Fifty years of thrills as riders go for Olympic glory at Naracoorte Horse Trials

Fifty years of thrills as riders go for Olympic glory at Naracoorte Horse Trials
  • PublishedApril 1, 2024

Piloting half a tonne of galloping horseflesh at speeds of up to 60 kilometres an hour, while soaring over fences as high and wide as a family car is not a pastime for the faint hearted.

But that’s the game if you want to wear the green and gold at the Paris Olympics in July.

Just two months out from the world’s pinnacle sporting event, Australia and New Zealand’s top equestrian athletes will head to the small, rural community of Naracoorte in south-eastern South Australia from May 18-19 for a last chance to make the cut.

Coinciding with the “Golden Jubilee” 50th running of the Naracoorte Horse Trials, the Olympic qualifier puts competitors to the ultimate test across three disciplines: dressage, show jumping and the spectator-favourite; cross country.

A man stands in water in front of a tall equestrian cross-country water jump
Naracoorte Horse Trials cross-country course designer Wayne Copping says safety is paramount for horse and rider.((supplied: Wayne Copping))

At the heart of the event is international cross-country course designer and technical delegate Wayne Copping, who has seen the thrills and spills of the event since its inception.

“The Naracoorte Horse Trials is a very special event, not just for its history giving young riders a chance to compete at such a high level, but for its location on a unique family-owned property with world-class features,” he explains.

“Strathyre is a magnificent setting with undulation and natural features that allow for a cross-country course with balance and flow, unrestricted space and the opportunity for horse and rider to gallop forward from start to finish without circling round and twisting and turning, as is the case in many events across the world.”

Mr Copping is regarded by his peers as Australia’s foremost cross-country course designer; a craft only a handful of professionals the world over possess.

Hailing from a renowned showjumping family from nearby Lucindale, he says his own competing made way for designing the courses that riders compete upon.

“I guess I just had an idea of what to do, and what not to do early on, and it’s something that I have pursued ever since,” he said.

A black and white image of a rider showjumping double oxer
Wayne Copping transitioned from competing to course designing, becoming a world-leader in the field. (Supplied: Wayne Copping)

“I designed the course for the World Championships at Gawler in 1986, and after that I moved to America to continue learning the craft at the highest level before returning to Australia and designing the bicentennial three-day event at Hawkesbury in NSW, and developed a string of events across the country.

“I’ve been to New Zealand, Moscow, Ireland, Belarus, Japan and, in 2015, I won the role of course designer for the Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada.”

A start for young riders

Working with a small committee, Wayne Copping and Graham “Kanga” Parham, of Mount Pleasant in the Adelaide Hills, helped develop the Naracoorte Horse Trials in the 1970s.

“At the time, there weren’t enough competitions for juniors; there was only Gawler and Melbourne 3DE [Melbourne International 3 Day Event].

A black and white newspaper image of a rider and horse descending a steep embankment
Helen Carr aboard Triple White at the Naracoorte Horse Trials in the 1980s.(Supplied: Equestrian Memories Australia)

“I became the official course designer and director of the event in 1985, and by that stage we had progressed to the international FEI [International Federation for Equestrian sports] young rider category for riders 16-21. We then became the South Australian Young Riders 3DE.”

Mr Copping is now working alongside his daughter, Ashleigh, who is carrying on the Copping family legacy.

Naracoorte Horse Trials newspaper
Clair Lewin aboard Helmsman hurdles a log at Naracoorte in the 1980s.(Supplied: Equestrian Memories Australia)

Safety a priority

He says he’s seen a lot of change in what is considered one of the equestrian world’s most challenging and risky disciplines.

“Since I started there’s been a radical shift to the safety aspect of cross-country competition,” he said.

“The jumps are better constructed, better finished and safer.

“Over the years, we have had some tragic deaths in cross country, and there’s been a lot of work done to improve rider and horse safety.”

One of the deaths that shocked the South Australian equestrian community was that of Mount Pleasant teenager Tasha Khouzam in 1998.

In 1997, Khouzam was the youngest ever rider to compete at the Adelaide International Horse Trials, and she had been awarded Barossa Young Citizen of the Year as well as young rider of the year.

But during a ride near Adelaide, she suffered a rotational fall over a cross-country jump and was killed instantly.

Mr Copping says in his industry, “if someone has a fall and dies, it’s one too many”.

“The international body is striving to ensure cross country is safe, but also rewarding.”

Olympian rider jumps a brown horse over an ornate cross country jump
Andrew Hoy at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.(Supplied: Australian Equestrian Team/Libby Law Photography)

Equestrian royalty on-course

The equestrian community is tight-knit, and the sport is one of the few in which seasoned Olympians and up-and-comers compete side by side.

In its five decade-long history, spectators at the Naracoorte Horse Trials have watched on as one of the world’s most decorated Olympians, Andrew Hoy – who is this year vying for an unprecedented 9th Olympic appearance – competed in the 1980s aboard his mount Davey.

The event’s roll call has also included equestrian royalty such as Scott Keach, the late Gillian Rolton AM, Wendy Schaeffer, Megan Jones, and Sam and Mark Griffiths.

“The riders know that this is one of the last events to record a score to put them in contention for Paris, so it’s exciting for them and it’s exciting for spectators,” says Mr Copping.


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