley, surrounded by the hills we had just climbed and had come to a clearing where 70 wild horses were gathered. I breathed in every ounce of the scene before me. This land was unimaginable. Jan had walked over another hill and as I proceeded to investigate where she had gone I noticed a group of five young horses becoming very interested in her as she had knelt down to photograph them. While every part of me wanted to come closer I could sense what was about to happen and I knew approaching would ruin this moment for her. These five horses inched closer and closer to Jan appearing as though they were almost within two arms lengths before her. And so I opted to capture this moving moment for Jan, and in doing so provided a wonderful gift.
We moved to a tussock area which had all the colourings of the wild west that I love, tanned, earthy tones over the typical NZ greens. While the other photographers were photographing a herd up on the adjacent hill, I was happy to remain in the tussock area with three cheeky bays and I imagined I was photographing in the American Wild West! Unexpectedly the herd decided to run through the tussocks and as I captured them running I felt as if I was photographing a scene from an old western movie.
We were very fortunate to have seen close to 180 horses that day. To have witnessed the pure and raw presence of the Kaimanawa wild horses and walk on the land they live on was something I was totally unprepared for. For it is a magical and mesmerising land, where majestic and equally magical beings reside. While photographing these horses was a definite highlight for me, being immersed in the vastness of the 60 hectares of army land was surreal. But as magical, incredible and surreal as it was, these horses endure harsh conditions within it.
Do I like the fact they get mustered? No, of course not. I’m sure I speak for a number of people who ask why don’t we just leave them as they are, it’s so sad. And yes it is sad. But it’s also necessary if we are to preserve their future.
It cannot be denied that through mustering and rehoming their lives are changed forever, but it is often a good life that is ahead of them. I remember Kelly saying to me that love isn’t enough to save a Kaimanawa. One has to know what they are doing and I wholeheartedly agree. Some horses are quick to adjust to their new environments more-so than others and it’s not too dissimilar to what happens to us in the human world. Like these horses being mustered out of the wild, we too experience traumas. Some of us bounce back quickly, others take a little time and some never fully recover at all and while that can be upsetting, it is life. Five years ago I was in complete burn out. I was operating purely out of a survival mode that almost threatened my existence. What I discovered through my own healing journey was that by changing my environment to one of safety, being surrounded by a healthy and supportive network who placed minimal expectations on me and provided consistency, building trust, with very little pressure, I was able to overcome, heal, recover and flourish.
As I watch Tommy Waara, Kelly Wilson and Chloe Philips-Harris and many others training these wild horses, I see the same elements being applied that were necessary in my own healing. A safe and healthy environment, consistency, minimal pressure applied, with no expectations asked from them. An acceptance of who they are within this moment and a belief in who they will be.
This year’s muster was the first time I had contemplated the thought of wanting to rescue a Kaimanawa. I certainly don’t have facilities nor the ability or capacity to do that and what the future holds I don’t know. But a piece of them has jumped into my heart. I have been asked often what it was like to be there. As I reflect on my time on the Ranges Photography Tour I can only find four simple words that I try to speak through a choke in my throat. "It was Life Giving". It was as if life had been breathed into me. As dramatic as that sounds, it is my truth and it remains in the top five experiences of my life.
I will still head to the Wild West when the time is right, but for now I am happy to seek out more equine wilderness in New Zealand. If you would like to see more of my photos from the November Ranges tour please visit www.equinephotography.co.nz. These photos were taken using a Canon 70-200mm F2.8 lens and I have since purchased the 300mm F2.8 lens in preparation of returning to this land of magic once again.