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Tūhoe and horses
Europeans introduced horses to New Zealand from the early 19th century. Māori immediately saw the advantages but at first horses were uncommon and expensive, so only chiefs owned them. Government officials often gifted horses to chiefs as a sign of goodwill.
From the 1840s, some tribes had significant numbers of horses and were able to gift them to other iwi. In some areas, Māori owned more horses than local Pākeha communities, paying for them with large numbers of pigs or quantities of flax. By the 1850s, horses were the main form of land transport for Māori.
The Tūhoe chief Te Maitaranui first saw horses in the Bay of Islands and described these new beasts to his people as 'kurī waha tangata' (people-carrying dogs).
Tūhoe bought their first horse at Tūranga (Gisborne) around the 1840s. It was named Tūhoe, demonstrating its importance to the iwi. Later, Tūhoe members went to Auckland to purchase horses, paying for them with pigs and potatoes. The price of a horse was around 40 pigs.
In many rural Māori communities in the North Island, horses became an integral part of the community and still are. Families and communities often have their own distinctive breed, based on horses that have proven over time to be able to travel safely and swiftly over what-ever is the terrain they live and work in. They often live in a semi-feral state, with mares being run with a stallion in a herd and foals weaned naturally. They are not wild – every horse has an owner, and breeding is controlled by culling unsuitable animals and bringing in fresh blood. This makes for sound, sure-footed horses that are suited to a range of activities.
For Tūhoe and travel into Te Urewera, their horse must be one that is born and bred to handle the harsh winters, rough river-beds and steep bush tracks. Not always as nice looking as a pony-club horse, they are selected on their ability to get there with no fuss and get home, usually with a deer or pig on board.
Long before the days of easy tracks built for visitors to Te Urewera and now used by Tūhoe’s horses, Tūhoe had a network of horse tracks through-out the forest, connecting their communities and to hunting grounds. For those who know what to look for those old tracks can still be seen, some in terrain it is hard to believe a horse could travel in. Some are still in use, in places cut down by 150 years of horse traffic at times to a depth of 2 metres.