Making the Grade: For College Coaches, All Eyes are on Heritage Farm

The first Heritage Farm rider to compete at the collegiate level, Maggie McAlary was MVP on the flat in the 2011 NCEA National Championship for Auburn University. Photo Courtesy Maggie McAlary

By Catie Staszak Media, Inc.

Maggie McAlary admits, she wasn’t planning on riding in college when she began applying to schools in 2009. The talented professional, now riding and coaching at the international level under Ben Maher, had academics in mind following a highly successful junior career that saw her win both the ASPCA Maclay National Championship and the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final. But when the former Heritage Farm star was approached by Auburn University hunt seat coaches Greg Williams and Lindsay Neubarth, her mindset shifted.

“I had no idea about the NCEA (National Collegiate Equestrian Association),” McAlary recalled. “I didn’t know it was as competitive as it is, [and] I didn’t know I could get a scholarship!”

Williams and Neubarth convinced McAlary to visit their campus for an Official Visit, and while McAlary would be approached by several other schools, it was Auburn that would become her home for the following four years. In that time, McAlary would earn double All-American honors in both equitation on the flat and equitation over fences and contribute to Auburn’s overall and hunt seat titles at the 2011 National Championship, where she was named MVP on the flat.

“It’s always nice to be a part of a winning team, even when it’s not you in the ring,” McAlary said. “The team aspect is something I really bought into, and I felt that Heritage was my team before college.”

McAlary is the first in an increasingly long line of collegiate champions to come out of Andre Dignelli’s Heritage Farm program, and for riders looking to continue riding while pursuing higher education, Heritage has established itself as a place to pave their way. Following February’s National Signing Day, Heritage Farm’s perfect recruitment rate remained intact. Yes, 100 percent of Heritage Farm’s student-athlete recruits have signed with a collegiate program.

“My foundation that I got at Heritage, from ponies to beyond my junior years—I don’t think I’d be doing anything if wasn’t for them,” McAlary said. “Even now, I’m teaching lessons and remembering things [longtime Heritage Farm trainer Patricia Griffith] telling me on my small pony!”

“With Maggie sort of being the first…[collegiate riding] was a bit foreign to us at that point,” Dignelli said. “I didn’t realize at the onset that I was going to play a role in this, but I realized that the time spent for riders at Heritage was time well spent to basically guarantee them entrance into these colleges. For riders winning the finals, they were highly touted and had the pick of the litter [in selecting a school], but there were other riders that have used riding at Heritage to open those doors. I realize our role in that now.”

Samantha Schaefer led Baylor University to its first National Championship title in 2012. Photo Courtesy Baylor Athletics

An Extra Spotlight

Like McAlary, former Heritage rider Samantha Schaefer is now shining as a professional in the sport following a tremendously successful career at Baylor University. Schaefer, winner of the 2009 WIHS Equitation Finals and 2011 USEF Talent Search Finals—East with Heritage, was a three-time All-American at Baylor and clinched the Bears’ first and only NCEA National Championship in 2012. Last year, Schaefer was voted Baylor’s Jumping Seat performer of the decade and featured in an article by the Waco Tribune-Herald with the title, “Nobody dominated like Schaefer.”

“I was really fortunate that when I was at Heritage, I had the opportunity to ride a lot of different horses. That was crucial for collegiate riding,” Schaefer said. “I got to ride a lot of young horses and horses that were new on the scene to the equitation world. The working student riders got a lot of opportunities to bring those kinds of horses out; sometimes that was a challenge, but for sure it helped prepare me for college.”

It was a family connection that led Schaefer to Baylor, though she was recruited by several schools. A focus at Heritage on her position, as well as the numerous riding opportunities afforded to her, undoubtedly gave her an edge.

“Being at a place like Heritage, you definitely get highlighted or more of a spotlight than a lot of kids get exposed to. It’s amazing,” she said. “I had a lot of help along the way, but really Heritage was the reason for my success in [the equitation] ring. That’s where collegiate riding comes from, and that gave me a great opportunity to get an education and continue riding while doing it.”

Sydney Berube won her point in her collegiate debut for Texas Christian University. Photo by Max Potter.

Purposeful Goals

Aspiring collegiate riders have taken notice of that spotlight, and when Bay Noland-Armstrong and Sydney Berube set college recruitment as major goals, both turned to Heritage.

“I started riding with Heritage for my last junior year, and one of first things Andre did was ask me about my goals, and I told him I wanted to ride in college,” Berube said. “He spoke to coaches for me and put in a good word. He really helped me, and in Florida, he continuously updated coaches as I sent videos [from the Winter Equestrian Festival]. He gave me feedback from previous Heritage students and recommended teams that would be a good fit based on other riders’ experiences and personalities.”

Getting more time in the saddle aboard a variety of horses helped prepare Berube for the NCEA, and she is now in her sophomore year at Texas Christian University. Noland-Armstrong is in the same year at the University of Georgia and is one of Heritage’s more inspiring tales. Getting a late start to the ranks of the Big Eq, Noland-Armstrong didn’t think riding with Heritage Farm was feasible for her—until her father sent an email through the farm’s website.

Bay Noland-Armstrong competes in the Red and Black scrimmage at the University of Georgia. Photo by Talia Forcina.

“My first year doing the 3’6” equitation was my junior year of high school, and when I started to send out videos to coaches, I started thinking about what steps I could take to secure being recruited,” Noland-Armstrong explained. “It was a dream of mine to ride at one of the bigger barns, and my dad sent an email to the Heritage Farm website. Michael [Dignelli, Andre’s brother] reached out to me and said they’d love to have me.”

Committed to her goal, Noland-Armstrong made the move from Michigan to Wellington for the 2018 winter season. After graduating high school a semester early, she took a gap year to focus on improving her skills in the saddle. The time and effort paid off in spades.

“I wanted to go to Heritage so coaches noticed me a bit more. Being with them was the best way to dramatically improve my riding skills before I went to school, and that whole extra year of being with them—riding some more jumpers and doing the USET—set me up for riding in school,” she said. “Then when I went to school, I felt incredibly prepared and at the same level as other great riders on the team.”

Taylor St. Jacques boasts a program-best 17 MOP (Most Outstanding Performer) honors at Auburn University. Photo Courtesy Taylor St. Jacques.

The Next Generation

A decade after McAlary paved the way, Taylor St. Jacques, another USEF Medal Final Champion, is making a mark of her own at Auburn. The NCEA Flat Rider of the Year in both 2019 and 2020, St. Jacques boasts a program-best 17 MOPs (Most Outstanding Performer) in her collegiate career and Jacques was also the MOP in both flat and over fences when helping Auburn capture the 2019 NCEA National Championship.

“Andre was always a fantastic mentor, and Patricia, Dottie [Barnwell] and Laena [Romond] were always so encouraging and helpful,” St. Jacques said. “The coaches at school act like a big brother or sister or mom or dad, and you always have someone to turn to and ask for advice. It’s similar at Heritage. You’re never alone, and I always had someone to turn to.”

The team at Heritage takes that mentorship seriously, and as the next generation of junior riders prepares to take their next steps—in both riding and in life—Dignelli looks forward to giving a leg up to as many riders as he can, regardless of resume.

“Many of my top riders have gone on to win [NCEA] championships, and that’s been very rewarding,” Dignelli said, “but it’s been just as rewarding—even more rewarding—to see the kids that weren’t as well-known to get the same entry and the same opportunity to compete and get an education based on their experience with us. I realize my role in that now.”

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