21 February 2024

Sneaky ancient military tactic among special attractions at this weekend's Royal Canberra Show

| James Coleman
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Charge! Photo: Australian Tentpegging Association, Facebook.

In the centuries before Christ, if you wanted to take an enemy camp by night, there was one surefire way to create havoc.

The Australian Tentpegging Association (ATA) describes the tactic as a “military exercise whereby a group of mounted soldiers would ride through an enemy camp in a pre-dawn raid, removing the pegs which held the tents in place with the tips of their sharp spears”.

“Foot soldiers could then attack the enemy as they struggled to get out from under the collapsed tents.”

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At least that was the theory behind ‘tent pegging’, even if historians aren’t entirely sure how often it actually happened in real-life battles. Or whether it originated in Arabia, Central Asia, or India. Or if similar tactics were deployed against war elephants.

Over the centuries, it morphed into a calvary training exercise. For example, the Australian Light Horse Brigade practised the moves during World War I. From 1964, however, it became an official sport in Australia – the first local civilian tentpegging team was based in Deniliquin, NSW.

Closer to home, it’s been among the list of special attractions for the past three Royal Canberra Shows – following a decade-long absence – and it’s back again this weekend when three Australian teams will show off their precise horseback skills.


The aim of the game is to pick up the wooden tent pegs with either a lance or a sword. Photo: Australian Tentpegging Association, Facebook.

Long-time tentpegger Merv Membrey will be judging for speed, control of the horses and how well the competitors pull up the tent pegs.

The horses will set off at a gallop across the main arena at Exhibition Park at speeds between 35 and 40 km/h while their riders use a sword or a lance to pierce, pick up and carry away a small wooden tent peg from the ground.

“It’s not a raggedy game,” Merv says. “It hails from the military, so it involves very precise movements.”


The horses vary from ex-racers to Clydesdales. Photo: Australian Tentpegging Association, Facebook.

Merv lives in Wakool, a seven-hour drive away in the western Murray region of NSW, and picked up the sport as a 32-year-old.

“I rode horses as a kid, but over a can of rum, when an old mate of mine asked me if I’d like to have a go, I decided to give tentpegging a go.”

Merv has since been privileged to represent Australia on the international stage three times over the years, starting in 1996 at the World Tentpegging Championship in South Africa.

There are teams in nearly every state and territory in Australia, and the International Tent Pegging Federation has 45 member countries, including South Africa, Namibia, India, Pakistan, Israel, Great Britain, the Netherlands, the US, Canada and New Zealand.

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“It’s massive in South Africa,” Merv says.

“They make us look like outsiders. We in Australia don’t have many members, unfortunately, due to the costs and – to be right up front – politics have really done us some harm.”

As for the horses, some are ex-racers, but plenty of others are stock horses. Even Clydesdales, as it turns out.

“There’s one rider who will be there at the weekend on a Clydesdale-Quarter cross and it is a beautiful horse.”

The Royal Canberra Show’s games will be attended by three teams in total: two from northern Victoria and a light-horse team from Tamworth.


The Tamworth team will be among the three competing in Canberra this weekend. Photo: Australian Tentpegging Association, Facebook.

“I love the sport,” Merv says. “I took it on as a challenge, but to have the privilege to be in the first Australian team in an international competition and hold the flag in another country – I tell you what – I know how those Olympians feel. It really shakes you up.”

The Royal Canberra Show will be held at Exhibition Park in Canberra (EPIC) from Friday, 23 February, to Sunday, 25 February.

Other major attractions include the BMX bike stunt show Airtime, Showmow lawnmower racing, the Grand Parade, woodchopping, the How Saw chainsaw shootout, and fireworks displays from 9 pm on Friday and Saturday nights.

Buy tickets online ($13.27 to $68.37).

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