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Caring for the Kaimanawa

Monday, 4 September 2017  
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VetScript Editor's pick - September 2017

A large muster of the Kaimanawa wild horses is likely next year, and veterinarians can anticipate being called in by the new owners to help. Bette Flagler gets the inside word on how best to approach and treat these smart and skittish animals.

The signs are clear that the 2018 muster of the Kaimanawa horses will be a big one.

DoC is responsible for managing the Kaimanawa horses. With a goal of sustaining a population of 300 – a number set to maintain the genetic variability of the herd – it oversees the biennial muster and conducts a census by helicopter each April. Last year it counted just over 400, and 100 horses were consequently removed and rehomed. It turns out that number may have been a bit low (poor weather at the census meant that many horses were probably under cover) and the 2017 census, conducted in April, shows that there are already 468.

The number of horses removed in the late April 2018 muster will depend on the 2018 census, but it is anticipated that there will be many weanlings, yearlings mares and stallions available for adoption, says Kaimanawa Heritage Horses (KHH) Chair Kimber Brown.

Rehoming mustered horses is a prime raison d’être for KHH, a volunteer charitable society founded in 2003.

Kimber says that KHH began placing horses in 2007 and has placed 675. While applications are received from throughout New Zealand, the majority are initially rehomed to Waikato and further north. Freshly mustered horses are not relocated to the South Island, but through later sales and movements there are Kaimanawa horses throughout the country. KHH is currently accepting applications from those interested in adopting horses, and, prior to the muster, will inspect the suitability of potential owners and their facilities. With so many horses coming onstream, one or more may come to a farm near you.

Laminitis and equine metabolic syndrome are the main veterinary concerns, says KHH committee member Michele Haultain. This makes sense: the Kaimanawa horses live on thousands of hectares in the ranges, move around all day, every day, and eat low-quality grass. Once they come out of the wild, they are often moved to fenced, fertilised pastures and fed supplements.

While most horses are transferred to their permanent homes within days of the muster, those who are not ready for adoption are fostered by Michele and a handful of other caregivers, including long- time KHH member Elder Jenks. Babiche Heil, from Cambridge Equine Hospital, provides the majority of veterinary services for horses in Michele’s care.

“They’re like Shetland ponies. Shetlands are fine on the rough islands north of Scotland, but they don’t do that well in the lush dairy pastures in Waikato,” says Babiche.

She recommends thinking of them as you would a pre-laminitic pony. Advise clients to consider replanting with a low- energy grass, and stress the need to avoid high-energy grain and to ensure that the horses have access to minerals, vitamins and roughage.

Dawne Nairn, who treats the horses at Elder’s property, as well as others in South Auckland, adds that it’s always good to remind owners that food doesn’t equal love.

When mustered horses get into work, those in big paddocks and those who are working hard every day may not have metabolic problems. However, Dawne suggests that if you see an older horse with chronically sore feet, test for insulin resistance and equine Cushing’s disease.

Keep an eye on those feet – laminitic or otherwise. After all, says Margaret Leyland, the ground in the ranges is soft, and hooves tend to be overgrown and cracked. Margaret, who has attended all four musters since 2010, is the NZVA representative on the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Advisory Group. Farriers won’t be able to work on the horses until trust is built, but Margaret recommends you speak with owners about a hoof care plan. While you’re at it, make a strategy for worming.

“We do faecal egg counts at the muster yards, and they are always high. It’s impossible to drench the horses orally, so KHH uses pour-on wormers.”

She recommends that you do an FEC two weeks after the muster to measure how effective it’s been, then design a worming strategy based on frequent FECs, the age and resilience of the horses, and risk assessments of the management situation.

Babiche agrees, and adds that veterinarians should aim to educate clients on handling these horses a bit differently.

“You need to work closely with the owners. It’s a really hard task because wormers are available everywhere in New Zealand. In the beginning you can’t drench the Kaimanawas because you can’t get near them. If you can, worm them again with a topical wormer, but do an FEC first.”

Be careful not to under-dose, she says. As with any horse, it’s best to monitor what’s going on. Appropriate dosing is important and under-dosing predisposes to drug resistance. However, she reminds, be wary of possible blockages occurring when heavily infected horses are treated.

“Kaimanawas,” says Michele, “should definitely not be left on their own at any time. I put mine straight away with a quiet horse. I pick up their manure and make sure my quiet horse is kept up to date with worming.”

Gelding stallions will be on the to-do list, but you won’t be able to do it until they’ve been handled enough for an IV injection.

It would be good, says Margaret, to talk to new owners about their handling plans and timing. When it comes to mares and fillies, remind clients that even juveniles may be in foal, and that the stress of the muster may cause them to abort.

Unless something is life-threatening, Babiche suggests waiting on treatment until the client has built trust and is able to handle the horse. That’s the approach both she and Michele use.

“I don’t see them when they first arrive. Michele rings me when she can catch them or can nearly catch them. If it’s a routine vaccination or a routine dental or any routine or minor work, just wait. If you can’t get near these horses, there’s no point in trying.”

“They’ve lived out there for a long time,” says Michele. “The ones who have survived are really tough. They are very smart little horses. They are very aware of everything and they can pick up the slightest little things. The young horses adapt quickly, but I find the older mares can be quite tough. They’re used to looking after the herds and are aware of everything that goes on. They can find it harder to adjust than the others.”

Michele says that veterinarians should come in quietly and listen to what owners tell them, because they know their horse. She appreciates Babiche’s quiet approach.

“I think it’s a mixture of being quiet and gentle, but accurate,” says Babiche. “You have to take your time – don’t do it when you’re in a rush. I often go to Michele’s just before lunch – if I have a lunch break – or at the end of the day, so I can take time. I don’t know if it’s going to be a five-minute job or a one-hour job.”

Once a Kaimanawa horse has finished shedding worm eggs, she suggests pairing it with a quiet horse.

“They become friends with the quiet horse, and when the quiet horse walks up to you the Kaimanawa quickly learns that people are nice. Michele has really sturdy, high fencing. We try to get the Kaimanawa against the railing and the quiet horse against the Kaimanawa. You can reach around the quiet horse to the Kaimanawa, who has something to trust.

“They don’t understand hard feed, they don’t understand a carrot and they don’t understand an apple, so they’re pretty hard to lure. Move quietly and make sure you get things done at once. They don’t give you a second chance. If you’re going to castrate a young stallion, make a plan and go really quietly; use a thin needle and try to do it the first time. If you don’t succeed in sedating them on the first try, they’re not going to let you walk up again, because they know there’s a needle coming.”

Being feral – and unfamiliar with fences and equipment – they’re probably slightly more prone to cuts, so don’t forget tetanus vaccinations, reminds Babiche.

If you run into any unusual medical situations or encounter an owner who isn’t coping, don’t hesitate to contact the KHH, says Elder. He and other volunteers have worked with hundreds of these horses and are happy to help out, offer suggestions or rehome if necessary.