Hallo… and welcome to another excerpt from my memoirs. Today’s reading is once again from a chapter I wrote about a unique Australian exhibition of horsemanship and mateship. I did warn you there would be several episodes taken from this particularly large chapter, to share the flavour and sounds and feel of this amazing experience. Here is more about –
A BUSH GYMKANA
The riders’ friendly appreciation of each other’s abilities and prowess, whilst competing fiercely to be ‘top dog’ was a joy to witness. And their total inability to see any racial differences between each other was inspirational.
The gymkhana competitors’ priority was to demonstrate their dedication; their pride in the level of horsemanship they had perfected. Their determination to give each other a ‘fair go’ was carried out in best Aussie tradition. Winning was on the list of course, but the competition itself reigned supreme.
Gradually the competition narrowed down to two outstanding contestants—Ted Jamieson, a white Australian, and an Australian aborigine—Jardi.
Our two favourites became our heroes, as together they completed a one perfect round after another. These two rapidly drew ahead of their competition.
The spectators cheered and jeered, according to their leanings towards the individual riders. We try to remember what type of fence held the crowd back. Was it a rope with small orange flags tied on at intervals? Whatever… this grossly inadequate barrier was all that stood between us and the thundering hooves that regularly loomed uncomfortably close. Considering all events were performed at top speed, we felt we were living dangerously, indeed.
The Flag Race was the most colourful event of the day. Officials hammered sets of four different coloured flags into the ground in straight lines, with carefully measured spaces in between—one set of flags for each competitor. Each rider had to pick up the flags in a prescribed sequence; gallop to the barrel at the finishing end, and plunge the flag into the sand-filled barrel while rounding it. What a wild and wonderful flurry of dust and colour this race created. One moment the competitors were lying hard against their horses’ necks, their flags flying high above them; then they would be hanging out from their saddles at impossible angles, to plant those flags. Furious racing against time—and each other—would see this action repeated again and again, until all flags were ‘planted’.
The disqualifications came thick and fast in this one. Someone missed going around his barrel completely, and another came around wide and touched the finish line too soon. It was only his second circuit. Barrels were knocked over, flags were dropped, and one horse and rider skidded right over a flag, flattening it to the ground. This race was a harsh test of the skills of both rider and horse—depending heavily upon an uncanny level of communication between them.
The day progressed with serious competitive races and events broken up by the entertaining spectacle of steer-catching in a prescribed amount of minutes (or was that seconds?). It was fast—and became even more amazing, when youngsters mimicked their elders by catching calves in that same timed fashion. Another set of budding champions. Cleverly woven into the serious events were several ‘fun’ competitions—equestrian versions of the old egg and spoon contest; races with cups of water (the winner being the one with the highest level of water remaining after a mad gallop), and a kind of musical chairs—without the chairs.
Ted and Jardi were plainly equal in horsemanship and in each and every one of their events, it came ‘down to the wire’ as they alternated their victories. After their monumental battle, the final tally-up was equal. It was questionable who gained the most pleasure from the result—the worthy (and weary) competitors, or the noisily appreciative spectators. Thunderous approval was shown with gusto; and wolf-whistles, cheers, and a steady lifting of glasses in salute.
They hugged and heartily clapped each other’s backs, over and over, stopping only long enough to take great swallows from a welcome ‘tinny’ given to each of them from well-wishers. Then they lifted their beer cans high for yet another salute. Clearly their main joy had been in the competition itself—far above the treasure of any trophy.
Witnessing these bush horsemen in such stirring action captured my imagination, and the afterglow of memory lingered in my mind long after that eventful day was done. Once again I read the rousing words of the classic, ‘The Man from Snowy River’ by Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson, and was unexpectedly inspired to write a poem myself, in the same cadence. With humblest apologies to ‘Banjo’ for the presumption –
There was excitement in the West, for the word had passed around
A gymkhana of importance would be held.
At a little known old gold mine, not much more than scratched up ground
– a near-forgotten spot in this wide world.
Many brave and skilled horsemen from the stations near and far,
Would gather for the challenge—and the fight.
For outsiders rarely know how talented they are,
And how clear the stock horse shares in the delight.
There was Jamieson, who’s claim to fame was winning last year’s cup.
The blonde ‘hunk’ with the eyes so blue, you know?
Few could match his prowess, once his mind was fair made up,
To aim higher than horse and man should ever go.
And Simpson from the Alice came down to try his hand,
Few stockmen ever held so tight the reins.
For no horse had ever tossed him, on this red and dusty land,
He’d learnt his skills the hard way—on the plains.
And Jardi who was indigenous, on a most unlikely beast,
Some resemblance to a brumby, undersized.
With a touch of something else—some part thoroughbred, at least?
An unknown type that stockmen rarely prized.
But the way both stood so proudly, you knew they’d never say die,
So much passion in their brisk and fidgety tread.
And they both lay down the gauntlet with a game glint in the eye,
And a clearly challenging toss of scornful head.
But despite all the fire, some doubted Jardi could ‘stay’
And one ancient hand worded it the best—
“A competition like this lad?—you’d better stay away,
That little nag of yours won’t stand the test.”
Jardi wilted somewhat, but Jamieson was his friend.
“Come on fellers. Give him a go!” Jamieson said.
“I know we’ll be battling right through to the end,
But don’t forget—we’re both bush born and bred.”…
“Wish I could continue in this rhythmic vein,” I say to Kanute. He’s grinning broadly as I read my words out loud
I’m clearly not a poet… and yet the pictures in my mental memory album are clear as ever. Strange but quite lovely, how the years roll back, giving you the chance to live it all over again.