In the Murchison region of Western Australia, bush gymkhanas are not only a forum to showcase skill and horsemanship, they galvanise bush communities, especially when the chips are down.

Story By Lara Jensen

Scattered campfires punctuate the inky pre-dawn sky as swags are rolled, billies are boiled and breakfast is prepared between horse floats and gooseneck trailers. A cool easterly cuts across the mulga skyline bringing red dust that swirls and settles on Yalgoo’s turf gymkhana course as the sun begins to glow in the east.

A comical silhouette of Akubra hats and pointed ears surround a crowded horse trough as a group of enthusiastic sub-junior riders engage in a rowdy conversation while their horses stop to drink. For most of these children from remote West Australian towns and pastoral properties, gymkhanas are one of only a handful of annual events where they can meet and compete with peers their own age.

Since the first gymkhana clubs were established in the Murchison region of Western Australia in the late 1960s, they have provided an integral social outlet for outback families united by a love of competitive horse sports but separated by vast distances. Round-trips of well over 1000 kilometres, often on gravel roads, are not uncommon for many families who travel to gymkhanas, sometimes twice in school holidays, so they can reunite with old friends and compete in events.

For more than 40 years the Yalgoo Gymkhana has been a highlight on the social calendar for the small pastoral and mining community situated 527km north of Perth and this year competitor numbers have swelled to 52. Yalgoo is one of five remaining gymkhana clubs, along with Newman, Mount Magnet, Meekatharra and Landor, that are part of the Murchison Gymkhana Association (MGA) formed in 1969. Over the past two decades the small non-profit gymkhana clubs have struggled to survive. The massive hike in public-liability insurance costs for country sporting clubs, coupled with dwindling populations, prolonged drought and tough economic times, saw four Murchison clubs fold in succession.

Yet despite the challenges, interest in gymkhana is growing, not only as a forum to showcase skill and horsemanship, but as a way of galvanising bush communities when the chips are down. Behind every club is a committed nucleus of office bearers and volunteers who pull out all stops to make sure their clubs not only survive but thrive.

This story excerpt is from Issue #79

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2011