In what was Northland's biggest horse trials event, Olympian Blyth Tait made his return to Northland's eventing scene.
About 380 horses packed into Barge Park in Whangārei on the weekend to show their dressage, show jumping and cross-country skills in Eventing Northland's autumn horse trials. Tait, one of only four Kiwis to win four medals at the Olympic games, competed in the dressage and show jumping after decades of living in England.
"I'm obviously a proud Northlander and I'm very proud of the Northland horse trials," Tait said.
Tait, 57, won individual gold and team bronze in Atlanta in 1996, and a team silver and individual bronze at Barcelona four years earlier. He also won two gold medals at the inaugural World Equestrian Games in Stockholm 1990, when all the disciplines were brought together for the first time, and again in 1998.
Funnily enough, this was Tait's first time at a Northland horse trials. After growing up in after Whangārei, he left for the competitive world of horse-riding in Europe. Now, riding 11-year-old Havanna, Tait said he was happy to be home.
"I never wanted to live in England permanently and it seemed like a logical time, I only had a small team of horses so I decided to come home."
Tait only competed in Saturday's dressage and show-jumping as Havanna, who had recently come out of quarantine after the trip from England, needed more time to build up her fitness.
"She thinks it's winter because it would be in England so it's about getting her acclimatised and back training again."
Looking to the future, Tait wanted to get his Belgian-bred horse some good training at the Horse of the Year in Hastings in March and a transTasman competition in Taupo in May, before considering a possible return to the Olympic scene in Tokyo in 2020, potentially his fifth Olympic games.
"The plan after the weekend is she'll do a bit more show jumping practise because it's show jumping season at the moment and then she'll have a couple of runs before Taupo.
"I'm in the twilight of my career for sure but if everything went brilliantly this year for me in New Zealand, I would potentially look to go abroad again in the lead up to Tokyo if all was going well."
Northland's eventing scene could not be in better shape after it was confirmed it would host the national one-day championships in 2021 and 2022, a sign that Northland's facilities, in particular Barge Park, were among the best in the country.
"It's a feather in Northland's cap and a testament to how they run such good horse trials on an annual basis," Tait said.
"The Northland horse trials is one of the most popular on the circuit and you can tell by the numbers that come and it's presented brilliantly."
Eventing Northland president Dion Watts said it was great to see so many take part in the trials, some travelling from as far south as Taupo to compete.
He said the event had been consistently growing over the last couple of years and was nearly at a maximum threshold.
"Out of the 380 that enter, you also get some that scratch or some have to pull out because the horse is injured so if we ended up with 380 starting, we'd be maxed out."
To ensure they were able to host the one-day championships, an all new cross-country track with higher and wider jumps would need to be built at Barge Park, for the venue to earn a fourth star, the highest rating which signified a venue's suitability for national events.
"It means that we effectively have got completely national standard that we are up to, but we will need to upgrade a couple of things as well as the track," Watts said.
"It'll take a lot of funding so we are certainly going to be out there looking for some local sponsors to get in behind it with the great sponsors we have at the moment."
Watts, who had been president for about three years, said the achievements were down to Eventing Northland's committee, who had made great progress in the last five years.
"We've managed to get a really good mix of people who had been around for a while and newer, younger people to make up a really good committee who want to get things done and make improvements."
He said it had been amazing for Northland's eventing community to have Tait back in the fold.
"When he was show jumping on Saturday, there was probably twice as many people sitting up there watching than there usually is, he just got some pulling power.
"It's probably lucky that we are one of the few sports where you can see a world-class competitor still at a local event plying their trade in their fifties and sixties."
Watts said having someone of Tait's calibre competing in the region would help grow other Northland competitions in the future.