New Zealand’s high performance dressage selection panel brings with it plenty of expertise and passion.
Helen Hughes-Keen has been reappointed, and has been joined by chair Margs Carline and Justine Kidd. The panel, which is in place until after the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, is responsible for the selections of the dressage High Performance Futures and High Performance squads, as well as international and world championship events.
High performance general manager Jock Paget says it’s an exciting time. “High performance has big plans for dressage, it’s critical to have a quality group of selectors and we are fortunate to have this group. I look forward to working them as the new Dressage High Performance selection team.
Justine is no stranger to equestrian having formerly been ESNZ chief executive (2004-2007), high performance manager (2003), chef d’equipe for dressage representative Louisa Hill at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, and a team manager for young rider teams on both sides of the Tasman. She won the level 4 national dressage championship title with Vital Image and went on to compete at level 6 and 7. In 2001 she and Anna Stewart won the South African Federation Cup aboard borrowed horses, and has even dabbled in reining, winning regional competitions and placing at national level. These days she rides mostly for fun but admits to contemplating bringing the reining pony for the odd competition in the coming season.
Her business background is extensive and varied and while primarily in the dairy industry, and most recently as a chief executive of corporate dairy farm businesses, she is now a small business owner in Waipukurau. “I feel I can bring a lot to this position,” says Justine, “but particularly perspective.” Having ridden in the sport, supported the New Zealand team at Athens and been across many other facets of national and international competition she said exposed her to so many facets. “I’ve also worked and volunteered across the dairy industry so have plenty of experiences, both good and bad, to draw on so I’ve got a breadth of experience which gives you that perspective.”
She appreciates the huge challenges COVID brings to everyone and says it calls for creative thinking – especially for nations like New Zealand. “COVID and the disruption and challenges of travel that it is bringing to our campaigning is new territory to navigate and is going to make creating international and qualifying event opportunities difficult,” she says. “I worry that the international dressage world isn’t ready for the creativity that is going to be needed to continue growing the accessibility of the sport throughout the globe.”
New Zealand currently had some “super talent” in its riders, horses and support teams and Justine says it will be tough to bring everything together to support the realisation of that talent on the world stage, given the pandemic. “Access to competitions, international judging and training is extra tough at the moment with the risks of travelling, MIQ and border restrictions,” she says. However, the sport is looking good. “There seems to be a lot of energy in it and there are really nice horses coming through with a growing group of riders at level 6 and above. We have combinations producing well above qualifying standard performances so we are looking better than ever.”
Justine felt the national performance squads had a “great” team feel to them and continued to create a supportive and encouraging environment for riders coming through the ranks. She is hugely excited about the new challenges ahead. “Selection for me isn’t just about picking the team . . . it is also about building a relationship with the high performance squad riders to really understand them, their horses, their plans and what creates that winning performance for them and then working with the wider Dressage New Zealand support team to create the environment that supports them excelling at those pinnacle events.”
Margs has been chief New Zealand dressage selector for two seasons and sees the move to high performance as the next “logical” step. “It is so rewarding to follow the journey of emerging talent through their development to becoming accomplished Grand Prix combinations,” says the dairy farmer who oversees the operation of three farms. “Being involved with riders from the early stages of their training and guiding through objectivity, encouragement and helpfulness in their performance and direction is an honour . . . and one that is hopefully of value to riders.”
A long time rider, she too came through the Pony Club system, rode at Pony Club Champs and is now a level 3*/4* FEI eventing judge and an A level dressage judge and mentor. She is a previous winner of a Prime Minister’s Scholarship which saw her officiate at events in Europe.
While she retired from competitive riding some years ago, the purchase of Foxleigh Mr Darcy saw her briefly back in the ring in the 2019-20 season but Margs quickly realised she didn’t have the time to commit to perform, so now has someone else riding the horse while she concentrates on judging, mentoring and her role as selector.
“New Zealand is now breeding some amazingly talented purpose-fit dressage horses and we have riders who are both hungry and committed to performing on the world stage. The results they are producing are getting them to the level that a team may be competitive against some of the stronger nations.”
The challenges were to get more regular competition in Australia before moving to bases in the United Kingdom and Europe. “The other huge hurdle is financing such moves.” She is very excited to be part of the push for WEG 2022 and beyond. “I feel as committed to seeing or making this happen as if I were still riding. The love of the sport of dressage is an absolute passion and to see riders reach this goal would be a dream come true for me.”
Helen has been a high performance selector since 2013. She has decades of experience in equestrian and has ridden in most disciplines including endurance but moved to specialise in dressage in the early 1980s as a competitor, coach, owner, judge and national selector.
She has competed to Grand Prix level and is an ESNZ performance dressage coach. She has been an FEI 4* dressage judge since 2011 and an FEI young dressage horse judge since 2019. Her judging has taken her around much of New Zealand and Australia, but also to Asia, the United Kingdom and a number of European countries. “I will certainly be continuing as soon as our New Zealand borders become easily accessible again,” she says.
Helen, who runs a grazing establishment with husband Tony in Ohariu Valley near Wellington, is also involved in judge education in New Zealand.
“I bring the strength that comes with many years of judging and observing international competition,” she says. “I understand well the changes and standards in the sport, and the development of the correct way of going for the dressage horse.”
Helen tipped her hat to the “world class” horses that are being bred and produced in New Zealand. “COVID has not made it easy at all, spoiling the loss of CDI competition both here and in Australia over the past 18 months. However, I do believe New Zealand has some very dedicated riders who are willing to work towards an international goal.”
And having already been part of the journey towards 2022 WEG and the 2024 Paris Games for the past few years, she says it is an exciting time for all. “We are now seeing the strength building in both horse and rider power . . . there is certainly a place for New Zealand on the world stage.”
By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison