Crazy Northlanders

A wonderful way of spending the last day of the year - at the Pawarenga sports day with a horse race unlike many others.

When Sapphire O’Connell mounted a GoPro on her helmet, she did not expect the resulting video of her competing in the Pawarenga cross-country race to go viral. Her video has been viewed over 240,000 times on Facebook, with more than 2,500 shares around the world.


Sapphire O’Connell approaching the finishing line on Rusty, well in the lead (Image: Lindsey Davidson)

The six-minute, action-packed video is one of the most popular and commented-on posts on NZ Horse & Pony’s own Facebook page so far this year.

Eighteen-year-old Sapphire is blown away by the internet fame it has brought both her and the small far-North settlement of Pawarenga. “I just thought it would be shared by Pawarenga and friends, I didn’t think it would go so viral,” she says.

And they are off! (Image: Lindsey Davidson)

The Haimona Pirini & Hone Tamati Memorial Cross-Country Race is one of the highlights of the Pawarenga United Marae Sports Day, alongside wood chopping, tug-of-war and iron man/woman competitions. Held on the last day of the year, the sports day raises funds for three local marae and is one of the highlights of North Hokianga’s sporting and social calendar. About 2000 attended this summer’s event.

While Sapphire had been to the sports day before, this was her first time in the race, and she wasn’t sure what the course was. “That’s why in the beginning of the video, you can hear me yell, ‘You have to hurry up, I don’t know where to go!’ I had to actually pull my horse up to let everyone else go so I could follow them.”

There were more than 20 competitors, most of them locals or from nearby Rawene. Sapphire herself is from Broadwood, half an hour away. The other riders were “mostly all Maori boys” and the cheeky Northlanders were quick to tease her, the only girl, at the beginning of the race. “At the start line they were all telling me that I would be eating their dust and I would only be videoing their dust, but I ended up beating them.”

Sapphire with her GoPro (Image: Lindsey Davidson)

The second and third placegetters were from Rawene, with Pawarenga locals having to be happy just to finish the race. There are a lot of horses in the area, and riding on the beach, up and down hills, with whatever gear they can find, is pretty much part of daily life. There would be few riders who actually own a helmet in this part of the world. In the beginning of the video, one of the competitors does very well riding bareback, but is then seen on the hill, minus his horse. “He got cramp,” says Sapphire. “Well, that was his excuse anyway.”

Only girl, only winner! (Image: Lindsey Davidson)

While it was Sapphire’s first time in the cross-country race, her horse Rusty had competed and won before with her sister, Jayd. Jayd wasn’t competing this year, settling instead for the beach sprints on her younger horses.

Sapphire and her sister Jayd competing in an earlier beach sprint (Image: Lindsey Davidson)

Rusty is a 14-year-old thoroughbred who never had a win on the track. He is a family favourite, and Sapphire says, “I do everything you could ever think of with him. Mostly he is really good at show hunter; we came fifth in the show hunter series here in Northland, and I also do a bit of showing and jumping.  I think my next competition will be a fun day rodeo at the end of the month in Kaitaia.”

Future events for Rusty will not include any more beach racing, as Sapphire says he will be retiring after this year’s win.  She plans on doing the race again herself, on one of her other horses. She has six at the moment and works full time training horses, mainly for other people – a job she wants to do all her life. She also does her own shoeing. “When you have six horses, you sort of have to do it yourself!”

Nothing like a swim to cool down after such a race! (Image: Lindsey Davidson)

Sapphire learned some of her skills at the Kaitaia pony club, and competes all over Northland. Of course she knows other famous Northlanders such as the Wilson sisters. “I see them at shows sometimes, and have even beaten them a few times.”

Northland has bred its fair share of great equestrians, although we doubt they competed in this race in their youth. Andrew Bennie, who was a New Zealand Olympian and one of the Ground Jury at the Rio Olympics, is from Kaitaia, about an hour up the road, and Blyth Tait also of eventing fame (including Olympic medals and World Champion titles) is from Whangarei, about 2.5 hours down the road. We do know they both competed in the Broadwood Show, which is Sapphire’s local A & P, and that they did do some crazy riding in their youth, probably without helmets too.

Is this not the most amazing of trophies for the winner of the Pawarenga cross country race? (Image: Lindsey Davidson)

The beautiful trophy Sapphire won was carved locally. “It is pretty special, I get to keep it for a year and it already has my name on it.”

Negative comments are an inevitable off-shoot of internet fame and Sapphire has read many of these, including some from overseas people about the state of the ground, the treatment of the horses, the lack of helmets and the riding styles. She isn’t too fazed, generously saying, “They are definitely brought up a different way from people out here.”

The positive comments far outweigh the negative ones, though, and many people have indicated that they would like to enter the race next year. Sapphire has some tips for them: “The number one rule is no thoroughbreds. My horse is a thoroughbred but I am an exception as I live here. I’m the only one with that advantage!”

There don’t appear to be many other rules (for compulsory use helmets or saddles, for example). The one rule that we could make out is that you have to have fun!

Classic kiwi fun (Image: Jayd O’Connell)

Good luck if you do enter next year.

Thank you to Lindsey Davidson and Jayd O’Connell for the wonderful photos. If you are one of the few who haven’t seen the video, or if you’d like to see it again, here’s the link to Sapphire’s Facebook Page or you can view the You-Tube link above.

Well in front (Image: Lindsey Davidson)
A beautiful part of the world (Image: Jayd O’Connell)
Definitely off the beaten track, the tiny settlement of Pawarenga is one of the hidden gems of Northland
Heading to the finish line in front; Sapphire and Rusty (Image: Lindsey Davidson)