Ask Andre: For Aspiring Riders, How Do You Break Through From the Local Circuit to the Big Stage?

Andre Dignelli. Photo by KIND Media, LLC.

By Andre Dignelli

I get this question a lot: How do I get from A to B? How does an aspiring rider competing on a local circuit get an opportunity to break through to the top level?

At Heritage, we understand this concept, because we were those people. We are that story. 

Patricia [Griffith] had already completed her junior career when she started at Heritage as a working student, and she had her big moment when finishing second in the 1998 USEF Talent Search Final, which springboarded her career a bit. Laena [Romond] found her success later. When she came to our team, she had already graduated college; she didn’t have access to the circuit early. For myself, it happened a little earlier. I rode down the street from Coker Farm, and my brother [Michael] took me there to try to get an opportunity, and I was a working student. 

It really stems from having the courage to speak up and go after a dream. Looking back at riders like Cooper Dean, Taylor St. Jacques and Geoffrey Hesslink—they all approached me in the heat of the moment. What they wanted to accomplish, at the time, seemed difficult or out of reach, and they took the brave step to say that ‘Where I am is comfortable, but this is where I want to be.’

With that, there is usually a lot of sacrifice. You have to drive a great distance, stay with a family member that lives nearby, share a house, go to school remotely, or something else. If you’ve followed any kid’s journey pursuing a sport, whether you’re following baseball games or gymnastics—those athletes are all traveling. It’s a big commitment, and your family has to be somewhat on board. You need an advocate, because it can be disruptive to make a move.

If you want to make that next step, sometimes you need to take interim steps first. Connect with the best local trainer in your area that’s also open-minded enough to co-train you with a top operation, which we’ve done. We’ve done those collaborations in addition to having riders traveling long distance to ride with us. 

My best advice is, you don’t need to know a thing about horses to know what good training and instruction looks like. At the horse show, you should be observing all of the advanced rings. You’ll see and hear what looks correct. Follow that. Follow what looks to be good instruction, what looks to be good care, and what looks to be an organized program. That’s a start.

I want to see someone teach in the manner that I want to be taught. All of us at this stage have been taught our whole lives. You know what good teaching looks like—if not in this sport, from the classroom or any other sport you’ve taken part in. It’s also true with horses. When you go to the ring, you want to see someone teaching in a calm, logical manner. You want to go somewhere where it’s been done before—where the goals you want to achieve have been achieved before.

Taylor St. Jacques and Cooper Dean, shown with Andre, finished 1-2 in the 2017 Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final. Photo Courtesy Heritage Farm.

Taylor and Cooper were exceptional. They were brave enough and knew exactly what they wanted, and they spearheaded their move. Geoffrey Hesslink approached me; so did Kirsten Coe. Those riders come to mind, where they really had identified that they wanted that to happen. There were no bones about it. They knew what they wanted, they knew they had to make a change, and they knew they had to go where it had been done before, and they wanted that to happen. As young people, they were brave enough to reach out to me and get my attention. They’re the really great examples of riders that were riding in good programs and had a certain level of success already, but they wanted more and kind of didn’t let up until they got my attention.

It can hold people back by thinking, ‘Am I good enough? Am I ready?’ The answer is, you are good enough. You are ready. If you’re thinking about it, you owe it to yourself to try it. Some of our greatest success stories were not the most naturally gifted riders. There’s another piece, and they had it—the work ethic, intelligence, dedication and support.

We don’t reject the kids that want it badly enough, because we remember where we came from. We were the kids at the show with the bad riding outfits and the horses that we braided and clipped ourselves. It’s never been a question in our minds of, ‘Do you fit in? Do you belong?’ We were you; we were those kids.

How do we tap into changing that mentality of self-doubt? If you have those thoughts in your head, the only way you’re going to know if you’re good enough is if you take the leap.