Bigger than Ben Horse

Lee Atkinson meets the members of a phoney pony club who have transformed a country highway.

A tin horse is sitting on an outback dunny, reading a copy of Playhorse magazine. Just down the road, there's a sprightly tin filly called Fillypoosis brandishing a tennis racket with intent; another equine wonder made from Emu Lager cans; yet another being rescued from the top of a water tank; and four huge, heavy-metal beasts pulling a wagon, also made of tin. Ben Horse, a Charlton Horseton epic, looks set to burn up the bitumen at any minute and there's even a tin horse flying a full-sized plane.

You see some strange things beside the road in country Australia but Western Australia's Tin Horse Highway is about as weird, wacky and wonderful as it gets.

Here, on a 20-kilometre stretch of road near the tiny southern wheatfields town of Kulin, the local farmers have spent the past 15 years trying to outdo each other by decorating the roadside with tin horses. At last count, there were more than 60, each bigger, better and more outlandish than the last.

The first one, a rather modest affair made from a few bits of old tin welded together, mysteriously appeared at the turn-off to the Jilakin race track in 1994, pointing the way to the annual Kulin Bush Races. It's a community event that transforms the normally somnolent town of Kulin, home to 400 people on a good day, into party central for the 4000 or so race fans that flock to the tiny town each October, kicking up their heels during three days with plenty of live entertainment, gymkhanas, fireworks and, of course, the bush race that stops a village. It's also a volunteer-driven event that has so far raised enough funds to complete a much-needed housing project in town.

Anne-Marie Carmody, who drives the local school bus along the stretch of road that has now become known as the Tin Horse Highway, is the woman who sparked the all-metal equine craze.

"It was just a bit of fun," she says. "I'd seen some letterboxes that people had made and thought I'd go one better and make a tin horse."

"Going one better" seems to be the driving force in and around Kulin. By the time the next bush races came around, several of the local farmers had got in on the act, determined to prove their tin horse could be bigger and better than the others. It wasn't long before it was no longer good enough just to have one horse when four or five could do, with bigger and more elaborate props, such as full-sized police cars and decommissioned aircraft.

The largest is now more than 10 metres high with a body the size of your average caravan.

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The friendly rivalry has grown into a fully fledged competition that attracts eight or nine new entrants each year, competing for a small pool of prizemoney and instant fame - at least around Kulin.

Made in secrecy behind closed doors and erected under the cover of darkness, new horses begin to appear in spring in the lead-up to the October races. "I drive the bus along that stretch of road every school day and it's always great fun to hear the kids start squealing when they see a new one for the first time," Carmody says.

She has lost count of how many tin horses she has made in the past 15 years but thinks it's somewhere between eight and 10.

"A few have died and gone to tin-horse heaven," she says, a euphemism for being torn down, salvaged and remade. "They get rusted out if you don't keep them painted, so I try to give some of them a fresh coat of paint every now and then."

Her Fillypoosis is always a crowd pleaser and she won the competition last year with Rocky, the Italian Stallion, a tinny equine version of Sylvester Stallone's famous boxer complete with yellow boxing shorts, but says her favourite was vandalised a few years ago.

"It was an old white car, painted up to look just like a police car," Carmody says. "There was a tin horse with a fake speed gun and another in uniform and a cheeky sign saying 'random breast testing'. It looked really authentic and it was funny to see people slow down because they thought it really was the police. It was burnt out a few years ago after the races, probably by someone who was a bit angry with the police."

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Kulin is 280 kilometres east of Perth. The Tin Horse Highway stretches to the east and west of the town, with most tin horses on the eastern side.

Racing there

The next Kulin Bush Races will be held from October 2-4.

Further information

See kulin.wa.gov.au.

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