A riding lesson on a War Horse is imminent in Hamilton as ANZAC Day approaches.  The Waikato Equestrian Centre took part in funding the big bronze life-size war horse statue that’s in Memorial Park, and holds a ribbon day each April 25th, fundraising directly towards the War Horse Learn to Ride school holiday programme, where children get the chance sit on the statue and learn about horses.  

“Our Patron Noeline Jeffries was integral in starting the idea, she comes and gives them a talk about the horses that went to war and what that meant, and why the statue is there.  It’s really popular.”


War Horse Learn to Ride group.

And that’s just one of the many initiatives Waikato Equestrian Centre General Manager Kara Lockhart has plugged into a busy calendar she expects will deliver 50 events in 2024, topping her record of 43 events last year, at a Centre that is holding fast to a long term future.

Kara has lived in the Waikato region all her life, and now her family lives on a farm in Ngāruawāhia.  She has done the hard mahi at the WEC, first as a teenage pony trainee who had a wish to one day run the facility.  Then an adult, she joined the committee 15 years ago and volunteered, until an opportunity came up as part-time administrator role. 

Five years later, the role was combined with the riding school manager position and she became the Centre manager, latterly being promoted to General Manager.  Recently, Kara completed upgrading from E to D as a dressage judge, which means she can judge up to level 5. As a rider she has competed up to level four but there’s not much time for riding these days, unsurprisingly.

Paula Gold and Kara Lockhart on site at the WEC.

The WEC features approximately 105 acres of flat and rolling terrain, picturesque on the banks of the Waikato River.  Some days the property is shared with boating and cycling sports groups.  Kara is mindful that the lease for the land will expire in 10 years. 

“It’s a risk to be fair; we’ve been here 40 years so I’d hope it would be pretty hard to kick us off.  Just how much of it we keep is anyone’s guess.”

Kara says there comes a tipping point where the centre needs to start working on securing its future.

“Every dollar we get goes back into the property into something to improve it for now and for future generations and we need we can’t afford to lose it,” says Kara.

Competition is certainly the Centre’s claim to fame, and there are people who graze there.  Along with the riding school, the property is used for multiple disciplines including eventing, dressage, showjumping, show hunter, working equitation, as well as ribbon days and pony club events.  The Riding School is a Centre Member of NZPCA and they offer Pony Club certificates up to “C” level for riders.  The riding school offers opportunities for young people who don’t own horses, the ability to come out and get on board.

“Once they’ve been riding with us for a little while and they want to go on and do something a bit more structured and that has resulted in some of those riders starting in school, moving to Pony Club, getting their own ponies and actually going out and doing more,” she says.

Horse Trials at Waikato Equestrian Centre 2024.

When ESNZ spoke to Kara, she had just completed the first of two annual horse trials for around 300 horses, she thinks it’s their 39th.

“We’ve always run two horse trials, and last year we started doing Winter Express Events and this year I’ve got four of those so we will have six eventing events that we run across season.”

Aimed at grass roots riders, the Winter Express Events feature simpler dressage tests, lower show jumps in an easier course, and an easier cross-country with less fences.   She says they are considered as winter training for want of a better word and dressage is not compulsory.  They are operated under ESNZ rules.

“You can just do show jumping and cross country if you want to, but I like to put all three together to give people an opportunity to maybe give a higher height a go without accumulating MERS if they happen to win.   We want to encourage riders from the grassroots level to go up and give it a go with an aim for our next horse trial that’s in September,” says Kara.

In Abu Dhabi, Charlotte wins two bronzes and a 4th with Kara as NZ Head Equestrian Coach.

Beyond the day-to-day running of the WEC, Kara says it’s Special Olympics that captures her passion.  Daughter Charlotte (24) has represented New Zealand in Abu Dhabi, and Kara was the head equestrian coach for the New Zealand team that attended the World Summer Games in Berlin, Germany last year.

She co-ordinated the equestrian section at WEC featuring 40 Special Olympic athletes from around the country who competed on 20 horses, 10 from the riding school, and others from EquiPotential and a few borrowed mounts.

“That was actually really hard to get the horses.  A lot goes into making sure they come into the school in well condition and are comfortable because it’s a busy environment and not all horses cope with that.”

Securing a suitable mount for riders with intellectual disabilities is not easy, she says, as there are riders like Charlotte who can only walk and trot.  Her daughter’s Clydie-cross horse “Motu” is touching.  He had been on lease to Charlotte for two years when his owner wanted to come and see Kara.

“I thought, oh no, here we go, you know, she wants him back, rah-de-rah and it was around Christmas.  She came and saw me first and she said that she had been given her once in a lifetime opportunity to have a job at the bottom of the South Island.  So I knew what was coming next.”

Charlotte wins the Under 25 Dressage at NZ Equestrian Special Olympics. CREDIT: Libby Law Photography

But when the owner saw how happy Motu was with Charlotte and how well he had been looked after, she decided against taking him back, and instead gifting him to her daughter.

“She wrote up a gift certificate and Charlotte opened that as her Christmas present under the tree. It was such a special thing to do, we couldn’t believe it,” says Kara.

Motu is Charlotte’s horse for life and Kara has hauled him from the Bay of Islands to Tauranga for her to compete, although his workload is easing as he ages.

“So yeah, we’ve had him for over 10 years and he’s gone everywhere with her and he is hers.  He is absolutely one in a million. I wish I could clone him.”

Kara has plans to enhance the WEC including installing dressage judge boxes, more jumping equipment, a splash and widening bridges on the property.  A natural innovator, she is always looking for new ideas that will move equestrian sports forward with the needs of the sport’s followers.

Horse Trials at the WEC in March.

“We can adapt and do whatever within reason and sometimes some people have got ideas we haven’t even thought about, so we’re more than happy to hear of something else.  But for us, the tried and true things we do are continually proving popular,” she says.

She acknowledges it’s not cheap to compete, but puts that into context.

“If riders sit on the other side and see what an event costs to put on and then break it down into what you actually pay for what you get, and compare it to other things of similar money, it’s actually not that bad.   And when you come to us and support us you are supporting a grassroots facility that caters for every type of rider.  Whether you’re just starting out on lead rein or whether you’re out on your own and competing, it’s a public facility open more or less 365 days of the year give or take.” 

“There have been amazing people who have come through the centre and it has had strong connections to Sir Mark Todd (one-time Patron), and equestrian elite such as Blythe Tait and Vaughan Jefferis.  Others have gone up through in all equestrian disciplines either racing or in sport horse competitions and we really cater for that. It’s an absolute public facility open for everyone,” says Kara.

Recently, ESNZ and the NZPCA published a National Facilities Strategy linked to the continued delivery of quality experiences in both recreational and competition environments and can be found here:  https://www.nzequestrian.org.nz/esnz/about-esnz/facilities-strategy/