That's the Spirit:

Rebecca Moxham - Coonabarabran

Now approaching the end of its third decade as a prominent fixture on the regional equine calendar, the North West Equestrian Expo – known affectionately and widely as the “Coona horse expo” – is so much more than a sporting event. Rebecca Moxham is secretary of the expo’s committee whose members collectively embody the culture of community involvement for which the town is renowned.

Rebecca: The North West Equestrian Expo Inc., known widely as the Coona horse expo, has been going since 1992. It’s grown organically over the years and it has enormous economic value to the town of Coonabarabran. That’s an immediate and obvious benefit but there’s also a great sense of pride that we are able to host the event and bring all those people to the town. There’s an enormous number of people who have a connection to the town because of the expo.

It’s not just the economy, it’s about people having a relationship with Coonabarabran. That’s very valuable in terms of brand recognition for the town, especially in equestrian circles but also for the wider community. People make connections to others from all over the state, and that’s also really great for local kids. The expo gives them exposure to a wonderful variety of people, without them having to travel or spend huge amounts of money. To be involved with the Coona horse expo, you don’t have to be the best rider or on the smartest horses – our local kids get the chance to be involved with equestrian sports because the event is hosted by their town. 

Rebecca Moxham, Coonabarabran

There are people involved with the expo whose children have long stopped attending as riders. Take Richard and Shane Blackman, for instance. They’re both well into their 80s – their grandchildren have stopped riding. But as Shane said, “Where else would I get to mix with all these lovely young people?” I feel the same way. It’s a privilege. For that week of the year, I get to have a lot to do with a great bunch of young people.

 

Coonabarabran has a great culture of community involvement, and our equestrian community is very strong so you find a lot of people wearing many different hats. The expo committee is made up of representatives from four different groups within the community – the showground trust, the high school, the pony club and the eventing club – so those groups support each other, and it means expo can support those other groups to run their own events and bring people to town. The important thing about that is that it means we have here in Coonabarabran the western-most affiliated eventing course, which allows people from all those smaller centres out west to come to an accredited course they mightn’t otherwise be able to access.

We have some really passionate and talented people who live in Coonabarabran who can build on and combine their (equestrian-related) skills to bring the event together. It’s a great source of pride for the town, not just for the equestrian community, but everyone – the whole town is very proud of the expo. We get comments about how the town buzzes when expo is on – there are people everywhere and everyone’s happy. There’s a real beat.

That’s particularly important when things aren’t great in the rural economy and the town is generally doing it a bit tough – 2019 was a hard year, but businesses and sponsors still wanted to be involved – in fact, more than ever. They all found a way because they’ve been sponsoring the expo for years and they feel that real sense of ownership. That’s important for the town too, and of course it does come back to the local economy and that’s great. It’s fantastic to see all those “no vacancy” signs up for a whole week.

The expo also provides a great opportunity for community groups to fundraise, and it means there are people who are not involved with the equestrian aspect of the event, but they’re still involved and at expo every day. They really enjoy coming along and being part of it, and it’s a chance to make some money from people outside the community for a change.

As far as the future goes, we do have succession planning in place for the committee. We encourage our head stewards, for instance, to find a younger person to mentor into the role and learn how to do it. Because it’s an event that people enjoy being involved with, it’s not difficult to find volunteers but we try to target which areas people will enjoy being involved with. We try to spread our talent base across the various roles.

 

There’s a personal wellbeing aspect to being involved with the committee too. When we have our meetings, we go out for dinner and we socialise a bit. We also have a marquee each year at the Coonabarabran Cup (race meeting) to say thanks to our sponsors and volunteers and helpers, and that’s a great way of bringing people together – not just at the event.  I don’t think people would put in all the hard work they do if they felt unwelcome or unappreciated, and we work at making it as rewarding as it is.

Photo by NALAG NSW.

Committee of North West Equestrian Expo Inc: Katja Sykes, Richard Blackman, Jacqui Clifton, Sue Stephenson, Shane Blackman, Rebecca Moxham, Abbie Blackburn, Brenda Grant and Jackie Crossing.

I think the strength of the expo is that good foundations were laid all those years ago and it was an innovative idea at the time. Now, there are inter-school equestrian competitions all over the place. We are also able to offer a wide range of events that cater for all interests and abilities, and we’ve reinvented ourselves over the years. Our current committee is going into its thirteenth year, and we realised that if we stay with the same focus as other events, we’ll be competing with them. We know we need to branch out and offer something different and find skilled people to assist so that we can offer a diverse range of events. 

You need to make these events a positive experience for volunteers, so that they’re enthusiastic. It’s also important to engage with the wider community to promote engagement and that sense of ownership beyond your own event’s narrow focus. We also try to nurture and support other community organisations, and I never cease to be amazed by the level of volunteer enthusiasm we see every year. We really value volunteers – that’s an important part of a healthy community organisation.

The beauty of Coonabarabran is that we’re big enough to have the number of people to draw from as volunteers and to have a diverse skill base, but we’re small enough to be able to walk down the street and you know all the people who do the volunteering and who are helping out with various things around town – it’s a real sense of community. Our committee members will go into, say, the bakery, and everyone asks how the plans for the expo are going or how it went. There’s that sense of support because we’re visibly part of the community and everyone knows everyone.

One of the strengths of living in a small town is that idea that you belong; that you’re part of something, and that you’re all in it together – good and bad.

 

Personally, I really enjoy the engagement with all those other people on the committee and all the volunteers through my involvement with the expo. Normally, I would probably not otherwise have much to do with them, so it’s nice to make that connection. Being able to see their skills in action and recognise the value those skills bring to an event like ours is great. I also very much enjoy the opportunity to play a mentoring role – being able to help someone develop their skills gives a real sense of achievement. It’s also really great to spend time and interact with all those young people. That stage of my life – having children that age – is now past, so the expo keeps me in touch with that age group.  It also means I’m keeping up with technology – without having to constantly keep pace with technological changes, I could very easily just have let my skills plateau out.

I love the sense of involvement that comes from living in a small community. You feel like you’re part of something. People know you and your kids – it’s a safe environment. Here in Coonabarabran, we are so lucky to have access to so many cultural and sporting opportunities as well, and these days technology means we don’t miss out on what’s happening around the world any more. We’re so much better connected, and that means we get the best of both worlds. I go to Sydney a lot, and I enjoy it but I’m always SO pleased to come home. Even if it’s a small thing like being able to find a place to park your car, or know the people you see in the street. You never go to town without seeing someone you know. It’s a sense of connection.  

 

Coonabarabran doesn’t have a siege mentality – people here don’t feel they’re hard done by. There’s a real “can do” mentality. People don’t think, “Oh, well, that’s in Sydney so we can’t go” – they just hire a bus and go to whatever it is they want to go to. At the school, they’ll pack up the kids and go to whatever educational opportunity is offered.

Even with things like the fires or the drought, Coonabarabran doesn’t curl up in the corner. We do what we can. It’s a two-way thing, though, and we’ve seen that with the North West Equestrian Expo – we do what we can to assist people when things are tough, and because of that we get support from other communities and people who do whatever they can to be here for the event.

*This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of social distancing measures.

2019 North West Equestrian Expo, Coonabarabran.

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