Interview: Horsing Around in Papua New Guinea

We interviewed two Equestrian Adventuresses about their experiences horse riding in Papua New Guinea. Here’s what they revealed about this terribly mysterious country with almost ZERO online information about horses. We speak to Sarah Snyder who spent her first 18 years in Papua New Guinea, and enjoyed riding at the Ukarumpa Pony Club from 1992 – 2000. (She was born in Papua New Guinea!) We also speak to Rebekah Drew, a Canadian who has been living and working in Papua New Guinea for the past 10 years and plans to continue doing so for years to come!

Question: Please introduce yourself, say where youre from and a little history about you and how you lived in Papua New Guinea and what your life was like there. 

Sarah’s Answer: First, let me tell you a little about Destrier, my fine steed with a bold roman nose. I got Dessie when I was ten, which was also my tenth year in Papua New Guinea — or as some aptly call it, “the land of the unexpected”. My name is Sarah Snyder, and I belonged to Destrier just as much as he belonged to me.

Riding and jumping at a pony club in Papua New Guinea
Jumping Destrier at the Ukarumpa Pony Club in Papua New Guinea.
Photo Credits: Sarah Snyder

We’d ride together three times a week, which was as often as there was adult supervision. Papua New Guinea isn’t the safest country, and since our horse paddocks were just outside of our little town of Ukarumpa, we couldn’t go by ourselves. But Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday—those were the best! I’d get home from school, gulp down a snack, and rush over to the paddocks. Dessie’s special whistle was often enough to get him coming, and sometimes the whole herd would follow suit, thundering towards me.

Outside of horseback riding, there was the normal—school, homework, playing with friends… Being a small town with only one store, no restaurants, and a single teen center which was open only once or twice a week, well, we learned to be creative! My friends and I would make paper dolls, write stories, climb trees, paint, hunt for berries, cook on outdoor fires (just because we could), and all manner of fun activities. 

I’m American, but my parents worked in Papua New Guinea with SIL doing Christian language development work. Ukarumpa is a small international community, and so my friends were from the US, Australia, Asia, Europe and, of course, Papua New Guinea! 

A painting of horses in Papua New Guinea by artist Sarah Snyder.
One of my favorite memories, horses and the beauty of Papua New Guinea…
Art Work: Sarah Snyder

You can catch glimpses of Ukarumpa and Papua New Guinea in my art. I have a few Papua New Guinea paintings at the beginning of my portfolio, plus others scattered throughout! 

Q: Tell us a little about horses in Papua New Guinea and the riding stables at the time. How did it get started, what was involved and where did the horses come from?

Sarah A: I wish I remembered how the Ukarumpa Pony Club started, but I don’t. It was already in full-swing when I was a kid. We had fifteen horses or so, owned by fifteen to twenty families. The horses would come up from other towns such as Lae and Goroka. My own horse had been used for racing as well as to herd cows on a cattle ranch. I’d asked if I could have his racing prizes, but of course they said no (didn’t hurt to ask, right?)! I just had to go and win some of my own prizes at our Ukarumpa Pony Club shows and gymkhanas!

Trail riding in Papua New Guinea on horseback in 2009
Trail riding in 2009 when the Pony Club was in full swing. “When I first arrived in Papua New Guinea, the Pony Club had lots of horses, and we used to be able to go on more treks around the area. This is now more difficult to do, for a number of reasons.”
Photo Credits: Rebekah Drew

I don’t know much about stables in other parts of the country, other than that they exist! There is an annual cultural show in Lae including traditional dance performances, agriculture exhibitions, and horse riding displays. I was able to attend, once! I couldn’t take Destrier, so I borrowed a local horse. At one point a helicopter flew low overhead, and I could feel her heart pounding through my saddle! 

Q: What was a typical day like for you?

