The story of leisure in colonial Manawatū and Horowhenua echoes that of other parts of New Zealand – enthusiasm, shared by both Māori and Europeans, for horse racing; quickly organised games of cricket and later rugby; and informal gatherings of settlers for social purposes, especially in the summer. Churches often played a role in such occasions, which often involve concerts, even in as small a settlement as Kimbolton.
From the 1920s increasing car ownership prompted people to build baches (holiday homes) at previously remote places such as Tangimoana, Hīmatangi Beach and Waitārere, as well as at Foxton Beach.
The region’s first rugby football club formed in Feilding in 1878, the same year as a cricket club was set up in Palmerston North. The Manawatū union was formed in 1886 with membership from Palmerston North, Feilding and Marton. It was one of the founding unions of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union in 1892, but had an erratic existence for a decade after that. Edward Secker, Manawatu’s first captain, composed the words to the once-famous rugby song, ‘On the ball’.
The Horowhenua union was established in 1893, and usually included teams from Foxton, Levin, Shannon and Ōtaki. Since 1902 a Horowhenua–Manawatū game has been an almost annual fixture. Between 1926 and 1933 the two unions combined as Manawhenua. The combined team, captained by former All Black Harry Jacobs, held the Ranfurly Shield for three matches in 1927.
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In 2004 a Chilean and an Argentinian rugby coach helped run coaching courses at the International Rugby Academy in Palmerston North. The same month the academy hosted Claudio Larrosa, producer of the Argentinian television show, Rugbier. The academy, the brainchild of former All Black Murray Mexted, is at the Rugby Institute’s premises.
By 2019 Manawatū had produced 40 All Blacks. It held the Ranfurly Shield from 1976 to 1978 and won the national provincial championship in 1980. In the 2010s Manawatū played in the second-tier Mitre 10 Championship competition. The ‘Turbos’ have always worn the distinctive white and green ‘tramlines’ jersey.
The New Zealand rugby museum opened in 1969, and owes much to the efforts of local rugby enthusiast, John Sinclair. A Sport and Rugby Institute opened at Massey University in 1999. Despite expectations, it has been little used by the All Blacks. But two government-sponsored South American coaches took part in coaching courses at the institute’s Rugby Academy in June 2004.
Horse races were held in Foxton as early as 1855. Manawatū people, both Pākehā and Māori, petitioned for a racecourse in 1865, when the population was sparse. The Palmerston North racing club was formed in 1880, and the racetrack at Awapuni dates from 1903.
Horse racing and breeding thrived in Manawatū, which had wealthy patrons and excellent conditions for raising and training horses. Manawatū jockey Bill Broughton rode his first winner in October 1928, won the New Zealand Cup in 1931 and 1952, and was the country’s leading jockey in the 1940s. At that time two women, ‘Granny’ Maher and Evelyn White, were notable trainers. Maher had married steeplechase jockey Allan McDonald in 1929. A biographer commented that ‘[McDonald] was noted for his quiet, gentle nature and did not smoke, drink or swear. Granny did all three.’ 1
A permanent motor racing circuit was established at Levin in 1956. The 3.033-kilometre Manfeild Autocourse (at Feilding) was built by the Manawatū Car Club, and held its first event in 1973. The name was a combination of Manchester (the Manchester block of settlers’ land) and Feilding. Feilding’s Coach House Museum celebrates horse-drawn transport.
In the 1970s New Zealand canoeing was dominated by members of the Palmerston North Canoe Club, notably Tom Dooney and Bernard Fletcher. The club developed white-water rafting on the Mangaore River, just below the Mangahao power station. Incorporating concrete blocks and groynes, it qualified as an international-standard white-water park.
The region has favourable growing conditions and gardening is a popular activity. Rhododendron gardens in northern Manawatū at Crosshills, and Haggerty Street, Kimbolton, were established in the 1970s, and attract many visitors locally and from further afield. In 2003 Dugald McKenzie’s rose-breeding centre in Palmerston North was voted one of the top five rose gardens in the world.