Horses for Work and Play: The Story of our equine friends in the Norfolk Island Community.
One of the strange and unfamiliar sights that greeted the Pitcairners newly arrived on Norfolk Island on June 8, 1856 was that of the large four-legged cattle and horses that had been left behind by the colonial authorities for their use. It was not long before they overcame their nervousness, and accepted an invitation from the Former Stock overseer, Mr Rogers to mount his stockhorse and have a go. Within a few hours, it is said, the lads and young men had ridden the poor creature to the point of absolute exhaustion.
It wasn’t long before, the menfolk were drawing lots for the saddles that had been made available, and a new era of ‘horsepower’ began for the community. On an island where there were greater distances to be covered than back on Pitcairn Island, and tasks to be performed that had previously been carried out by convict labour, the horse was to prove a very useful and valuable addition to their way of life.
There was little time to learn the formal skills of horsemanship and animal husbandry, and so the Pitcairners had to work it out for themselves. They became proficient at mounting a horse from either side, and negotiating the steep hills and valleys. Breaking in the younger horses was a challenge, which they overcame by taking them down into the sea. Here they were in an element where the rider felt more comfortable than the animals, and was able to gain mastery and control.
Delivering cargo when the ship was in, hauling logs, ploughing, and mustering wandering stock were just a few of the heavy tasks that the horses could perform, and they were particularly useful when the islanders began to undertake whaling activities, with the need to bring the carcasses ashore onto the dry land.
For many years, the animals had ‘the run of the island’, because in those early days the only fences were those erected to protect vegetable gardens and agricultural crops. If your horse became tired or wandered off while you were in another part of the island, the usual practice was simply to borrow another, knowing that both beasts would eventually find their way home of their own accord.
In the early 1900s, as the Island’s economy grew, there was a greater sense of private ownership in the community. Many men had been employed on the Iris, the ship laying the Anson Bay Cable, and the money earned often went towards the purchase of a sulky. In a short time, there would have been at least one horse drawn vehicle in every household, usually a two-wheeled buggy. Many were manufactured here on the Island. There was a great deal of work for local tradesmen, such as wheelwrights, carpenters, saddlers and blacksmiths. Having a buggy also meant increased opportunities for socialising and family activities such as picnics. Evening entertainments also became popular, and the calendar became filled with card nights, musical evenings and dances. When you arrived at some one’s home, you needed to first find a fence. The buggy was placed on one side, the horse on the other, with the harness securing both through the railings. Often lanterns would hang from each buggy, creating a fairyland atmosphere.
However, it would be wrong to create the impression of an Arcadian paradise. There were accidents, sometimes fatal, from bolting horses and overturned buggies. On occasions, larrikin youth may take a horse for ‘a spin’, leaving the poor creature winded and foundering.
During the period of the Melanesian Mission (1866 – 1920), new equine bloodlines were imported. Many of the Mission staff were from well-bred British families, and no doubt selected equally well-bred animals for their use. A distinction was drawn between the Mission breed (regarded as the thoroughbreds) and the island horses, and this was sometimes tested out at a Race meeting, traditionally held over the years on Easter Monday. Meets were first held in Rossiter’s Paddock, near the present Air Terminal. From the early 1900’s, a race track had also been established where the golf course stands, and was still used for this purpose a couple of times a year up until the turn of the century.
A 1913 news article speaks of the competition between the church-bred horses, who were allowed to compete in the open ‘Island Cup’ event, and the rugged island-bred horses who ran in the ‘Island Plate.’ In the earlier years, the Mission staff and the Cable Board workers were instrumental in organising regular race meetings, complete with totalisator facilities. The difficulty was in laying out a track where onlookers could see both start and finish. In later years, the local Returned Services League had the task of organising the Race Meetings on the Golf Course. The club also assisted by importing well-bred stallions to improve the local bloodlines.
A ‘gymkhana’ or ‘Sports Day’ was a regular event on the community calendar. It usually involved equestrian events as well as athletics. The programme for a Sports Day in 1938 to celebrate the 150th Foundation Day lists events such as a ‘Horse Tug of War’, Tent Pegging, as well as a general Ceremonial Parade of horses and riders. Old timers will also tell you of the more informal fun to be had, such as the old-fashioned drag race, particularly on long straight stretches such as the old ‘Pine Avenue’.
