Two years ago I had a vivid dream about a tribe of people riding wild horses in Aotearoa’s far north. In my dream the warriors wore their heads shaved, carried spears and rode horses like they were an extension of themselves. Earlier this year, I found that this tribe does exist. These warriors don’t have spears or shaved heads, but the connection with their horses is the same. The tribe is called Ngati Hōiho (Horse Tribe) and they reside in the beautiful Hokianga.
Once I learned about them, I was amped to meet the Ngāti Hōiho in their part of the world, so I made the journey north. Initially the tribe were a little reticent, waiting to see if I could be trusted, but it wasn’t long before their warm hearts opened. As I watched the tribe ride I knew it was a privilege to photograph these majestic animals and the rich bond the tribe shares with them. They ride with no saddles, and the connection between animal and human is almost spiritual as they mould into one.
Throughout the day I spent with them, I learned that twenty years ago, local Matua Rob, founded the Iwi Hōiho to train the local tamariki to ride horses. The legionary horseman breeds the Hokianga brumbies for the tribe to ride. An institution in his town of Rāwene, Rob a farm owner, president of the local bowling club and drives the local school bus to and from school. He also mows the school grounds and takes care of the Rāwene recycle yard for the council - and donates all the money made from it to pay for the horse stables and horse truck for the Iwi. A practical, caring man who brings joy into the lives of the kids of Ngāti Hōiho. Many of the kids came from hard backgrounds - broken homes, poverty and wayward lifestyles and the Iwi Hōiho became a haven for them, a place where they were respected and cared for. A place that they could be will and free. The Hōiho warriors range in age from 6 to 17 years, however many of Rob’s past students come to pay homage as adults for the experience he gave them.
As it turned out, I was to see his practical nature in full swing. We’d been running in the fields all morning and needed a break. We stopped for some fish and chips by the wharf in Rāwene, we tied the horses to the church fence. Suddenly we heard a loud noise, as we turned we saw that a mare had kicked a new member of the herd. As we watched on the horse reared up on it’s hind legs and fell backwards, landing on it’s neck and dying instantly. Tourist stared on with mouths wide open while the local kids scratched their heads. I had no idea what to do, but Rob leapt into action. He reversed an old tractor up to the body of the horse and looped a chain to it’s leg. Once satisfied it was secure, he kicked the tractor into gear and proceeded to drag the horse down the bumpy road and back to the stables, leaving the tourists with even wider mouths. I quietly asked the tribe if they were okay, or if we should have a karakia for the horse. They looked at me and laughed, saying horses die, that’s what they do.
We can all learn from Rob’s big heart towards Ngāti Hōiho and I cannot think of a better role model for these kids, and as I left the Hokianga, I realised that the dream was right, these kids may not look like the tribe in my dream, but they ride with the souls of warriors.