By Andre Dignelli
I don’t want to speak for all of the larger operations, but the key to winning is all about preparation and program.
I can only speak for myself, but Heritage Farm’s program is developed and geared toward achieving championship goals and beyond from a very early age.
Everything is done with purpose—from the way the ring is set up to the type of equipment we use and the strategy of our show schedule. Each horse and rider’s schedule is carefully planned with the goal of peaking at big moments.
Championships happen at every level. It’s not just about the big equitation finals. When I refer to “championships,” I’m referring to all the big events, from USEF Pony Finals for young riders to 3’3” junior hunter and equitation finals.
Championships—plural—are about preparation and doing your homework. It’s about providing opportunity and being where there is opportunity. What do I mean by that? You want to make sure that riding time is accessible. Can you ride on a regular basis? Is there an opportunity to ride additional horses? A rider can only be as good as the hours you spend in and around the sport. Accessibility encompasses all of that.
Of course, it’s possible to win a championship with a small operation. But when you’re seeking out a trainer, you should always ask: Have my goals been reached here before, and if so, how frequently? If history has anything to say about it, you need to go where it’s been done before. These kinds of operations have a game plan already in place and an existing road map to possible success. It truly takes a village to achieve such big goals, and that’s why we frequently see win photos with large groups of winning connections at the equitation championships.
You also have to think about the level of horses to which you have access. Aside from the level of training, as you need a coach with a certain expertise, you also need someone who knows how to pick and choose and train that level of horse and that level of rider.
The reason Heritage Farm has produced and continues to produce championship wins is because of our preparation and the opportunities we are able to provide. With the size of what we do, there’s opportunity. There’s the ability to be a part of extra lessons and to watch extra lessons. I always talk about group lessons and aiming for the top of the tree. In a place like this, you’re climbing branches all the way and seeing people at the top level.
When there is size and opportunity, there is usually a team. At Heritage, the team or the size of the team—and more importantly, the depth of the team—allows us to go to multiple shows in one weekend. It’s easier to qualify riders at a lot of different levels. It’s easier to achieve goals because there’s a lot of support staff.
When the pandemic happened and there were no championships last summer, it certainly threw a wrench in our preparation. When those wrenches occur, you have to adapt. Everyone had a plan to peak and try to be successful at Devon this year, and that’s no longer in the plan. Now we’ve come up with a new plan in how we are going to get riders ready for the next championship without it. Practice is one thing, but then you have to go somewhere to measure yourself. Events like Devon help with that. They play a role.
This winter, we had a plan for the WEF Equitation Championship, and we executed it successfully with Natalie Jayne’s win. We used the World Equestrian Center Premier Equitation Cup to get ready. We had a plan to show ourselves in our best light at Devon, and now we’ve had to re-strategize what the summer will look like to make sure our riders are building themselves up and preparing for the next championship. We are constantly working toward the next goal, and I believe our size helps us accomplish that with success.
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 nearly three decades. 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.