BY ANDRE DIGNELLI
Do you prefer private lessons or group lessons?
I grew up riding in my back yard by myself. When I would go and take lessons, it was more affordable to be part of a group. I was a rider on a budget and the group lesson was something that I became accustomed to. I have run a large barn for 30+ years and the nature of the business is that all the kids show up between 3:00 and 6:00. So, they have to come in, get their riding done, and go home to do homework and prepare for the next day. Group lessons have become a necessity.
With this structure, my focus became the mastery of the group lesson. I came to realize that the group lesson is more valuable than the private lesson. Riders are able to learn from each other, and they are able to take breaks as they watch others do the exercise. Often there is a mix of ages and abilities, so a less experienced rider gets to see and advanced rider. At Heritage, a young rider could be in a lesson with a rider who has won a national championship or even one of our professional riders. The less experienced riders not only watch and learn from them, they become used to performing in front of people and are less intimidated at shows.
We begin our group lessons on the flat with the mix of riders and introduce basic dressage in the form of simple lateral movements to even the youngest kids. When it’s time to jump, we pair off so we are not raising and lowering the jumps a thousand times. This system of having the young riders watching their peers advances them at a much more rapid rate. In addition, it helps them understand the dynamics of riding in traffic and spacing. Horse show schooling areas and flat classes can often be crowded and overwhelming, and our riders are more comfortable with that situation.
Group lessons are great if the horses are all behaving. But if a horse is fresh or if a rider is struggling with something, we schedule a private or semi-private lesson. This is always an option and we provide flexibility for each individual.
At Heritage, we try to follow the same training routine depending on our horse show schedule. Mondays are a day off for the horses. Tuesday is flat day with some cavaletti work- either in a straight line or on a curve to practice stride control and landing leads. On Wednesday, we set a new course, have a brief flat session, and concentrate on jumping. Thursday is another flat only day. Friday depends on whether we are showing on the weekend. If so, we do a little jumping- maybe one line. We typically compete on the weekends. If not, we will do gymnastics or flat work. We try to peak at the right moments and work backward in scheduling from there.
My philosophy is: train more, show less. The group lesson enables us to train every day and provide exposure and experience to every rider at Heritage- from the kids on ponies to our top competitors.
Andre Dignelli is the owner and head trainer at Heritage Farm, a New York based institution that has produced national hunter, jumper and equitation champions for over 20 years. In his junior years, he won the 1985 USET finals and later went on to win the bronze medal at the 1991 Pan Am Games. Since then, Andre has coached numerous equitation, hunter and jumper champions at the nation’s top shows. His program has helped develop top riders including Kent Farrington, Kirsten Coe, Maggie McAlary, Reed Kessler, Lillie Keenan and many others.