BY ANDRE DIGNELLI
The thing that separates Devon from other shows is history. Devon is an iconic location and most of us have seen pictures depicting the show’s amazing past. If you have grown up in the horse show system, it may be a place you have always wanted to compete, a place where you have dreamed of winning. There is a lot of chatter about Devon- can this horse win at Devon? Is his horse ready for Devon? Are you qualified for Devon? It is one of the few shows that still feels important and special.
When you walk on to the Devon show grounds, there is atmosphere. It has many spectators and a carnival- like setting. The riders and trainers are excited and nervous, giving the air an electric feel. This translates to the horses and brings many challenges. Some are not used to all of the activity, the fair, the people- and the ring feels very important. Unlike most shows, there are no warm up classes, so there are no second chances. Riders have to go and in and execute right off the bat. We have become familiar with the jumps, so the equipment is the same. Certainly showing at night adds a unique dimension. But, the main difference is the atmosphere that both horses and riders must contend with.
At Heritage, we approach preparation for Devon in several ways. Having shown there for thirty five years, we have a routine at home that helps the horses and riders rehearse for Devon week. I change the courses frequently, what I refer to as rearranging the furniture. We have a track outside of our ring, so I put a jump out there as a new challenge. I have the kids jump it so they have to face something new and surprising and manage their horses as they do the same. Also, I will stack equipment in the corner of the ring which can be spooky as horses are used to the same things in the same place at home. Sometimes, I line up people at the edge of the ring holding umbrellas- something we see often at Devon. I purchased a very large TV set that we run at the end of the indoor ring to mimic the Jumbotron that many horses spook at. We disrupt the routine, we jump obstacles we haven’t faced before, we go in and out of the ring. Sometimes the reaction is so severe that it surprises all of us.
Our farm has the advantage of having several rings. I will set one up with a “Devon like” course and have the kids warm up in one ring and walk in cold to ride a course in the other. It mirrors what we have to do at the show. The riders become used to new tracks, new jumps, new routines. We push past the comfort zone and face the element of surprise in an effort to acclimate horses and riders.
If you haven’t been to a competition like Devon before, it is easy to miss the mark. The horses have to be more dialed in; the riders need more preparation to handle the challenges. Hackney ponies, horses pulling carts, yearlings screaming and being nervous- it is all there. I try to bring horses to Devon that are a little more prepared, a little quieter than other shows. A couple of days out, we may work them a bit more or loose lunge them before we ship to the show. I like them to arrive settled. Once we are there, we may get them out more than once per day depending on the schedule. If you have not been through the Devon routine, it can be difficult to navigate all of these variables. Sometimes, you get in the ring at 6 AM and don’t show until 8 PM and you have to treat it like a new day. It takes years of experience to figure it out, and I still miss the mark at times.
Riders also need to arrive on the showgrounds feeling prepared- and that happens at home. They all show a fair amount in order to qualify for Devon, so they are mostly seasoned competitors. But, as with the horses, we prepare for the atmosphere and the potential contingencies of the Devon experience. We all do our homework in terms of lessons and schooling so that we can peak during Devon. Things like the heights of the jumps, the types of jumps, and “cold turkey” course rides all contribute to preparation. Another unusual factor at Devon is the amount of down time that riders must fill. At other shows, riders tend to have more horses to ride, maybe more to do during the show day. At Devon, there is a lot of sitting around and that can take a rider off his or her game. Again, it is a part of the mental piece that we help riders anticipate and learn to handle.
The Heritage staff has a tremendous amount of experience with all of the Devon variables, enabling us to help horses and riders prepare. It is one of the most important weeks of the year, one of the very special horse shows, so we arrive ready to go. We look forward to it every year.
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.
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