Like most Westernized countries, New Zealand has many domesticated horses.
On any given drive across the country you’re bound to see them fenced in on grassy hillsides, being ridden by tourists across a country road, or jumped by locals for prizes at field day events.
Wild horses, on the other hand, are a rare sight to see.
I was lucky enough to track some down and witness their majestic beauty as they freely trotted through the Te Aupouri Forest and galloped across the dunes behind the 90 Mile Beach.
Prints in the sand
“This is my chance!” I thought as I gazed down at horse tracks pressed into the densely packed sand of the beach.
The day before, we were driving toward the beach when we came across a group of wild horses scurrying off the road into the surrounding forest. As soon as I saw them my mind was made up—I had to see them again!
Jono and I set the long line out and had a couple of hours to wait for fish to bite before pulling it back in. So we decided to lock up the truck and take a stroll behind the dunes to follow the tracks.
Whether we would see any or not (and I was determined we would), the “hunt” was already a thrill.
Following the poop
We followed the prints along a muddy part of the dunes where we identified their droppings along the way. The horse poop meant we were on the right track. However, most of it was dried up and too old to be from a recent herd.
As we entered the forest, we found a natural trail and what we were looking for: fresh horse poop.
We walked for about 15 minutes, careful not to step in any of the poop along the way. I was walking barefoot so this meant very careful stepping as I constantly assessed the poop’s freshness.
“Ah no, that way is dry poop, this way is wet poop.”
The soft bed of needles in this forest was otherwise completely safe and comfortable to walk on without shoes.
Te Aupouri Forest is a 29,000 hectacre pine forest originally planted to protect against the drifting coastal sands. Since it is human-made, it’s remarkably sparse of any other plant-life and the trees are unusually evenly spaced. The design makes for an enchanted feel.
Being vewy, vewy quiet
While we walked, we tried to keep our voices down and our footsteps quiet.
After about 20 minutes, our relative silence was broken by the sound of tractors and other machinery in the distance. The forest today is farmed for its timber and we were coming up on an area where forestry workers were plundering away.
My hopes for seeing wild horses up close diminished slightly as we were forced to turn around or else face the men and their heavy machines.
By now the poop was looking dried up anyway.
I had nearly given up all hope when sudden movement deep in the forest caught my eye.
Witnessing their freedom
There were two, no three, brownish red horses walking along and they had us in sight. Jono and I hunched down and we began sneaking parallel to them. They were skittish and moved ahead as we pressed on to keep up with them.
Eventually we made it up to where their path turned across ours to head down to the beach. We crouched among the bushes and waited for them to make a choice to run across our path or go back the way they came. They chose to run.
The following is a (slightly out of focus) video of them crossing our path.
One by one, they took turns darting across in front of us and meeting the rest of their group down on the dunes. Once they were all passed us, we hurried after them to the sandy edge of the forest.
Seven horse faces stared directly back at us.
I was absolutely ecstatic. They were so beautiful, hair blowing freely in the wind and sunlight glistening off their backs. They reminded me why I’ve always felt weird about riding horses. As much as getting on one’s back and riding it around interests me, all horses were once like these ones are—wild and free.
When they saw us emerge, the leader of the herd turned to gallop up the face of the dunes.
The others followed in pursuit.
As we slowly walked back up the dunes, the horses retreated over the edge and down the beach out of sight.
They had allowed us to get close, but not too close.
I was thankful for that much.
The sound of hooves
I didn’t see the horses again for the rest of our time on the 90 mile beach—although I did hear them.
One dark, rainy night, Jono and I were packing up the truck about to head into the tent for the night when all of a sudden we heard hooves hitting hard on the ground in the distance. “They’re coming!”
We dove behind the truck just as a whole herd of wild horses suddenly came barreling through the campsite!
We couldn’t see them, but the sound of their hooves was like thunder in the rainstorm and we could feel the air move next to us as they swooshed on by.
I guess we were in their way? Or maybe they were tracking us this time!
They are such spectacular creatures. I’m so glad I had the chance to track them down and witness their beauty first hand.