Having not been to the Matamata Equestrian Group’s Horse Trials before, but heard lots about it, I was fascinated to follow the route from Matamata through the beautiful undulating countryside to find John and Denise McGiven’s slice of “middle earth” where their fourth event took place on Good Friday and Easter Saturday, with 282 horses starting in classes ranging from 3* Plus down to 80cm.


Six dressage arenas were laid out on ground that had been bulldozed and levelled, top dressed with soil and chicken manure, and looked superb, although Denise explained the area was a “work in progress.” Likewise the main showjumping arena was beautifully presented alongside the dressage arenas, with a marquee overlooking the site.


I was so impressed I decided the event needed more exposure, especially after walking the cross-country, which had been aerovated the day before as the ground was so dry and hard. The track itself was described by many as “like it used to be” with plenty of undulation but good galloping terrain and open inviting fences.


Denise told me they had run pony club events there previously, including area trials, but wanted to move up to horse trials, and are now “dead keen to do a 4* FEI”. They “hand picked” their committee, who are mostly former pony club people, ably led by Scott Eagleton of Seaton Park Thoroughbreds.


Scott said, “They are a great go forward team, young and enthusiastic, but the event is driven by the passion of John and Denise.” You have to remind yourself that this is a privately owned working dairy farm, 345 hectares milking three herds of 250 cows once a day. 60 hectares is used for the event, which is eaten out a month before, and John works full time on the venue from then on.


Bing Allen designs the tracks, and John does all the building, working part time from November each year. The infrastructure is constantly being developed, with permanent flush toilets this year and the showers expected to be operational next year. The group has a great band of sponsors who are well looked after, coming back each year, led by the naming rights sponsor Randlab Veterinary Medicines.


Scott has ensured good sponsorship by engaging Country TV to cover the event and interview the sponsors, who “walk the course” sitting on hay bales on a trailer towed by a tractor (just like it used to be!), and are entertained not only on course but at a dinner in Matamata for sponsors and volunteers the night before the event.


Seaton Park provided drinks and nibbles for a sponsor/rider mix and mingle in the marquee on Friday evening, which was well attended as most riders stay on the grounds with the horses accommodated in both permanent wooden rail yards and temporary pipe yards.


Cross-country day was yet another Indian summer day after an autumnal night, with lots of happy horses and riders, including Oceania squad members looking for a final run before going into training for the National Three-day Event at Taupo next month, (10-12 May), as well as some giving it a go after time out, including top international judge Nicoli Fife.


She told me, “It was lovely to ride, just like the sort of country we used to event over,” adding, “The water jump is brilliant, there are so many options.” All classes entered the water before jumping out and circling around to jump in over a drop fence and exiting again, which was great for young horses.


ESNZ Eventing Performance Leader Jock Paget was there for the first time with his young horse Bing Bong, and said, “I had not planned to run between Kihikihi and Taupo, I was just going to do the dressage and showjumping, but after walking the course I decided to stay the night! The course was really good for him, educational, and a good fitness run as lots of hills.”


He added, “It is good for the horses and riders to learn to gallop up and down hills. They have done a tremendous amount of work here, the footing is good, and the showjumping arena is beautiful. They have good sponsors, and are developing permanent facilities. There are no negatives!”


Donna Edwards-Smith, who has ridden at all four events now, so has seen the improvements year on year, used the one word I heard over and over again, and used myself, “Amazing!” Entries exceeded 300 this year, so I think they may need more yards next year – the word is sure to spread.


Virginia Caro