Clash of cultures: Meet Taumarunui's horsemen

20:21, Nov 08 2013
 Joe Tuwhangai, left, and his son, Jim Bob, 11
COMPETITION: Joe Tuwhangai, left, and his son, Jim Bob, 11, race up a gravel lane in a bush block near Taumarunui.

"Suppose you're here about the horses," bellows Joe Tuwhangai from the deck of his back-block house in Taumarunui.

The Ngati Maniapoto man looks wild - he has gaps where his front teeth used to be, aged ink in his skin and ragged black hair framing his bristled face.

It is Thursday, 11am and overcast, and the 51-year-old says the morning is about to get a whole lot better.

A dented van rolls up from town on cue and out steps his nephew, Clifton Haupapa, the "wild" horseman who has hit the headlines after galloping up the middle of the main street.

And the good news is there is two boxes of bourbon and cola from the bottle store. Tuwhangai's grin stretches wider. He cracks a Maverick open, drinks, and invites us in.

There is the smell of poverty inside and the odour of too many bodies living in too small a space.


Upstairs, Tuwhangai is two cans down and smoking a Port Royal roll-your-own when he tells the story of his first horse, Pony.

"When I was born, my mum's dad owned a mare that had a foal the same day, so I was virtually born on a horse," he says.

"Pony, yeah, she had four foals, but my grandfather, he was never a sentimental man.

"If he had a pet pig and we wanted to eat, he'd eat it. He'd sell your horse.

"It wasn't a problem."

After his mother died, Tuwhangai grew up living off the land on his grandparents' 300-acre farm at Kawhia.

There he learnt to ride Pony as a 7-year-old; six years later his grandfather chucked it on the "dog-tucka truck" for $200 and broke his heart.

"They didn't want to go," he says.

"There were two horses and they knew they were going somewhere.

"They were neighing and wanting to get out and wouldn't go up the race."

Tuwhangai was in tears.

"Well it was my first horse and he's just going and chucking it on the dog-tucka truck. It was about the only thing I ever owned in my life, apart from dogs.

"It was my horse, fullstop, but not in my grandfather's eyes.

"If it eats his grass, it's his horse - you can't argue with it, can you."

Tuwhangai is a grandfather now and the father of 12 children to two women, nine of them to wife Christine.

They range in age from 2 to 29.

They are not all living at home, yet there are still 13 people under one roof on the corner of Tuku and Ngatai streets.

There used to be horses tethered up outside, too, and on empty sections nearby. Sometimes, and more so in the past year or so, the authorities got involved.

"The policeman said horses belong on a farm - I said I'd owned a horse all my life but I've never owned a farm."

Tuwhangai is a shearer turned stay-at-home dad who lives off state support and wild game.

He is known as a man who can shoe a horse, break-in wild ones and "bomb proof" them. He owns three: Miss Walker, Dead Eye Dick and Easy.

They have been in the bush for a while now but when in town they caused some of the 50 equine complaints to the Ruapehu District Council in the past year. Gripes ranged from horse droppings fouling up the streets to children galloping bareback around the Matapuna suburb at dusk. The tension came to a head when one man's horse was spotted roaming the streets.

The council impounded it in a secure council paddock. In true wild west fashion the owner cut the chain to the main yard and clipped the No 8 wire back-up fence to free the animal. But the escape was short-lived. An admission was made. The animal was impounded again, tendered, sold.

In response to rising pressure on the horsemen and the council's refusal to allow riders on the road verge, Haupapa, allegedly intoxicated, galloped down the middle of Hakiaha St on the afternoon of October 31 as a spur of the moment protest.

Upstairs in Tuwhangai's house, Haupapa's into the bourbon and cokes too. Horses are a way of life, he says, and the council has been creating problems where there aren't any. Teaching children how to deal with horses is part of being a horseman, he says.

"For us as Maori, we're going backwards in the world, as you can see.

"We have to teach our kids these little things we know otherwise they'll never know."

Nearby resident Raewyn Walsh gets around on one good leg and one wooden leg, and wields the fastest tongue on Taupo Rd. The 72-year-old's had "more than a gutsful" of horses being tied to and damaging her fences.

There is a burnt-out house on one side of her section and an empty one on the other. The grass is lush - it is the perfect tethering spot.

"I've had five tied to that fence and three tied to that fence," she says.

"Why should I [put up with it] - they're not my bloody horses. They've got no water or nothing and they're tied to my fence rubbing their arses on it."

She reckons the council and the police are as bad as each other when it comes to taking action. They have taken too long to crack down, she says.

Councillors have heard her complaints twice during meetings and she has complained over the phone up to three times a week. "I've been a proper b....," she says, laughing, but "it's not funny". "Me and the little fella we cleaned that paddock up and we had eight fadges [woolbales] of horse s... and eight buckets full. We had it all done and mowed and four horses move in there overnight. You wonder why I was wild?"

She and the horsemen appear to have starkly different views about how the world works.

"The kids told me the other day, they were up the tree, plaguing me, and I said: Get out of my tree, and they go: Pakehas don't own trees, Tutanekai [sic] owns trees, or some bloody thing.

"I said: I beg to differ - it's on my property. He said it doesn't matter."

The Ruapehu District Council building's architecture and furnishings look palatial compared with Tuwhangai's home, a few minutes' drive away. Inside, chief executive Peter Till and team leader of compliance Brenda Ralph are clear about what they expect from the horsemen.

Riders of any age may travel on the road, even down the main street, as long as they follow the road rules and are not reckless. They are not allowed on verges.

Horses can be tethered in residential areas but they can't "reside" there.

Horse droppings are a littering issue but there is an evidential threshold to meet. Dark horses on dark nights are a traffic hazard without lights, and horses should not be tethered on other people's property without permission.

Mr Till says tethering is "not life threatening" but "if you happened to have just had your best dahlias eaten by the horse, you're not happy".

The council has also started a catalogue of horses so they know who they belong to.

Tuwhangai never liked urban living and reluctantly moved to Taumarunui.

There is something in his eyes when he steps out of his van way up in the cool Pureora Forest hills yesterday morning and proclaims: "Welcome to my paradise." He has brought a troop of children along and, in a moment, they've spotted Miss Walker and Easy in the near distance. Jimbob Tuwhangai, 11, races off first to put their bridles on and start riding.

He is the one who was seen galloping around the Taumarunui streets. He is fearless, Tuwhangai says. And he will only ride bareback. But people underestimate his skill and it is their own fear showing when they worry about his safety. Jimbob started riding when he was two and gallops downhill without hesitation.

The kids hop on and off Easy and Miss Walker, talking about horses been and gone and a bucking shetland pony that would walk into the kitchen and eat the bread. Jimbob trots around, knowing his skill and talent. He dismounts artfully, deftly sliding down Miss Walker's chest to his feet. Soon, there is a race and Jimbob blitzes younger brother, Tio.

Tuwhangai watches on but he cannot turn down a challenge and leaves Jimbob and Easy in his tracks.

He prefers to teach the kids how to ride these days, yet he still has the ability. He has ridden the 159-kilometre two-day journey from Kawhia to Taumarunui twice.

After the race, he sits on the bonnet of a car that is going nowhere, and rolls a cigarette. Tio, Waka, Hone and friends Derek and Carledo crowd around him.

Easy's there, too, nosing up to Tuwhangai. "It's nice up here, playing around with the kids," he says.

Waikato Times