The A-frame building on the T-intersection of St Heliers Bay Road, St Johns Road and Kohimarama Roads has been a landmark for as long as anyone in the area can remember. Once the local St John’s Ambulance station, it’s now the headquarters of one of the last remaining pony clubs in the inner suburbs of Auckland.
On a wet, wintery day, a car pulls into the carpark behind the A-frame. Out pile three or four girls clad in riding boots, jodphurs and padded jackets, all clutching their hard hats, and grinning enthusiastically, even though the afternoon is gloomy and grey, with drizzly rain falling. They skip off to do their chores and the dull afternoon is filled with the sound of laughter.
The Meadowbank Pony Club has officially been home to the horses of local families for 50 years, since it opened its gates in 1968. Today, the club has around 30 hectares, where about 26 or 27 families from surrounding suburbs who belong to the pony club, keep their horses.
Kelly Kane, vice president of the Meadowbank Pony Club, tells me her daughter and a group of friends come up here after school most days and every weekend to groom, feed and ride their horses as well as do their rostered chores.
For enthusiastic young riders – and their parents – the central suburban location provides a great opportunity to keep a horse close to home. Members, who are primarily under-25-year-olds, can come along to the club after school and in weekends to ride, groom and feed their horses, practice their skills such as jumping and dressage, and meet up with friends. They can also join various development programmes run by the club including leadership, mentoring, organisation and safety skills.
While most members own a horse, it’s not essential, says Kelly. “We also offer a comprehensive horse management programme to those children interested in horses but who have not yet got their own pony. They can come along and learn all about horses on our rally nights where they get to be really involved and hands on. The programme includes weekly lessons on horse care and management, and all participants earn the NZ Pony Club Junior Equine Skills certificate.”
Club members graze their horses, hack around the paddocks and tracks, and have access to 24 yards, two stables and holding pens for injured horses. Facilities include two all-weather dressage arenas, a show-jumping arena and a cross-country course with 25 jumps including a water jump. Qualified instructors provide regular lessons, and many members and their horses compete in local and national competitions.
“It's a massive commitment for families who belong, particularly for the parents – basically, we are part-time farmers running this club,” says Kelly. “There’s paddock maintenance, working bees, weeding, etc. Every family has a job.”
But the rewards are huge too, she says.
“The children come up here after school and on the weekends, whatever the weather, and absolutely love being here. They learn a massive amount of resilience."
"That’s the biggest thing they take out of it – resilience, and learning to have to look after something; they have to be responsible for their animal, care for it and regularly groom, feed and exercise it.”
Kelly says the club is a lovely, supportive environment for its members, who are mainly teenage girls, but range in age from the youngest who is four years old to a few members in their twenties, as well as half a dozen adult members. “The older girls keep an eye on the younger ones, and everyone helps each other with advice and tips,” she says.
The pony club land is leased from Transit NZ and the Auckland City Council, with between 25 and 45 horses grazing in 18 paddocks strung out along the gully from the Purewa Creek behind Selwyn College to the intersection where the clubhouse stands, across St John’s Road and down the Apirana Reserve, almost as far as Pak’n’Save in Glen Innes.
Part of the terms of the club’s lease are that the property must be maintained to a “park-like standard”, so families are expected to join in the monthly working bees, helping to repair fences, trim trees, clear gorse and paint jumps.
Community involvement is an important part of the club, and every year visitors are welcomed to its two open days. “We have been told by members of the public that these events are greatly anticipated. Local families await the large banner that we hang up on the fence line in the two weeks leading up to the open days,” says Kelly.
The community days are fun-filled opportunities where children can come along and find out a bit more about the club, meet and admire the horses, enjoy pony rides, sausage sizzles, face painting and bouncy castles, and go home with baking from the cake stalls.
“We host children's birthday parties during the warmer months of the year,” says Kelly. Families can book the clubhouse for their party, and our members provide horses and take the children for rides.”
The club works with other local clubs such as Pippins, helping the children work towards earning a horse-related badge. It also welcomes groups who want to bring children along for an informative chat or to pat the horses, and the grounds are used by school and sports groups for activities such as orienteering.
During the summer months, Auckland Central Riding for the Disabled hosts weekly sessions for disabled children at the club using members’ ponies. This scheme helps young people with physical, intellectual, emotional and social challenges through specialised horse therapy programmes, and allows them to gradually develop their independence and confidence.
Kelly says that the club’s fields are also popular with non-horsy members of the public, who are welcome to walk through grounds, following one of the paths, and enjoying the peaceful, park-like surroundings – a rural oasis in a busy city.
And, for local gardeners, there is a longstanding offer of free horse manure to anyone keen to come and collect it. “We have had a great relationship with the local compost collective which collects manure and uses it in local gardens,” says Kelly.
The Meadowbank Pony Club officially became a club in 1968, although local riders had been meeting informally before that in a paddock opposite St John’s Theological College. Willie Vet-menlen, who, with her horses, still lives behind Sunhill Garden Centre, was the instructor of this riding group, which became the Meadowbank Pony Club branch of the Auckland District Pony Club.
By 1971 the club had acquired the Transit New Zealand motorway reserve land from Merton Road to the Purewa Creek and gradually members cleared it of gorse, blackberry and other weeds, and sowed grass.
Since then the club has added stables, a dressage arena, cross country jumps, a clubhouse, grooming pens and acquired additional land on the Apirana Reserve.