When Hastings' Civic Square transformed into a showground yesterday, it offered a warm-up for free-rider Alycia Burton in anticipation for her performance on Friday.

While free-riding is nothing new for Ms Burton, performing in front of a crowd is.

"I normally don't do demonstrations, but this year I thought this is going to be the year."

When she rides bareback, and without bridle for the Friday Night Extravaganza, it will be the first time she has performed in front of a crowd as large as the expected 12,000. But she wasn't nervous, because "when I'm on a horse I'm in my element".

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Yesterday she and horse Classic Goldrush performed alongside Talia Allison on Mustang Shelby, giving the large crowd something to remember as they rode bareback around a makeshift enclosure.

Having arrived in Hastings yesterday afternoon after travelling from the South Island the horses were a little tired - but they still wowed the crowd by leaping over a jump, and a couch without displacing their riders.

Yesterday the free-riding duo were accompanied by other equestrian entertainment at the first event of Farmlands Horse of the Year.

Speeches from Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule and deputy mayor Cynthia Bowers opened the action-packed afternoon. The crowd had cheered as Tumanako "Tui" Teka, 23, performed with horse Kingston, who had been a wild colt only 26 months ago.

Mr Teka had tamed and trained the horse, who was now able to sit, lie down, and twirl at Mr Teka's command. To show the trust between horse and rider, Mr Teka was able to crack a whip above Kingston's head without him flinching, lie him down, and even make him sit on a couch.

A presentation from the Leg Up Trust, which uses horses to help at-risk youth, was followed by a procession of miniatures, and a showcase by the Mounted Games Team. Before the equestrian showcase, the music of Headlock and Mia Sohnge filled the air while families enjoyed face painting, a bouncy castle, and a chance to get close to some petting horses.

Tineka Ferguson brought her 4-year-old son Jamie.

"He's loving it. We came to find out about the other events on, and I'm really impressed with the whole event so far."

Events manager Dave Mee said HOY in the City was a pre-event promotion to give people a taste of what was on offer at next week's event.

- Farmlands Horse of the Year starts on Tuesday at the Hawke's Bay Showgrounds. General admission, multi-day and VIP tickets are still available through www.hoy.kiwi.