BY TIMOTHY WICKES
Sometimes the horse show game seems a bit like the mafia – once you’re in you never get out. But riders are athletes, and in spite of what Louise Serio and Ian Millar are showing us, hopping out of the competitive tack and choosing a new path is seemingly inevitable. Reading about these three legends tells us that paths can vary greatly.
Michael Matz was a legend – still is. For three full decades from the early ‘70’s to the dawn of this century, he was America’s most iconic male show rider, centerpiece of the group of golden boys of the ‘70’s. Among names like Fargis, Homfeld, Ridland, Murphy, and Brown, Matz burst onto the international scene at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and dominated the sport for the next 20 years before winning a long sought after Silver Medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Five Pan-American Games Gold Medals, one WEG Gold Medal, and one World Cup win highlighted a career with more Sunday afternoon victory gallops than a tree has leaves. But then as the 20th century drew to a close, there was a voice somewhere whispering that is may be time for something new.
“I was at the in-gate one Sunday, getting ready to walk in the ring, [a veteran rider] was in the ring and I heard someone say, ‘Remember when he could ride, I mean really ride? Look at him now.’ And I thought, ‘Geez, I don’t want to ever be that guy.’”
Horse racing had long been a side passion for Matz, always having an inexpensive claimer or two in the barn. Michael decided that after the 2000 Olympic Trials, he would hang up his spurs, pick up his stopwatch, and make training racehorses into his second act. And surprise, surprise, success followed. His 2006 Kentucky Derby win with Barbaro would be a second career highlight all by itself. But, he has added a Breeder’s Cup win with Round Pond and another Triple Crown notch in the Belmont Stakes with Union Rags.
Is he wistful about his time in the tack? A bit. “When I see the money these guys are jumping for today, people I used to ride against, when I see Todd [Minikus] and Beezie [Madden] win million dollar classes, I think maybe I should have stuck around a little longer,” Matz observes. “But when a horse runs well, I get pretty much the same feeling of accomplishment as I did before.”
Even though the show ring no longer calls, sometimes the saddle still does. “Yeah, one of (son) Alex’s horses needed some schooling this winter and by the end of the day, we were jumping 1.40m – 1.45m. D.D. (his wife) just kept putting them up.” For a guy firmly entrenched in his second act, Michael Matz can still reach back through the shadows of time and stir up the old magic.
Reagan was president, gas was $1.20, and the U.S.A. Showjumping Team had just won its first Olympic Gold in 1984 in L.A. The next year, Andre Dignelli headed out of Westchester County, brother Michael driving, Dark Sonnett in the two-horse trailer towards Gladstone, NJ and his date with destiny. Pulling off a major upset at the 1985 USET Talent Search Finals, Dignelli announced to the show world that his was a name to be remembered- and a star was born.
Kicking right on into a professional riding and training career, first at Judy Richter’s Coker Farm, and later at he and his brother Michael’s Heritage Farm, Andre just kept on winning. 1991 was a banner year with Dignelli representing his country in the Pan-Am Games, winning Grand Hunter Champion at the National Horse Show, and training his first Big Equitation Finals winter with Peter Lutz right back in Gladstone in the USET Talent Search. But, as his 20’s gave way to his 30’s and as a bad back began to give him increasing troubles, Andre decided to walk away from competitive riding and focus on his expanding training stable.
“I always wanted to be where I am right now, own a stable and train at the highest level,” offers Dignelli. “I really thought of myself more as a trainer that rode than a rider that trained, and when I slowed down on the riding, I really didn’t miss it. I just love the training.” But in the next breath, Andre believes in the importance of the path he’s traveled, “I don’t think I’d be the trainer I am without having competed, and competed at that level.”
Second act, not just yet. “Really, the training feels like a continuation of the riding… I’m 50 now, the second act may be how I follow this first act.”
That second act may be the Heritage Farm Fundamentals Program. Returning home from a winter in Wellington with 100 horses, Andre did something he hadn’t done in years- went to a local show. And an idea was born: create a program for local kids with a passion for showing but who didn’t come from super wealthy families, and give them a place at Heritage to hone their skills and learn from the best.
“Early on, doing ponies and children’s divisions, it’s not imperative that you go to Florida all winter. So now, instead of 100 [horses] in Florida and Heritage closed, we have 70 in Florida and 30 at home,” says Dignelli. “Thinking about how this business has changed, I thought, ‘Where is the next Andre coming from?’” Fast forward to the fall of 2017 and Fundamentals Program graduate Taylor St. Jacques was heading out of Westchester County towards what would be a victory in the USEF Medal Finals. Like Andre thirty plus years before on a horse borrowed from his trainer, Taylor had Andre’s best horse in the back of the family gooseneck with her parents manning the steering wheel. After all, sometimes life really is cyclical, and the best of us never forget where we came from. For Andre Dignelli, his memory is clear, his passion intense, and his goal obvious; he’s just looking for the next… Andre Dignelli.
Who knew that a guy who was one of the preeminent hunter riders in the country for thirty plus years would have to hop out of the saddle and add another day job to his resume in order to get a movie made about him. But, that’s the story. Life in the Doghouse is the movie and Danny Robertshaw is the guy. From a riding career that took him to the pinnacle of success (2018 National Show Hunter Hall of Fame inductee), winning big classes and championships at every major horse show for decades, Danny and husband, Ron Danta, in addition to running a very successful show stable, are the founding principles of Danny and Ron’s Rescue in Camden, SC. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2006, they have rescued, nurtured, and re-homed over 10,000 dogs. But why quit riding?
“I had back surgery in 1996, a terrible fall where I spent 17 days in ICU and a third separate health issue that landed me back in the hospital,” Danny explains. “And the least year or so, I remember whenever I’d be riding a young one, and I always let them play and buck, and I’d look over at the side of the ring and see the expression on Ron’s face. The idea that people were afraid for me…” He trails off. Robertshaw didn’t just quit competing, he quit riding altogether. One day he was a rider, the next day he wasn’t. “It was really hard. I didn’t know who I was not being a rider,” remembers Danny, “I never really thought about identifying as a rider until I wasn’t one.”
Fortunately, there was still a full-time training and sales business to run with Danta at their Beaver River Farm along with an expanding judging career. And then along came Katrina.
Even before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August of 2005, Danny and Ron had been taking in rescue dogs for over a decade, just never by the truckload. By 2008, they had created a nonprofit to help defer some of the cost and as of today, their labor of love has taken in over 10,000 dogs (all of whom spend time in their home) and are the subject of a major documentary.
Life on the road with a major show stable as well as judging, alongside life at home running a major charity, keeps Danny Robertshaw looking up and riding forward. If no longer in the saddle, still in life.