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Getting judgy with Susie Hoevenaar

If you’ve ever wondered what goes on inside the mind of a dressage judge, SUSIE HOEVENAARS is just the person to shed some light on the subject.

Like many horse-mad children, 5* FEI dressage judge Susie Hoevenaars just wanted to ride. “I begged my father to buy me a pony, I dreamed of a pony and, by the age of six, I was riding in shows because there wasn’t very much dressage back then.”

Based in Tasmania, her father had racehorses and Susie started riding one that wasn’t fast enough for the track. “So I know all about training Thoroughbreds,” she laughs. It was with this off the track horse that she got into dressage under the guidance of Sheila Young, a mad but wonderful Irish BHS instructor. “She was strict. I rode without stirrups for so much time I can’t tell you, but she was really good with the basics,” Susie recalls. Under Sheila’s watchful eye, she went on to acquire Hagen, her first ‘real’ dressage horse.

Knowledge is power

Dressage had really tickled Susie’s fancy. A thirst for more knowledge drove her to branch out: “I kept riding and started putting on competitions at home. Then I thought well, I want to learn more, so I got into a bit of judging.” Susie comments on how, in comparison to what’s available these days, information was so much harder to come by when she started out. “Everybody is so lucky now, back then we had no videos. We had books about training, but there was nothing like you have now. With the touch of a button you can see the best in the world competing live.”

With such a wealth of training opportunities available, does that mean Susie believes there’s no reason for anyone to be riding poorly? “Yes and no,” she replies. “It’s a long path, and I know a lot of people want to wear tails and ride Prix St George, then onto Grand Prix. And it used to be if you can do a flying change and a sort of pirouette, and a bit of piaffe and passage, then you could do Grand Prix, but that’s not how it is anymore. I think that with the training scale and the basics, there’s no excuse really for people not to know how to ride and train a horse correctly. So in that respect, yes.”

And on that line of thought, Susie goes on to make the very valid point that there’s little advantage in having a few tricks like the flying change up your sleeve, when if your horse is not really soft and supple over the back, they’ll have a tendency to be stiff in the hocks and tight through the neck and back. Not good for you, your horse, or your dressage scores!

Most riders probably don’t give judging a heck of a lot of thought, other than whatever they’re thinking in relation to the results they just received. But can the business of judging really be that complex? You bet your bottom dollar it can. Susie shines a light on what it takes to not only be a good judge, but a consistently fair judge across the board. “Firstly, I think you should have ridden at that level, because then you understand the movements. I don’t think you necessarily have to have been a fantastic Grand Prix rider, but you have to have ridden,” she says.

And the benefits work both ways. Susie is delighted that there are now quite a few younger riders coming through that want to be judges: “That’s really important because the knowledge you gain as a judge really changes your mindset as a rider. You are so aware of what you need to do, not just how to train your horse, but what you need to do to show the horse to the best of their ability in the arena.”

Decision time

As Susie suggests, there are any number of elements that affect the way a judge scores: “The judge sits there all day, and they probably judge about forty horses with thirty-five odd movements for every horse. That’s a lot of decisions to be made. About five years ago, I picked up The Australian newspaper and came across an interesting article titled ‘The Judges Dilemma’, a study on court room judges making decisions around granting parole, which revealed huge inconsistencies in the outcomes.”

It tuned out that although all the prisoners had served the same sentences for the same crime, there was a one-in-seven chance of being paroled if their case came up before lunch. However, after lunch the statistics were closer to a two-in-three chance, a significant difference.

Making decisions requires a conscious effort, and the brain, while remarkable, does not have endless decision-making capacity – it becomes fatigued. “When you judge, you have to take this into consideration because sometimes we have so many competitors, and the organisers are trying to push so many horses through, it’s like you’re an automaton. That’s the wrong attitude. You have to give judges a break so they can rehydrate, or have an apple because the brain needs fuel.”

As Prof. Roy Baumeister pointed out, the brain can be bolstered simply by replenishing its store of glucose. Food for thought the next time you’re waiting around because the judges are having a rest. In fact, post-break is arguably the best time to ride your test.

A healthy outlook

Alongside regular breaks that allow judges to revive and stretch their legs, Susie emphasises the importance of a healthy lifestyle to keep the brain in optimal decision-making condition. “I’m up early in the morning and I’m always trying to do some sort of exercise before I go. I take a skipping rope everywhere. I’m a bit like puffing Billy, but it’s a wonderful exercise to get the heart going, plus I walk a lot and I also have resistance bands.”

Susie loves these travel-friendly pieces of equipment; which came in particularly handy during her double dose of two-week long Tokyo Games hotel quarantine: “Nobody should go through that. With a balcony you can cope, but when you don’t have that balcony! I admire the officials who were going back and forth for all the sports at the Olympics and having to quarantine every time.”

Now that she mentions it, even with her morning and night exercise regime, it does sound a little like being in prison. Susie laughs: “I actually said to the policeman outside my door, I think I’m going to walk into the corridor and you can arrest me. I think a prison might have more freedoms!”

But to return to the topic of fitness and health, for Susie judging is all about focus and looking after your brain: “You need to eat properly and you need to exercise. That’s important for our bodies, especially as we get older.”

And she imparts some final words of wisdom for riders coming up through the ranks: “If you love horses and you love dressage, and you really want to do it, being interested in following even a small judging pathway will help you with your riding.” The decision, it would seem, is how good do you want to be?

Feature Image: Kooralyn Serena at the same moment in canter, better able to lift under Lucy Boundy, a smaller rider (Image by Simon Scully Photography).