When you walk through the gates of CHIO Aachen, you step into another world; a concentrated equestrian mecca where elite sport meets entertainment as the world’s best riders strive for glory in front of adoring crowds. An event steeped in history and tradition, there is something very special about ‘Chee-oh’. For young Australians with big dreams, experiencing such an event first-hand gives a taste of what the big-time sport looks like. It’s sure to inspire.
More than 25 years ago, FEI 5* dressage judge Susie Hoevenaars was adjudicating at a derby event in Germany when she was struck by the idea of running a similar event for young Australian riders. “German international judge, Uwe Spenlen, was at the show judging and he helped me to organise the format,” explains Susie. “I wanted to give our young riders the opportunity we never had, to travel overseas and see for themselves the world’s elite riders at both Small and Big Tour level,” she continues, explaining how the concept came about to provide an overseas trip to the young winner of the planned new event.
“The biggest show in the world is CHIO Aachen – also known as the World Equestrian Festival – and I asked the director, Frank Kemperman, for his support, which he was only too willing to give.” Frank has been at the helm of the show since 1993, and this year’s show is due to be his last as retirement beckons later this year.
“For young dressage enthusiasts, CHIO Aachen is such a prestigious event on the international equestrian calendar that it draws the best competitors, competing with their up-and-coming young horses as well as those more established at Grand Prix level.
“At that time (of the Aachen Challenge’s inauguration), there were not many training videos, and to actually be among the riders and trainers and see them working in real life is a very different feel to seeing them in a video,” explain Susie. “Our young riders were – and still are – really at a disadvantage. It is not possible, given our distance from Europe, to hop in a car and drive over the border to see the best; Australia is thousands of miles from the centre of our sport. It makes such a difference if a young rider is able to see the world’s top combinations in reality, not just video. It is a real stimulus. A flight to Europe is expensive and not everyone can afford this, so we wanted to give them this opportunity.”
The inaugural Aachen Challenge took place in 1995 at what was then called the Diana Ferrari Dressage Festival in Victoria; Susie was the event director at the time. This then become P.S.I. Dressage & Jumping with the Stars, and the Aachen Challenge has remained part of the program ever since. The class is open to riders from the beginning of the calendar year in which they turn 16 to the end of the calendar year in which they turn 25, and to qualify, the combination must have competed at FEI Young Rider or Prix St Georges level in the 12 months prior. The horse does not need to be owned by the rider and can be borrowed for the competition, however, a horse and rider combination that has previously won the Aachen Challenge is ineligible to enter again.
The class is loved by spectators and has become a dream and goal for many young dressage riders to take part. Susie explains that the original derby concept, whereby the top three riders from the first round swap horses in the final, was intended as a “true test of horsemanship”.