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Taking horse tack to the world

Wairoa-based New Zealand Mecates grew out of founder Ilana Cheiban’s love of horses and her desire for quality, locally made gear.

When she couldn’t find the type of horse tack she wanted, Ilana decided to make it herself – and the business was born. It now produces top-quality, handmade horse gear and leather products to local and overseas markets.

NZ Mecates’ success earned Ilana the Judge’s Choice Award at this year’s ExportNZ ASB Hawke’s Bay Export Awards.

In winning the discretionary category award, the judges said Ilana had done “a supreme job” in carving out a company from scratch, and they unanimously wanted to acknowledge NZ Mecates, which exports about three-quarters of its products.

Ilana’s venture began when she sold halters for the first time at a local horse and tack auction.

“I sold 17 halters for $23 each. I remember realising that there was a market for the gear that I was making for my family, that there was something I could provide and a way to keep us afloat,” she says.

With a background in fine arts, a talent for using her hands and an eagerness to learn, she started her mecate-making craft journey in 2014 when she purchased a hand twister off eBay.

“Like any good business, we were born out of a backyard shed, supported enough to eventually risk quitting the day job. What started with halters soon branched out into rope and leather reins, headstalls and breastplates,” she says.

“I couldn’t help laughing when my daughter asked why I couldn’t just have a normal job like a normal mother when we were stretching out hides one day.”

The business grew to specialise in making Californian-style tack and Ilana believes she is the only manufacturer in the world producing wool-based mecates, equestrian ropes traditionally made out of horsehair.

She says it took a year of trial and error to develop the “recipes” for her unique mecates and her family was called into service.

“It took three people to make one mecate. We would spend every weekend walking the length of the veranda of our house, twisting up mecates, which often indulged in being difficult and obstinate. We spent many frustrated hours on that veranda.

“What we produce now are six-strand mecates that have a core of twisted wool. They are one-of-a-kind, bespoke mecates that are durable yet soft in your hand and have a wonderful life to them.”

Ilana says having learnt her craft “with the aid of nothing but a few books, YouTube and wit”, she plans to keep refining her skills so she can extend her range of products.

“I just love making what I make, and I keep adding new designs, refining and making the products better.”

Using New Zealand wool is a core aspect of the business, Ilana says, because it is a natural, sustainable, iconic Kiwi product and it is important to keep showcasing it to our international markets.

“It would be really nice to see more small businesses using wool in a way that is innovative, added value and got it offshore. It gives the farmers encouragement, gets them back in the woolshed. I’m lucky to be able to access really good quality and quantities of wool and it’s the best in the world. It’s the best fibre.”