Unforgettable: Barbara Thomson

It's one of the saddest days in NZ Horse & Pony magazine history, with the death of our longest-standing contributor, Barbara Thomson

Barbara at home in Taupo last year (Image: Jan Sutherland/NZ Horse & Pony)

It is with the heaviest of hearts that we at NZ Horse & Pony magazine salute Barbara Thomson, and mourn her passing.

Barbara has an unprecedented connection with this magazine – and with the New Zealand equestrian scene – having provided her photographs to us for nearly 50 years.

Barbara’s first NZ Horse & Pony cover, in November 1970

Barbara had the rare ability to capture that perfect moment with a single click of the button. When she began photographing horses in the 1970s with her Leica cameras, there were no such things as digital images; film was expensive. For a photographer to make a living, pictures needed to be correctly framed and the exposure and timing had to be just right. Back then, Barbara loaded her own cassettes from bulk film and turned her laundry into a darkroom for developing, enlarging and printing.

(Image: Jan Sutherland/NZ Horse & Pony)

Over the years, Barbara became an icon of New Zealand equestrian, an identity as easily recognisable as the top riders she shot. Barbara’s love of horses and photography took her all around the world and she held accreditation to almost every Olympics and World Equestrian Games since Gawler in 1986. Besides her media involvement, Barbara and her husband Tom were valuable contributors to equestrian sport through sponsorship of events and ownership of horses.

A pioneer in equestrian photography, Barbara acted as inspiration and mentor to many of those working in the field today, including NZ Horse & Pony regulars Libby Law and Jan Sutherland.

Barbara with Libby Law, who describes her as an inspiration and mentor (Image: Jan Sutherland/NZ Horse & Pony)

Jan, who started out working for Barbara and now has her own successful business, Take The Moment, is full of praise for her. “A lot of the young photographers out there have no concept of what the early days were like and just how much Barbara has paved the way for those around her,” says Jan. “Her knowledge and expertise were far greater than 99% of today’s photographers will ever grasp or experience.”

A golden childhood

It’s perhaps a little known fact that Barbara was a keen and competent rider herself, growing up on a 600-acre sheep and cattle farm at Otamauri, about 25 miles out of Hastings. Barbara and her sisters all rode and thought nothing of being in the saddle all day long; for a while they rode five miles to school and back again, and would ride 14 miles to Okawa and hunt all day. 

Early days on the family farm – Barbara on her pony Pixiana

There were four girls in the family: Margaret, Joan, Barbara and Colleen. Their mother, Dorothy Chapman, started up the Otamauri Pony Club on their property, and Barbara got her D, C and B certificates.

“My father eventually built a horse float, and it was always a nightmare getting the horses on to this open-topped thing,” she told us for a profile story last August. “In those days we’d go to gymkhanas, and Pukahu Sports, which was a real sports meeting. We’d compete in the best turned out and bending and musical chairs and round-the-ring jumps, all in the same gear we rode to school in – there was no getting a flash saddle and putting it on for turn-out. Those were great days.”

After she married, Barbara didn’t ride for a long time, but when the family moved to Taupo in 1990, she started doing fitness work on a friend’s hunters. One thing led to another, and one day while out photographing the Taupo Hunt, she ended up riding the Master’s second horse. On the last day of hunt week, she got to take the Master’s horse out again, and found herself flying over spars and even full wire fences. 

The flying years

Barbara’s husband Tom has been an integral part of the business, and is skilled with a camera in his own right, often photographing at events with her. The couple met at a friend’s party when Barbara was working as an air hostess, and they married in 1967. Tom had a long and distinguished career, ending up as Deputy Chief of Defence for the military and was awarded a CBE. His work took them all around the country as well as overseas, with Tom working in Canada and as military attaché in Thailand for several years.

Barbara and Tom Thomson (Image: Michelle Thomson)

When Tom and Barbara first married, they were allocated a house at Whenuapai Airbase in west Auckland, which was where Barbara’s equine photography began. Barbara had worked in a photographic studio for a couple of years after leaving school and had her treasured Leica camera. She went to a local pony club two-day event at Whenuapai and took a lot of photos which sold ‘like wildfire’ – that was just the beginning. 

The big events

Barbara’s first major international was the World Eventing Champs at Gawler in 1986, where she got her taste for the big overseas events.

It’s not easy to get media accreditation for an Olympic Games, and when Barbara applied for her first one at Barcelona in 1992, she was initially declined, but when the then-president of the NZ Equestrian Federation, Gus Meech, wrote a letter on her behalf, she was accepted as a specialist equestrian photographer. 

“They were only taking five photographers from New Zealand, across all sports,” she explained to us. “But we were right at the top of three-day eventing then and it was anticipated that we would win a medal.”

Since then, both Tom and Barbara have belonged to the highly-respected International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists, and she’s been at almost every Olympics since.

The horses

It was at the Barcelona Olympics that Barbara first ventured into horse ownership, after chatting to Blyth Tait, who was looking for owners to buy shares in his good mare Delta. After a couple of gin and tonics, Barbara bought a quarter share, which was only a few thousand pounds. 

Not long after, Blyth called to say he was riding Delta at Badminton – why didn’t Barbara come over and watch? Delta came 14th at Badminton that year and the following year she was second. Barbara also got to see the mare in action at the Hague World Equestrian Games, and winning the Scottish Open Championships as her career finale.

Barbara also went on to own several horses for Heelan Tompkins, including Portrait, Prince of Princes, Zambezi and Heelan’s 2008 Olympic mount Sugoi.

Barbara with Heelan Tompkins and Sugoi at the Beijing Olympics

There were ups and downs along the way – plenty of wins, but heartbreak too, including losing the promising two-star Beeline to epilepsy. As much as anything, said Barbara, she just loved to have a personal interest in the horses.

Barbara, who was involved in racehorse syndicates as well as eventers, eased out of ownership over the last year of her life, but her own retirement was far from imminent.

She kept fit by walking, aqua aerobics and her beloved fly fishing, and barely seemed to have aged in the last 20 years. Even at the age of 75, she continued to photograph equestrian events around New Zealand for riders and for NZ Horse & Pony, and was looking forward to covering the Horse of the Year for us in March.

We are deeply saddened by Barbara’s death, and will forever treasure our memories and association with such a gracious, talented and generous person. We wish to send our deepest condolences to Tom, and the couple’s son Mark and daughter Michelle, and grandchildren James and Grace. Rest in peace Barbara, you will never be forgotten.

A morning fly fishing at the Waitahanui River (Image: Michelle Thomson)