European settlers used horses for farm work such as ploughing and shepherding, and soon for recreational purposes. The earliest and most widespread was horse racing, which rapidly became part of rural life for both Māori and Pākehā.
Hunts, when riders follow hounds cross-country in pursuit of prey, were more limited in their social following. Hunting began when Governor George Grey imported beagles for hunting rabbits. The sight and ‘music’ (barking) of these small hounds were said to have roused the sporting instincts of homesick settlers, and a hunt was established at Pakuranga in 1872. Others followed in the 1880s, and by 1901, a year after the New Zealand Hunts Association was formed, there were 12 hunts, mostly in Canterbury and on the East Coast of the North Island. In 2007 there were 26.
At first, hunts were funded by holding race meetings at which bookmakers paid fees. Bookmakers were abolished in 1910, creating a financial crisis, but eventually in 1921 hunts were given totalisator permits.
What a drag
The ‘drag’ used by early hunts was a sack doused in aniseed then dragged over the course for the hounds to follow. More recently freshly-killed possum has been used.
At first hunts followed a drag. Hares were imported and thrived, so now most hunts follow hares instead. Initially hunters jumped over gorse hedges and wire fences, about 50 such obstacles in about 12 kilometres. This too has changed, especially with the advent of electric fences, and now most fences have the top wire lowered to a suitable jumping height and covered with a wooden spar.
Each club is distinguished by its own colours. Winter is the hunt season, with up to 30 meets. About 60 riders follow the master and a ‘whipper-in’ who controls the hounds. At the end of the meet new riders are ‘blooded’ – the blood of the hare is smeared on their cheeks.
Polo is another rural sport involving horses, and, like hunts, is largely confined to the rural elite. Originally an Indian game, polo became popular in the British military. It involves two teams of four riders who attempt to score goals using mallets. They normally play six chukkas (or periods) of seven minutes each.
The first game was played in New Zealand in 1890 following the presentation of a trophy for polo by Captain Savile, aide-de-campe to the governor. In 2007 there were 19 polo clubs and about 300 players. The major regions are Waikato, Hawke’s Bay and Canterbury/Marlborough.
Rodeo originated in the west of the United States, where cowboys’ skills in herding cattle were brought into the ring for sport. Rodeo did not appear in New Zealand until the early 1960s and a national championship began in 1973. In 2007 there were 32 rodeos over the summer in New Zealand, 16 in each island.
The major events are:
- bareback – the rider attempts to stay on a bucking bronco using only a cinch rope hand-hold
- rope and tie – the rider lassos a calf from their horse, then dismounts and throws the calf to the ground
- saddle bronc – the rider attempts to stay on a bouncing horse using a saddle and a rein
- team roping – the only team event involves a header who attempts to lasso a steer around the horns, then the heeler tries to rope both hind legs
- barrel racing – the only all-female event involves riding around three barrels in a clover-leaf pattern as quickly as possible
- steer wrestling – the rider jumps from their horse and tries to wrestle the steer to the ground
- bull riding – the rider attempts to stay on a rampaging bull by holding onto a rope with one hand.
Rodeo is popular in country districts as a spectator sport, but few people participate. Māori have become prominent in rodeo in New Zealand.