Sarah A: Destrier may not have been the youngest horse at our paddocks, but he was the fastest. At least on the first round, when he was nice and fresh! So yes, a typical day at the paddocks often enough involved a friendly race. Or practicing jumping, whether in the corral or cross-country, barrel racing, or playing tag. Or berry picking out in the paddocks. It never got boring! And when I had to cool Dessie down, I might bring out a pen and paper and attempt to draw from his back while we walked a few circles. 

show jumping at ukarumpa pony club in papua new guinea
Practicing some show jumping in Papua New Guinea. Photo Credits: Sarah Snyder

Q: Theres not much info online about Papua New Guinea, especially not horses! Can you please give us an idea of what the culture is like, what you loved about the place and why its special/unique from other places?

Sarah A: Ukarumpa was a small international community, so we had our own culture, developed and passed down through generations of riders. The horse-riding parents and older kids would teach the younger ones how to clean their horses, clip hooves, take care of tack, fix fences, ride (English style!)… Everyone pitched in, and everyone helped out. I clearly remember taking those lessons myself, and then as I grew, giving lessons to the next cohort of young riders. We’d also learn from books by the British Horse Society, and from the Horse Whisperer. 

men riding around in a truck in papua new guinea
A typical sight in Papua New Guinea! Photo Credits: Sarah Snyder

Rebekah A: Papua New Guinea is definitely a place that’s off the beaten track. There are over 800 languages spoken there, and each language group has its own unique culture. So it’s a bit hard to generalize about a place with such diversity! That diversity in itself is one of the things that drew me to Papua New Guinea, as I knew that there would never be a shortage of work for a linguist like myself. One of the beautiful things about the culture in general is the high priority that people place on relationships. Papua New Guinea is also a place of stunning natural beauty, whether you’re in the coastal areas (with some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world), or in the mountainous highlands.

Q: Tell us about the horses! Please share a fun story about horse riding there!

Sarah A: Our horses were most colors of the horse rainbow! Dark brown, chestnut, bay, buckskin, gray… Some were fat, some thin, some had sky-high energy, others plodded peacefully along even if you wanted some speed. Some would shy at their own shadow, others were as calm and collected as could be. As a result, it was a lot of fun to study and teach riding together, because there were all sorts of things to learn! 

I think cross-country riding was my favorite. Our paddocks had everything from long stretches for a good gallop, to steep hills, to hidden blackberry patches, to ditches, to swamp—with jumps scattered throughout. We had one set of hills back to back that we called the Camel Humps. It was tremendous fun running up the first one, flying into the air, dropping down the far side, and repeating the adventure on the second hump. As Dessie and I grew to trust each other, I’d sometimes take him out bareback and bridleless. Flying across the beaten path, the wind whipping my hair back and the blue sky calling us forward, I felt like we were almost one creature. 

A woman riding her horse in papua new guinea
Riding around on her horse in 2017. Photo Credits: Rebekah Drew

Q: What did a typical day at the stables look like? How involved were you, what was the facility like, how many other riders were there, etc.

Sarah A: Destrier was at the top of the pecking order, which made riding all the more fun for me. Every month or two after deworming the full herd, we’d move them over into a different paddock (we had five paddocks). Because I taught him how to ride in response to just my leg and body weight signals, we’d sometimes do that bareback and bridle-less! With Dessie, that was a delightful piece of cake—unless he was feeling ornery! In which case he liked to take me over unplanned jumps. 

And speaking of cake, although his slim figure hid it well, Destrier loved to eat. I’d bring him all sorts of food scraps for dessert after his pellets and copra mash. If it got too late and I had to rush home before dark, I could dump them out in a paddock for him with the full confidence that no one would think of stealing them. One day I included strawberry stems, which he decidedly didn’t like. But he still wouldn’t let any of the other horses near his food.

An old photo of the "barn" for the horse food and tack in Papua New Guinea
The “barn” for the food and tack. Photo Credits: Sarah Snyder

Because Papua New Guinea is warm all year round, we actually didn’t have stables, per say. We just had a barn to store our food and tack! The horses could happily stay out in their paddocks every single day.

Q: Is it easy to find food and horse riding tack and equipment in Papua New Guinea? How did you get all your riding gear or horse equipment?

Sarah A: We would often buy our tack at the same time as we got our horse, just making the purchase together. You could also find halters, brushes, bridles, and other equipment at some of the agriculture-focused stores in some of the bigger towns. Finally, we would bring back tack and equipment from our home countries, be that the U.S., Australia, or somewhere else. 

