BY LAUREN MAULDIN
How do you feel when you enter the ring at a horse show? Worried about the two stride that looks a little long, or concerned about keeping your green horse from bulging by the judge’s stand? Anxious about all the eyes watching, your family that drove in special for the Sunday medal. Scared you’ll disappoint your trainer, that you’ll fail to be perfect.
How do you want to feel? Determined to add a little more leg through the combination, and prepared for some wiggly, baby horse moments? Focused on the task at hand—finding eight jumps as best as you can—with the knowledge that your family, barn and otherwise, will high five you after your course no matter what the outcome. Assured, knowing your trainer will calmly discuss your rounds after, even if you have a bobble, and that a “perfect” trip is only a series of good moments. At Grafton Ridge LLC, trainers Michael DelFiandra and Vanessa Roman have combined forces to ensure that their riders walk into the ring with the knowledge they belong and are prepared to compete with the best.
Though the two professionals only met a year ago, the partnership was primed for success through combining their two very different backgrounds in the sport. Michael grew up riding with top professionals in Del Ray Beach, Florida. First with Karen Connolly, and then with Castlewood Farm’s Alan Korotkin who he rode with through his junior career as well as his first few years as a professional. “Alan did a lot for me as a junior,” Michael said. “He was like another parent.” As a working student, Michael had opportunities to ride some top horses, competing at Young Rider’s and earning ribbons at equitation finals. “He fed my love for the sport, allowed me to grow and learn at my own rate, and encouraged me to pursue what I wanted to do at the end of the day.” Under Alan’s guidance, Michael thrived at the big show atmosphere. At just fourteen, he knew he wanted to become a professional. “I was really lucky to have it all set out for me,” he admitted. “It was up to me to go get it.”
Vanessa knew just as early as Michael did that she wanted to be around horses all the time, but she wasn’t in the show ring—she was riding through the woods. “I fell in love with riding young, but had never really been to a horse show,” Vanessa said. After graduating college, she wasn’t sure what direction to go in but decided to follow her love of horses and got a job grooming for the O’Connor event team. Taking that first step towards the professional horse world led to many more. She started teaching lessons at a barn that attended hunter/jumper shows, and became enthralled in that world of equitation medals and hunter classics. “I asked myself, with a baseline of a love for horses, could I translate that to create something in the horse show world?” Vanessa explained. “I started to pursue that, and became more and more interested.” That interest led to success, more clients, and eventually her first winter in Wellington—important not only for the top competition and glorious palm trees, but also because it’s where her and Michael decided to become business partners.
The two originally met at Courtyard Farm in Bedford Hills, New York in the summer of 2018, and immediately got along. Later that winter at WEF, Michael and Vanessa ended up in the same barn again and realized how seamlessly their programs intertwined. “Our work ethics matched, and the things we wanted matched,” Vanessa said. “Neither of us wants the easy way out, even if everyone else wants to do it that way, but hard work pays off,” Michael added. Seeing each other go the extra mile for their students, the two pros synced their show schedules up for the rest of the year before deciding to formally combine their best qualities into one unified program.
With each aspect of the business, the two complement each other. Michael is deeply experienced in the hunter/jumper circuit. From crossrails to the Grand Prix, he knows how to develop riders for the toughest circuits. When asked about his proudest moment, it wasn’t training a talented horse or a winning a blue ribbon, but rather coaching a special junior: “When I worked at Sweet Oak Farm, my student, Brett Burlington, went all the way from Children’s Jumpers to the Wellington Saturday Night Lights Grand Prix with me. She was the Under 25 Champion and Grand Junior Hunter Champion at Harrisburg. It wasn’t that she won, but the journey of going from ponies all the way to those accomplishments,” Michael explained.
Though she has as many years of experience with horses, the show atmosphere still feels like an exciting, new wonderland for Vanessa. “I have the tenacity of a teenager right now,” she laughed. “My curiosity is far more peaked than someone who has been there, done that. I’m definitely more invested.” Curiosity is a driving force in Vanessa’s life. It drives her to seek out knowledge, and create techniques to build success for her clients. It was curiosity that first introduced her to Daniel Stewart.
Working with him first as a client, Vanessa and Daniel quickly grew to colleagues as they bonded over sports psychology and how mindfulness touches everything in life. Working as an assistant coach and yoga instructor at his Equestrian Athlete Camps, Vanessa began to fold his teachings into her riding mentality. “The mental game matters as much as anything else you’re doing on top of a horse,” she said. Through Daniel’s tutelage, she began to take herself more seriously as a trainer and recognize that you get what you give both in riding and life. “It’s easy to let self-doubt take over, but I make it a point to get myself strong enough to step up. I recognize that it matters how I show up for my students,” she said. Through controlling her mental game, Vanessa has stepped into her own power—and stayed there.
This concentration on sports psychology has added immense value to Grafton Ridge clients. Vanessa has sealed the riders into a tight knit community that support each other, whether it’s the best round they’ve ever had or the worst. “I would have never been into sports psychology,” Michael admitted, “but Vanessa brings such a great background in that. She brings that energy to all the clients.” Now Vanessa and Michael are working together to continue to foster a positive, supportive atmosphere for everyone at the barn. “You can’t be afraid to make a mistake,” Michael said. “It’s amazing how many people want to be perfect, but there’s no rider on the planet who can do that. Sometimes it’s about making the best out of a situation, and in order to do that you have to make mistakes.” For him and Vanessa, it’s important that clients know they have trainers ready to meet them without blame. “The riders aren’t bad, their horses aren’t bad,” Vanessa added. “We take on the challenge versus placing it all on the student. The expectation that riders should have it all figured out is antiquated.” Riders who join the Grafton Ridge team, no matter what kind of anxieties they may bring to the table, can feel confident that Vanessa and Michael do everything possible to surround them in a positive environment.
Shifting negative, anxious and even fearful associations to positive, calm ones can be a difficult process, but Michael and Vanessa have all the tools to support their riders through the journey. Based out of Courtyard Farm in Bedford Hills, New York in the summer and Wellington in the winter, they have special programs available for every kind of client. With riders in all three rings, some aim for huge goals like indoors while others focus on personal growth. “We want people from all levels to come here and be part of the team. There’s no discrimination,” Vanessa said.
The right client for Grafton Ridge is simply the kind of rider who wants to improve and be part of a community. After all, horse shows are more than just showing up and jumping over a few obstacles. They’re an all encompassing, special kind of experience that delight twelve-year-old pony kids as much as adult amateurs. To be able to take clients to the best shows in the country is something Michael has never taken for granted, and a privilege that fuels Vanessa more and more each season. Riders of all kinds blossom under this partnership. With Michael and Vanessa on your team, you can walk into the show ring with confidence and remember the joy that it is to compete on a good horse.
To become a part of the Grafton Ridge family, find them on social media @graftonridge, email to [email protected] or call Michael at 561-441-5525 or Vanessa at 203-536-6654.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
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