New Zealand’s own Warhorse

To commemorate Anzac Day, we uncover the true story of the remarkable reunion between one New Zealand soldier and his beloved war horse, Star

NZ troops training near Featherston before heading for the battlefields of the Middle East
NZ troops training near Featherston before heading for the battlefields of the Middle East

The plot of the hit movie Warhorse, where a horse is reunited with his much loved owner on a WWI French battlefield, has been called farfetched.

Yet a similar incident did occur on the desert battlefields of the Middle East. The similarities with the fictional story are uncanny, yet it seems unlikely that the original Warhorse author, Englishman Michael Morpurgo, would ever have come across the story of a Kiwi farmer from the East Cape, and his chestnut mare Star.

Trooper Pynson Mossman of the Wellington Mounted Rifles was reunited in the midst of a desperate battle on the River Jordan, with the beloved mare he had last seen three years earlier at home in Tiniroto, Gisborne.

Virginia Dysart, with photographs of her father, Trooper Pynson Mossman (Image: Jan Sutherland)
Virginia Dysart, with photographs of her father, Trooper Pynson Mossman (Image: Jan Sutherland)

It was the family war story that his daughter Virginia Dysart, now of Taupo, loved to hear.

“Dad was farming at Awapiko Station in Tiniroto near Gisborne when World War I was declared. On this steep isolated hill country property horses were vital, and mixed type horses were bred by all the farmers around for general farm work and transportation;  mustering, haymaking, packing fenceposts and riding to town,” Virginia says.

“Dad broke in and trained a chestnut stationbred-thoroughbred-cross mare for riding. Star had a lovely nature was easy to handle, and he became very attached to her.”

When war broke out, the Government ordered that horses would be requisitioned, and landowners were advised to have all horses on their properties ready for inspection when required. Some canny farmers hid their best stock before the inspectors arrived. However, when the call came for Awapiko horses to be viewed, the patriotic and honourable Pynson assembled all 30 station horses in the stock yards.

“When the officer chose Star, Dad asked if she could be left as they had formed a very close bond. But the Captain was adamant; the Army had full authority to take whatever horses they pleased, and Star was taken, along with five others.

“Dad didn’t expect to ever see her again.”

While Star was thought to have been sent to the Middle East on the troop ship Aparima in 1915, Pynson Mossman continued farming until he was conscripted to the East Coast Mounted Rifles, part of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Brigade. After undergoing training at Trentham, “a rigorous test of horsemanship”, he embarked for Egypt in November 1917.

On arrival in Egypt, Pynson was assigned a horse for the duration. Each soldier was responsible for the health and wellbeing of his mount; feeding, watering, grooming and generally looking after him or her.

Trooper Pynson Mossman on his Army-assigned 'bone-rattler'
Trooper Pynson Mossman on his Army-assigned ‘bone-rattler’

“Dad said the horse he was assigned was a real ‘bone-rattler’, not at all comfortable to ride, but like all the horses of the Mounted Rifles Brigade, had to carry up to 130kg of gear across desert sands and plains, in extreme heat and extreme cold.

“He may secretly have hoped to find Star when he got to Egypt, but with up to 10,000 horses having been sent from New Zealand between 1914-16, he held no expectation that he would ever see his beloved mare,” Virginia says.

But, in a battle in the Jordan Valley, Trooper Pynson’s unit was forced to withdraw and cross a bridge. Another supporting New Zealand party stationed elsewhere also withdrew along the same route.

Crossing the River Jordan
Crossing the River Jordan

“There was apparently much confusion with riderless horses, dust and bloodshed. Dad had been thrown from his mount and needed to quickly find another horse to escape.

“He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Star nearby, riderless and with her hind leg caught up in a trailing rein.”

The chance encounter enabled both rider and horse to escape unscathed. Pynson’s original mount and Star’s rider are presumed to have died in the confusion.

“Dad was given permission to keep her as his mount for the remainder of the war. And he did everything in his power to have Star returned to New Zealand after the war, but his efforts were in vain.”

The Bess memorial, near Bulls
The Bess memorial, near Bulls

Quarantine restrictions and cost prevented all but four of the New Zealand horses returning home; one of these was the famous Bess who has a memorial near Bulls. Many horses were shot by their troopers to ensure they finished the war in dignity, while others were taken over by members of the British army remaining in the Middle East.

“According to Dad, legendary British Army officer TE Lawrence, later known as Lawrence of Arabia, went through the New Zealand horses and took Star to add to his bloodstock line,” Virginia says.

Pynson returned home to Tiniroto, farming at Awapiko and bringing up his family. Two of his brothers died at Gallipoli. Another was injured on the Somme. Trooper Mossman died in 1963, aged 79.

We shall remember them

  • More than 10,000 horses left New Zealand during the First World War, most ending up in the Middle East. Military regulations specified that ‘remounts’ were to be between four and seven years old. Geldings were preferable to mares and stallions were not permitted. 
  • In the Middle East campaign, the horses were generally used to transport soldiers (troopers) around and close to battlefields. Troopers would usually dismount and fight on foot with bayonets and rifles. One in each quartet would be the horse-holder. However, some troopers did report riding their horses in hand-to-hand combat.
  • It is estimated that 1416 NZ horses were lost between April 1916 and December 1918: 211 died, 184 were destroyed, 383 killed in action, 559 evacuated to hospital and 79 listed as missing. Horse shipments from New Zealand stopped toward the end of 1916 because of a lack of shipping.
  • The life of NZ horses in the Middle East was incredibly difficult. They had to cope with extreme heat and bitter cold. They were expected to carry a soldier and up to 130kg of gear across miles of difficult terrain: desert sands, mud, mountain tracks and plains. They endured long periods without water, experiencing all conditions from sandstorms to freezing winter rains. Most suffered dehydration and exhaustion. As there was little or no grass, all horse food had to be brought in through the Suez Canal. 
  • Troopers were expected to put their mounts first, ensuring they were groomed, fed and watered before feeding themselves. The brigade had a mobile veterinary section, every regiment had a professional veterinary officer and a farrier quartermaster sergeant, and each squadron a farrier sergeant and a shoeing smith.
  • Convalescent depots were set up for tired and worn-out horses. The very sick or injured horses were evacuated by rail to vet hospitals.

For more information, the Wellington Mounted Rifles has a website http://www.nzmr.org/wellington