Back in the early 1970s, the Megalong Valley Gymkhana was a horse event not to be missed. The gymkhana ground was just a clearing in the scrub, about two furlongs (400 metres) in length and fifty metres wide. There were flag races, bending races, pick up races and other novelty events. The main events of the day were the “hurry scurry” races. The first race was for Galloways – horses 14.2 hh and under, and the second race was open to all comers. The whole length of the gymkhana ground was used as the race track and competition was always fierce.
Bushmen came from miles around to compete at Megalong Valley. Some horsemen even trained well-bred thoroughbred horses for months beforehand, to try and win the big race. Every year, many horse people from my local area around Picton travelled up the Blue Mountains and down into the Megalong to compete. Old Bedford and Dodge trucks loaded with horses set out at daybreak for the epic three hour trip and puttered along at 40 miles an hour.
When I was about fifteen, Jimmy Hinton – who’s a few years older than me – borrowed my fathers’ horse float and took me to Megalong Gymkhana. His horse “Spider” and my horse “Happy Jack” made Jimmy’s three speed 1966 model Holden ute struggle up the mountains. It was even more perilous going down into the valley with no trailer brakes. Luckily Jim was a truck driver and knew what to do.
I was very excited to ride Spider in the Galloway race. Spider was all of 14.2 hh and it was touch and go whether the measuring stewards would let him race. Jimmy thought I’d have a better chance of getting Spider past the stewards, because I looked young and innocent. The trick worked. Spider just got in under the measuring stick and duly won his race.
Next, I rode Happy Jack in the open race. Through my inexperience, we were left at the start and had no hope of making up the lost ground. It was a walk-up start with about twenty overexcited horses jumping and leaping and rearing as they came up to the line. Riders and onlookers shouted and cheered when the starter yelled “Go!” All hell broke loose as the horses raced off in a cloud of dust. Some horses ran off the track and headed straight for the scrub. Others, like me, were left at the starting line and took off late. Some horses simply put their head down and bucked and took no part at all in the race.
Every horse was pushed to the limit, whether he had any chance of winning or not. The finish line was only about fifty metres from the scrub and many horses were out of control and couldn’t stop. They kept going through the bush. It took about half an hour before all the horses and riders re-emerged from the scrub.
I guess it was all part of growing up with horses in the Australian bush. At the time, I thought it was great fun but I certainly wouldn’t do that sort of thing these days. And I wouldn’t recommend that anyone else does it either. It certainly won’t help any horse to be relaxed and confident.
Spider and Happy Jack had plenty of other gallops and races. It certainly didn’t help them to be relaxed and reliable. On one trip into the Nattai Valley, Spider thought he was in for another race. There were five of us on the three day trip and Spider danced and pranced and pulled the reins for the entire journey. I remember at the time wondering why Spider wouldn’t walk along and relax like the all other horses. I don’t wonder about it now.
Although we rode for about twenty miles on the first day, Spider was sure that the race was going to start at any moment. He didn’t let up all day and he was just as bad the next day. It made no difference whether Jimmy rode in front, behind or in the middle of the group. Spider thought he was in for another race and that was that.
I know now that horses don’t forget any experience that they’ve had. Whether it’s good or bad, every experience will stay in your horse’s mind. Forever.
You can’t gallop and race your horse today and wonder why he won’t settle down when he’s with other horses tomorrow. It might seem like fun to go galloping across the hills and dales with your friends but it’s not the best thing for your horse.
Always remember, horses may forgive you but they never forget.