Hallo… and welcome to another excerpt from my memoirs. Today’s reading is from a chapter I wrote about a unique Australian exhibition of horsemanship and mateship – but first, I must tell you there will be several episodes taken from this particularly large chapter, so I can share the flavour and sounds and feel of this amazing experience. Here is –
A BUSH GYMKANA
“We have a surprise for you.” I couldn’t keep the excitement out of my voice,
“There’s going to be a gymkhana—up north of here. We want to go and we hope you will, too.”
It’s horse competitionsNot horse racing as we mostly think of it, although there is one kind of a race. It’s sort of like a cross-country race, I guess. Otherwise it’s speed pattern racing and timed games for horses and riders. ”
I rushed on with the best bit.”But wait, there’s more. The ad in our local paper promises, ‘A Barbecue Tea, followed by a Ball in the night’.
There had been a growing buzz of excitement in our corner of Australia after we heard about this bush gymkhana planned to be held in a town some hours away. Little of our trip would be on bitumen roads—most of the many miles would be on dusty roads that were barely more than wide tracks. Once upon a time, they had known a grader blade—somewhere in the distant past. The town was the site of the first gold strike in the area, named after the first lucky prospector to register a lease for gold mining in Western Australia. In its heyday, Payne’s Find supported some 500 residents. By the 1960’s, mining had slowed and almost petered out and the population dwindled accordingly. This gymkhana was one local’s brainstorm to bring people and money back into the area. Josie and Todd were our best friends back in the city, old workmates as well as being the caring tenants of our suburban home. When they accepted, their planned visit was moved forward a few weeks to happily coincide with the unexpected bonus this event offered.
An added bonus was that we could travel together and be accommodated in their Volkswagen Kombi van. Its compact fold-out annexe cleverly provided an undercover and private semi-outdoor area for the all-important clothing changes, and a bed magically appeared atop the van when the annexe was open. Kanute and I could sleep upstairs, and Josie and Todd cosily inside the van on a fold-a-bed formed when the passenger seats were laid back.
Josie and Todd’s long trip was broken by that welcome overnight stay with us, before we all continued north, enjoying the changing face of the farmland, as it merged into station country and bush. This extended travelling time gave us all a great opportunity to catch up with details of each others’ lives, and the latest gossip from the city. Excitement grew proportionately as the distance narrowed towards the experience of the highly anticipated gymkhana.
“Where on earth do they all come from? We’re in the middle of nowhere.” Like the other three, I couldn’t turn my head quickly enough to believe the number of spectators who had gathered. To our astonishment, we would discover that many of the excited throng had travelled vast distances from distant properties—even interstate—driving for hours of dusty miles to attend. Others flew in on private planes as increasing numbers of station owners obtained their own pilot’s licences. Heady stuff for newcomers like us with no experience of the love of a gathering of country folk—especially for a competition of the horsey kind.
This bush gymkhana was a kaleidoscope of intense colour and movement as horses and riders compete. Excited shouts and whinnies intermingled with the sharp staccato cracking of whips; horses neighed and ‘harrumphed’ as the galloping hooves of others vibrated through the ground and your feet—and deep in the pit of your stomach. From the surrounding yards came a medley of whinnying of the working horses, as the bellowing, milling stock were sorted for the use of the riders in the cattle-catching demonstration, and the frenzied barking of cattle dogs as they moved the horses closer for their ‘moment in the sun’. Don’t forget the cheering and whistling of the onlookers. Sitting high on the rails around the stockyards, they were keen to watch any action at all as they awaited the beginning of the actual events. Crowded in between, others clung tightly to any handhold they could find, pushing eager faces into any vacant space between bodies or boots. These excited spectators were prepared to risk anything for a glimpse of their heroes.
The smells of a bush gymkhana are identical to those to be found at any horse event in the world; pony club ‘meets’, horse-racing, dressage and equestrian events; or competitions of all varieties. It’s an unforgettable combination of sweat and fear from both horses and their riders; of leather saddles and harnesses, and the vast collection of other riding gear. But this bush gymkhana added its own ingredient to the mix. Choking dust billowed heavenwards in great misty clouds seen from many miles away. In this area the soil was red so the dust motes added their own colour to the medley. Their nose-tickling aftermath drifted back down, gently and unobtrusively laying itself thickly over all below.
The outstanding colour of this bush gymkhana was blue—jeans and more jeans, and blue denim jackets worn over Western-style check shirts. Flashes of red and yellow and other vivid colours caught the eye with the brightness of the incredibly versatile bandannas (or neckties).
Hastily polished, but basically scuffed up riding boots and elastic-sided work boots abound. These are certainly not the tailored riders of city equestrian events. Even the roughest event for ‘townies’—cross-country racing—only allows ‘more colourful and less conservative’ attire than the usual perfection demanded by the strictest rules and regulations. The bush gymkhana is at the other end of the spectrum, where little other headwear is seen than Akubra hats and Stetsons in all stages and ages of life (and near-death models, too). The headwear parade is echoed by the ladies’ versions—even extending to one dusky pink Akubra-style hat, with a jaunty pink and purple chiffon scarf tied around the crown, tails waving cheerfully in the breeze.
“Wonder how many of the little chaps will follow in the footsteps (and hoof prints) of the talented horsemen we saw in action that day.” Kanute interrupts my chain of thought—and yet another picture is introduced to my mental ‘memory album’. That day, there were countless mini mirror-image replicas of Dads—running, laughing, squabbling, pushing, crying—underfoot everywhere. A percentage of these unimaginably small ‘cowboys’ were an important part of the show—a warm-up to the main events. I agree with Kanute, they would surely be gymkhana bound—sooner rather than later.
“The bit I found most overwhelming was the courage of the riders,” I say. “Fearless!”
“And skilful. Phew. Were they ever good.”
“Not only the riders—how about the horses?” I remember something I read once about the desirable traits of a good gymkhana horse—speed, great agility in turning abruptly, and able to stop on the spot. These amazing creatures are totally responsive to the rider’s most subtle command of voice, hands, knees or heels, and can brake as if they teeter on the edge of a precipice to Hell.