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Tin horses draw crowds to Australia's most colorful bush festival
In the Western Australian Wheatbelt, the Tin Horse Highway provides laughs and an unusual tourist attraction
What to do about Mary?
Some 20 years ago, that was the question on the lips of everyone in the Western Australian town of Kulin.
Second-generation wheat farmer Mary Lucchesi had begun asking friends and neighbors to pitch in and build humorous tin sculptures of horses on the road leading from town to her front yard. Yes, metal horses.
She’d envisioned the sculptures would help promote the annual Bush Races -- Kulin’s biggest social event -- hosted every October by the Lucchesis on their property 280 kilometers east of Perth.
Lo and behold, her vision came true.
Known today as the Tin Horse Highway, the series of 70-odd horses made from disused car parts, oil drums, old farm machinery and stoves -- to single out just some of the scrap -- forms one of Western Australia’s most popular drives.
The comical figures help attract more than 4,000 people to the Bush Races every year and produce a never-ending conga line of tourists who take a detour to see the tin horses on the road to Wave Rock.
“I thought it would be a great way to promote our community, but I never expected it would become the attraction that it has,” says Lucchesi.
“It’s amazing the way it’s become so important and iconic to our region.”
Telling the tale
To understand how a bunch of gangly tin sculptures can provide such a welcome distraction in the Wheatbelt, one has to spend a few hours driving around some of its dizzyingly flat 154,000 square kilometers in the state’s southwest.
“The landscape is beautiful but it’s pretty flat and not that exciting. We don’t have any hills or mountains -- just big, blonde wheat fields that stretch forever,” says Gen Whisson, a senior project officer with the Shire of Kulin.
“You’re driving along then suddenly these quirky horses appear from nowhere.”
Last year, Whisson was put in charge of “Telling the Tin Horse Highway,” a state-funded project to document the history of the attraction.
Since then, she’s interviewed more than 70 sculptors, created welcome signs, established a database, made a short documentary and put together a book (now on sale in Kulin) called “Much More Than Metal.”
“The project was about finding out who made the horses, what inspired them and how long it took to make them,” she says.
“For example, the horse holding a tennis racket is named Fillypoosis and was built in 2004 when Mark Philippoussis was hitting the headlines for swearing at Wimbledon.
“A lot of the tin horses are politically incorrect like that. We have one sitting on a toilet reading a copy of “Playhorse Magazine.”
“Telling the Tin Horse Highway” was financed by the Wheatbelt Development Commission, a state authority that acts as a conduit between the community and government.
“Why’d we finance it?” asks Commission CEO Wendy Newman.
“We’ll, we’re trying to support a more diverse economic base in the state, and the tin horses are very clever in that they do that by attracting tourism through a grassroots community project.
“Which is my favorite? Well, they’re all so different and funny in their own way, but I really love the horse in the airplane with its mane blowing in the wind. Every time I see that, it makes me smile.”
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As more and more horses started popping up on the highway and farmers tried to outdo each other with their elaborate creations, their friendly rivalry grew into a full-fledged competition.
Now in its seventh year, the Tin Horse Competition sees a flurry of activity along the highway in the nights leading up to the Bush Races, as artists compete for their share of $2,000 (US$2,135) in prize money.
Last year, first prize was awarded to Stephen Heath, a stage designer at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth.
Originally from England, Heath moved to Australia a few years ago after marrying a Kulin local and has been in love with the place since he first visited.
“My wife, Erin, has painted a really romantic image of Kulin in all her stories so I couldn’t wait to get there,” he says. “But I had no idea how small it would be or what a strong sense of community it has.
“It reminded me of the village where I grew up and got me thinking about how I could give something back to the people for making me feel so welcome.”
The answer came to Stephen in the form of points -- blunt metal spikes dragged by tractors to sow seeds in the soil.
After finding hundreds of old points strewn about his wife’s family farm, he came up with the idea of using them to make scales for a giant steel seahorse on the Tin Horse Highway.
“Building it was a real adventure. I spent two weeks locked away in the shed welding points onto a frame,” says Heath.
“When I finished, it weighed 600 kilos and we needed a winch to put it in place.”
And while the cash prize came in handy, Heath’s real reward were the pats on the back, handshakes and hugs showered upon him at last year’s Kulin Cup when his sculpture won first prize.
“It was incredible because I genuinely did feel like part of the community,” he says.
“In England people are disjointed and you can live next to someone for years and never hear a peep out of them.
“But when I went to the races for the first time it was like I was already a local. Everyone come up to me and said ‘you’re the guy who made the seahorse, we really love it.’
“It was like being a child again.”
2012 Kulin Bush Races
Held this year on October 5-7, the Kulin Races is a meet for not only the fastest horses in the Wheatbelt, but also the fastest farm dogs and sheep too, with individual racing heats for each species.
There will also be a gymkhana, food, live music, an art exhibition, a wine bar and the prizegiving ceremony for the 2012 Tin Horse Competition.
Held in a picturesque bush setting overlooking Jilaken Lake and Rock with free camping on the Friday and Saturday nights, plus a Great Aussie Revival Breakfast on Sunday, the Kulin Bush Races is the Wheatbelt’s event of the year.
Tickets cost $35 for adults or $5 for kids. For more information call +61 (0) 8 9880 1021 or visit the Shire of Kulin website.
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