25 Oct 2017

War horses immortalised

8:28 pm on 25 October 2017

The role of the horse in war is to be finally commemorated with a statue in Hamilton.

Matt Gauldie

Matt Gauldie Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

New Zealand sent 8000 horses to the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) and 10,000 to the First World War.

Of that number, only one returned from South Africa in 1902 and just four from Europe and the Middle East at the end of the First World War in 1918.

The 350kg, full-size bronze horse statue is currently standing in a workshop in Te Rapa, awaiting its final home in Hamilton's Memorial Park.

It took sculptor Matt Gauldie a year-and-a-half to complete and features full riding gear, with the horse leaning its head down to sniff at a trooper's hat.

The sculpture was deliberately realistic, Mr Gauldie said.

"It's got all its veins, skin veins, it's adrenalised and sweating and its reins are hanging down by on the ground, and it is looking disorientated and lost," he said.

"It's just discovered this hat and it is clearly acknowledging the hat of its [dead] trooper."

Mr Gauldie tried to portray the sensitivity and emotion shown by horses and the connection they have with their riders.

"That got me thinking about how the horse would feel if its rider was shot off and if it would grieve its rider," he said.

"I wanted to have that story so when people see the sculpture they will see the hat and see him recognising and acknowledging this hat and they will piece it altogether."

Matt Gauldie said sculpting the horse was a challenging process and in the end he used a real one for comparison, brought to his studio by a friend.

"That was a breakthrough for me to have the real horse next to it, because I could see as plan as day the areas I was going wrong."

Sculptor Matt Gauldie took a year-and-a-half to complete the life-size bronze statue

Sculptor Matt Gauldie took a year-and-a-half to complete the life-size bronze statue Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

The project has been run by the Combined Waikato Equestrian Group, which raised $240,000 for the sculpture.

The idea first came from Masterton man Rodney Martin, who lamented in a letter to the New Zealand Riding Club's magazine Riders Roundup what he thought was the lack of recognition for war horses.

The idea was then picked up by Noeline Jefferies, the president of the Waikato Equestrian Group.

Seeing the statue completed was a dream come true, she said.

"The horses had no choice and they had to endure hardships - the sand, the flies, the heat - and a lot of the soldiers formed a bond with their horses," she said.

Waikato Mounted Rifles Association president Simon Marriott was not surprised it had taken so long to honour the role horses played in various wars, because the focus had always been on the people who died.

The fact that all bar five horses came home was down to biosecurity risks, he said.

"Some were sold to the British cavalry, some unfortunately had to be put down.

"Some troopers preferred to kill their own horses rather than let them into the hands of the Egyptians ... so, yes it was an awful decision to make."

It has been estimated that up to eight million horses from both sides died during the First World War.

The war horse statue will be unveiled at a ceremony in Memorial Park in Hamilton on Armistice Day on 11 November.