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Back in the saddle

Alex competes in a game called Association – where players have to collect ice cream containers filled with sand from the back of their pony. PHOTOS/ALEX NAERA EQUESTRIAN PHOTOS

A sport of bravery and trust

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

When Alexandria Anstis was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia at age two, her parents had no idea what the future would hold for their “little poppet”.

Now 14, Alex – still nicknamed “Poppet” by her family – is not only a picture of health but has emerged as one of Wairarapa’s top young sportswomen – soon to represent the region on the world stage.

Alex has been selected for the Under-18 New Zealand mounted games team – which will compete at the World Mounted Games Team Championships, held in France this July.

Once the competition wraps, she will only have a short time to rest and recuperate before heading to Ireland for the World Pairs Championships, scheduled just a week later.

While in Europe, Alex will be up against riders from 25 countries, competing in tests of dexterity, precision, horsemanship and pure athleticism.

Mounted games are a relatively new discipline within equestrian, created with input by the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1950s England to cater to lower income riders.

At a mounted games competition, riders complete a range of fast-paced tasks – to showcase agility and hand-eye co-ordination – and navigate various obstacles from the back of a cantering pony.

Alex qualified for the World Championships after competing in a national trial event last year – placing in the Top 6 and winning a coveted spot in the New Zealand squad.

As one of the youngest competitors, only 13 at the time, she entered the trial as the underdog, up against “a high calibre” of older, more experienced riders.

“There was a bit of pressure going into it – but I think I play best under pressure,” the St Matthew’s student said.

“That was definitely the best competition I’ve ever ridden in. I only made about five mistakes.

Alexandria Anstis remounts her pony Chance during a mounted games event.

“I was going up against some great riders – so it feels really cool to have made it.”

Mum Louise Hight, who will travel with Alex to Europe, wasn’t surprised by her daughter’s success: having survived an aggressive, sometimes deadly form of cancer, her Poppet is no stranger to beating the odds.

“We’re really proud of how much she’s overcome, and to see her doing so well at what she loves,” Louise said.

“We hope we can offer some inspiration to families whose children are going through cancer. It shows that our kids can go through something really difficult and come out the other side and do great things.”

Alex, named Junior Sportsperson of the Year at last year’s Wairarapa Times-Age Sports Awards, has been riding from a young age, and is a long-time member Wairarapa Pony Club.

At age nine, she was introduced to mounted games at a Pony Club meet, and “decided to give it a go”.

“From there, I was hooked.”

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At mounted games events, each rider must perform a different exercise: drop off, pick up, or pass various objects between teammates, weave between poles, or stop to perform a specific action, such as popping balloons with a spear, or hitting targets with a “medieval-style” jousting stick.

Objects for collection tend to be regular household items, such as mugs, socks, ice cream containers, buckets, and even tool boxes.

“Originally, mounted games were made for kids who didn’t have [pedigree] ponies and couldn’t afford to enter all the fancy events,” Alex said.

“All the equipment was things that you can easily find around your home – like rubbish bins, sticks and plastic bottles. Which we still use now.”

Louise said some of the events can be nail-biting: for example, when riders have to lean over the side of their fast-moving ponies to scoop up an object from the ground, or have to dismount and remount in quick succession.

“You have to get off, collect your object before your horse turns around, and then get back on – all while the pony’s cantering and keeping the same momentum,” Louise said.

“Those horses go fast – so you need to be very athletic and fit. And either very brave or very stupid!”

“Sometimes you nearly collide with other riders as well,” Alex added.

Alex is all concentration during the jousting portion of the competition.

“Your pony is going super fast, and you have to hand over something to your teammate – and you only just skim past one another.

“You need to have complete trust in your pony – otherwise you won’t do well.”

Throughout the summer, Alex aims to compete in mounted games events every other weekend, including national competitions, usually held in the South Island.

In 2020, she won the Under-12 national pairs and individual championships, as well as the national Under-14 title.

Ahead of the World Championships, Alex has more road trips in her schedule – with coaching sessions for the New Zealand team divided among members’ hometowns in Waikato, Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa.

Her family is also hard at work fundraising to cover costs for the trip overseas, including flights, accommodation, Alex’s team uniform, and entry fees.

Once at the World Championships, there will be some new obstacles to contend with: for example, competitors are unable to bring their own ponies to the event, so each athlete will be allocated a pony ahead of the competition.

“You only get a few days to familiarise yourself with your new pony,” Alex said.

“There’s lots of things that will be different. For example, we ride on grass in New Zealand but, in Europe, we’ll be riding on sand – which I’ve never done before.

“Plus, some of the equipment they’ve got over there is different and will take some getting used to.

“But in this sport, you’ve got to be adjustable – and ready for anything.”

Alex said the nerves haven’t kicked in yet – “but I’ll probably get nervous when we’re on the way there!”

“I’m used to riding against maybe eight other teams – at the worlds, it’ll be 30 teams.

“It’s like the Olympics – just with different age groups.”

To help Alexandria get to the World Championships, her family is organising a raffle with sponsored prizes from local businesses. If you would like to be involved, contact Louise Hight via email at [email protected].

 

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