Artwork of a herd of running horses in Papua New Guinea
A herd of running horses in Papua New Guinea. Art Work by Sarah Snyder

Q: What happened next, why did you leave Papua New Guinea, where did you go, what happened to the horses and the stables?

Sarah A: Sadly, high school graduation rolled around and I had to pack my belongings for the US and university. Since then, I’ve lived in the US, Japan, France, England, and now China! 

Leaving was incredibly difficult. I still consider Papua New Guinea my “first home”. And years later, I would still sometimes dream about riding Destrier! Those first two years in the US were especially difficult. I may have looked like everyone else, but I felt like a foreigner. People expected me to fit in, but I didn’t even know I had to wear shoes to go to the cafeteria! 

I currently live in a concrete jungle of 14 million people, so I very rarely have the opportunity to ride. But I still love horses, and am working on a young adult novel featuring an adventurous centaur who learns what it means to belong when she sacrifices everything she’s called home for another.

The horse paddocks where the pony club members would ride their horses in Papua New Guinea
Some of the paddocks at the pony club. Photo Credits: Sarah Snyder

Q: What kind of horses are in Papua New Guinea, is it a special breed? If so can you share some information about the types of breeds and horses found in this country?

Rebekah A: There are not very many horses in Papua New Guinea today, and most of the horses that are there are of mixed/unknown breeding. At one point in history, there was a Thoroughbred race track in the capital city, Port Moresby, so there are some Thoroughbreds around. All of the ancestors of the horses in Papua New Guinea today were imported from Australia at some point in time.

Riding her horse in 2017 in Papua New Guinea at the pony club
Rebekah and her 3 year old mare in 2017 at the Ukarumpa Pony Club in Papua New Guinea. This was her mare’s second time being backed! Photo Credits: Rebekah Drew

The primary places where you can find horses today is on the cattle ranches in the Markham Valley, where the horses are a general stock horse type; possibly from Australian Stock Horse, Arabian, Appaloosa, Thoroughbred, and other breeding. At one point (in the 1970s and 80s) there were Pony Clubs in a few different places around the country, and they would organize horse trial competitions. The Pony Club I’m involved at in Ukarumpa is the only one still in existence today. In its heyday we had nearly 40 horses; there were 18 when I arrived in the country 10 years ago; and now we only have four horses left. There has unfortunately been a decrease in interest among the expat community there in owning horses, so as the horses have been dying off of old age, no one is purchasing new ones from the cattle ranches.

Q: Is it safe to travel to Papua New Guinea? Tell us a little about the tribes and whether or not they are welcoming to foreigners. Would you recommend it as a place for people to visit?

Sarah A: While my favorite place in the world, Papua New Guinea is not particularly safe. I have a vague memory from earlier childhood of men painted with war paint when tensions were a bit high between two fighting tribes. Armed robbery became a problem as I grew into my later teens. It’s been almost fifteen years since I was last back, though—so I’d have to ask friends who have lived there more recently for current specifics!  

That said, I (almost) always felt welcomed! Papua New Guineans can be incredible gracious and hospitable. And once you are accepted, your new “family” will help keep an eye out for you. 

The current state of the "barn" for the horse food and tack.

Our “barn” (for tack and food storage only, no horse stalls!) and grooming/feeding area and some of the other horses. Photo Credits: Rebekah Drew

Q: Any advice for anyone interested in finding horse riding in Papua New Guinea or possibly helping the horses in that country. Where should they go or how should they start?

Rebekah A: At this point, there aren’t any opportunities to ride horses in Papua New Guinea that I am aware of. The cattle ranches are not equipped to offer riding opportunities to tourists, and our own tiny Pony Club can’t really cater to visitors either. There may be opportunities to help the horses in Papua New Guinea, especially if you are a vet. Googling “veterinary services in Papua New Guinea” will bring you to the links of a few of the key organizations in Papua New Guinea that could potentially help you get started.

pinterest photo of horse riding in papua new guinea
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