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  • Writer's pictureFran Cleland

Barastoc has been setting the pace for more than 50 years

Stan Fear and Fran Cleland have been inducted into the
Barastoc Horse of the Year Show’s Hall of Fame in recognition of their many years’ service to the show and the sport of equestrian. In this “pocket history”, Fran takes a walk down memory lane.

ABOVE: Fran Cleland and Fiona McIntyre, of Equestrian Victoria’s show horse committee. Picture: ANGIE RICKARD

I WAS honoured to get a Hall of Fame Award from the Barastoc Horse of the Year Show committee and I think a pocket history of the show is needed.

What other event has had the same naming rights sponsor for 54 years making the name so established it can’t be separated from the title?

The first show was held at the Olympic Park Dog racing track next to the big swimming pool on February 15, 1970. The show horse classes were a fill in for the showjumping and workouts were done in and around the jumps. The jumping riders had huge fun popping out from behind the fences and hissing at the showies.

Parking would never have passed today’s occupational health and Safety standards as everyone just tied the horses to the trucks and floats in the lane next to the ring. The lane was open to Batman Avenue - no gate just well-mannered horses.

Of course, back then, there weren’t the big fancy show trucks of today and we all fitted in, although to get a nice photo, Bev Thomas– Gardiner who won the first galloway class with Shenandoah crossed the road and stood him on the grass beside the Yarra river to get a good shot.

ABOVE: Malcom Barns and Lure (grey) won the first Horse of the Year award in 1970.

The event was designed to get people to attend aggie shows and gain points. Only the top 10 highest scores in hack, galloway and pony sections got to start, and as it was a glamourous event right from the start, the race was on to see who could make the final.

After three years the show moved to Melbourne Showgrounds and organisers realised the event was now so prestigious and the desire to compete so great that the show mums were frightened their child might not make it without sufficient points.

Kids were missing school to go to shows. It was just amazing, the mums kept asking each other how many points they had, so the point system was dropped and one championship was sufficient to qualify and the preliminary round system was introduced. Peter Gahan was the first ringmaster. Gruff and straight to the point, as a steward, if he yelled your name you jumped a foot in the air wondering what you had done or needed to do.

While we were at the showgrounds, we learned a lesson that we used many years later.

Ash Wednesday devastated South Australia and Victoria in the week before the show, but Barastoc still ran, and the people still came. They needed to talk to people who understood how they felt, one description of what one competitor saw with her own ponies has stayed with me 40 years on. She needed to talk of it.

The same year, the first Australian Show Horse Committee was formed and it was a pretty feisty bunch. Mac Graves was chair, Claire Uren, Vicky Lawrie, Chris Hartigan, Libby Harworth and Sue Innis were set the task of making the rules.

Allan Bruno was chief executive of Equestrian Victoria then and he warned us to take care and to not make rules that had to have rules to make them work. We did, but 40 years on, and many fingers in the pie they would be unrecognisable.

ABOVE: Coverage of the 1994 show.

The show kept growing. The show horse committee helped run the first National Show Horse Titles at the showgrounds, but again, it needed more space so it moved to Werribee Park.

There was weeping and wailing that it wouldn’t be the same – showies just hate change, but as we expected, they quickly adjusted to the big spaces.

Peter wanted to take a lesser role so I took over as ringmaster, and because we had extra space and I’ve always been an ideas person, I could see there were some lovely young horses being pushed into the open section long before they were ready. I learned always to set an event up before you go to a committee or you get so many “oh but what if …” comments. So I spoke to Joan Harris from Mulders Saddlery to get the sponsorship (Joan is still a friend) and created “newcomers”, for horses that had not started at a show before May so they were genuine new horses.

Fiona Mardling, who took over from me as ringmaster, will tell you that I told her you need three years to get any new class right. The first year, the crafty ones find the loopholes, you close them. The second year there will still be a few tweaks needed and the third, things are pretty right. The problem with successful new events is they get copied. All the events that Barastoc first introduced – newcomers, show hunters, owner-rider – were quickly copied by other states and groups. Flattering, but once again they start pulling them about to suit themselves and too often the original idea gets lost. We also brought in leading rein, first ridden and show hunters.

People riding in show hunters should pay homage to one 13.2hh APSB mare I saw when I was judging in Brisbane. I so admired her, but her handler just sneered saying she had been bought to breed Riding Ponies. I was upset and thought about how we were going to lose her type, and also saw how the finer type of galloway and hack were moving away from the original. I came back to Melbourne, went and talked to Mal Byrne and asked him to sponsor it. He still does so many years on bless him and he should be in the Hall of Fame for that reason.

Showies being what they are, my phone rang endlessly with people wondering what they should wear … it didn’t help saying that it was the horse being judged. A whole new industry was created for tailors and now some perfectly amazing outfits are seen in show hunters.

In the mid-2000s we struck three huge problems.

ABOVE: Malcolm Ansell on Courtney, Claire Uren on Da Vinci and Jan Colclough on Baringa Moonglow in 1979.

The 2007 outbreak of Equine Influenza was the most serious emergency animal disease Australia has experienced in recent history.

At its peak, 47,000 horses were infected in NSW on 5943 properties, and horse owners and industry workers were facing dark times with major impacts on their livelihood and lifestyle.

All of Australia was shut down mainly to try and keep horse racing going, and although it calmed down, organisers were still timid about running events.

Barastoc is always mid-February and we decided we’d run. We copped the “sky is falling” messages from all over the place, and so many “what ifs” but we said that if the worst happened we’d just refund entries.

Well, to say it was a success is an understatement. It was the biggest, happiest show ever seen. There were 130 show hacks with entries from Tassie and SA, trade stands – so happy to be finally able to trade – were packed in, everyone laughed. It is my favourite-ever show.

Once again in 2009, Victoria was engulfed in flames and we had people telling us the show shouldn’t run.

But we had prior experience. People need something normal in the time of horror. Something calming, people that understand and will listen someone who’s not going to say it was just a horse. We went ahead.

I handed over to Fiona Mardling as ringmaster after that, and the show continues on.

ABOVE: A combined 200 years of experience on the committe: Reg Cleland, Allan Bruno, Stan Fear, Barry Young, Fran Cleland and Peter and Marie Gahan.

Going forward, I think a lot more attention has to focus on the “ordinary” showies.

The elite and the children get too much and any sport is a pyramid, the base holds the top up.

Finally, my favourite horses. Someone said to me last week that there are “once-in-10-year horses”, ones that you are lucky to be able to say you saw. For me, Picasso of course for Vicky Lawrie and Claire Uren’s magnificent Da Vinci. The there’s Carl Powell’s beautiful Gaiety, the first of the modern ponies, and little Silkwood Angel Wings, sweet as she was beautiful.

Thank you, it’s been a privilege.

Full coverage of this year’s Barastoc next week.

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