There is no doubt that our four legged friends played a large role in shaping the community, and keeping everyone well informed. It is said that when two riders approached from opposite directions, the animals would automatically stop with no tugging on the reins, so their riders could chat and exchange news or gossip.
The arrival of the first motor (a Ford) to the island in 1925 caused great consternation. The owner was required to give notice of his plans for outings on the ‘Tree of Knowledge’, as well as on the screen of the Picture Theatre. To allay peoples’ fears of the effect of the unfamiliar machine on the Island’s horses, their owners were invited to bring their animals to the new motorist’s garage to ‘sniff’ the car. When the second and third motor cars arrived, a petition was taken up to ban them, because they were a “menace to life” and terrified the horses. As more cars came onto the island, some local larrikins adopted the mischievous practice of galloping ahead of the motor vehicle, dragging a branch through the dust, blocking the vision of the driver. However, the convenience of motor transport, particularly lorries which could carry goods and produce, won out.
Cars and horses co-existed for several decades. Imported fuel and mechanical repairs cost money, while grass was free and plentiful on the island. Horse riding brought confidence and independence to the young people. It was only a little over 50 years ago that horses no longer grazed in the school paddock. The last person to ride to school was, in fact, a part-time teacher, a retired British gentleman named ‘McLachlan’, who rode his horse down from his cottage in what is now the National Park, with his little dog running behind him. Probably the last Norfolker to regularly use his horse to get around was Vic Edwards, who could still be seen riding to work or to the shops in the late 1960’s. The last to bring their buggy into town on a regular basis was Billie Ward, an American lady living out near Anson Bay. It was Billie who opposed the upgrading of the airport in the seventies, because she declared the larger planes caused her horses to cower to the ground. Probably the last use of horses in the workplace has been for mustering cattle.
There has been a tradition of allowing stock to run on common land right from the first arrival of the Pitcairners. Many locals can recall the time that there was a ‘Government Bull’ and a ‘Government Stallion’ available to service the road animals. (These were terms often jokingly applied to certain gentlemen with an ‘eye for the ladies!’) The sight of stock grazing on the roadsides has always enhanced the rural and romantic character of the Island. At one time, the horses on the Kingston Common used to gather together at a particular time in the late afternoon, and race as a herd up the road to Watermill Valley, hooves thundering and tails in the air behind them. It was quite a spectacle.
Sadly, those days have come to an end. The growing practice of enclosing and fencing properties meant that there was less pasture available, and the condition of the road animals suffered. Free range stock numbers were reduced, and all horses banished to private land.
Our equine companions have continued to provide enjoyment for more adventurous visitors. Silky Oaks Stables provided Trail Rides for many decades, while ‘Culla and Co.’ still offers the experience of viewing the scenery in a cart drawn by Clydesdales. One Day Events and Race Meetings continued to foster a spirit of competition and excellence for horse lovers. Much time was spent by the enthusiasts in training their animals.
Kaye Wood is one who has given lessons to generations of the Island’s children. To this day, many of the young people continue to study horsemanship at the Pegasus Stables with Colleen and DeeAnne Vincent, and enjoy showcasing their skills at the A&H Show each year. Many young Norfolkers have had enjoyable experiences with the local pony club.
However, as the Island has moved into the 21st century, the horse has been forced to take second place to mechanical horsepower with motor bikes and cars and modern machinery. No doubt there are still a number of dusty saddles and rusting stirrups hanging at the back of island sheds. Today, however, people tend to get their exercise in the gym or on the golf course, and to do their sightseeing and errands in a vehicle. But there are still a handful of people who continue to take pleasure in enjoying Norfolk Island from the best possible vantage point – the back of a horse.
Perhaps the last word on the subject should come from a famous writer who was visiting Norfolk Island back in 1902. A.B. (‘Banjo’) Paterson, who came here as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote:
“Norfolk Island horses are not like any other kind of horse that the world has ever seen. They began by being draught horses, but a mountaineering existence has altered their shape altogether……..They can feed on the perpendicular faces of hills … and they could, if required, climb up the sides of a well, pulling a trap after them. Their heads are large and hairy, with Roman noses and long upper lips …. Perhaps this development arises from having to root among the short grass for a living. They look like spring-cart horses, but move with the activity – and a good deal of the action – of a kangaroo. They are hardy, useful animals, with plenty of strength. Style they have not, nor beauty, nor pace, but just plain homely worth.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 01 Issue 02, 2017. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.