By Andre Dignelli
In today’s sport, most people travel south for the winter circuit, and we do the same. Because you travel that long distance, it limits how much travel you want to do the rest of the year, when you’re closer to home.
There’s more of a need now than in the past to try to show somewhat regionally, to accommodate people wanting to live at home. Maybe they have other family members that they don’t want to or can’t leave for long periods of time. We’re already asking them to travel all winter long, so we’re trying to accommodate them in the other seasons by not traveling great distances.
So, when we map out our show schedule, location often is where we start. Then we look at the schedule. With a program like ours, we need something for everybody. We truly need classes from the short stirrup division to the Grand Prix, which is a wide spectrum. We need a horse show with many rings. Obviously, we need top footing.
A horse show has to be user friendly and, most importantly, horse friendly. There’s got to be enough room for stabling, enough warm-up areas. It’s difficult to go to a show where we are compromised in space.
Because we show in all those divisions, we’re dependent on a good time schedule. When we used to show two weeks out of a month and only eight months of 12, if a show ran all day and night, we were certainly more forgiving. Now that we’re showing all year round with different horses, we’re a little bit less forgiving to a bad schedule, when you have to start early and finish too late to accommodate the day.
In the rings, we look for good equipment. We’re trying to prepare for bigger events, so we need good jump equipment. You need a competent course designer. Do we go to a show based on who’s judging? I would say we don’t.
At a lower-level horse show, we look for practice classes—classes we can send riders in to get mileage, to get rounds under their belts, to make up young and less experienced horses. At a high-level show, we’re understanding that there are fewer practice classes. It’s more about championship quality. When we’re selecting a show, we ask: What are our needs? Do we have a group of younger kids, of new partnerships? In that case, we need a show with lots of practice rounds in the hunters and lower-level jumper classes. In other cases, we’re going to a championship show, where we’re trying to see how we stack up. Or, we’re going to a one-day show, where we’re trying to put in rounds in with young students in divisions like the short stirrup, or we’re trying to get points. Regardless of the level, we look for good footing and a good facility.
Just because the schedule is full throughout the year, doesn’t mean you have to attend all the shows on the calendar. You have to find gap weeks to freshen, to turn horses out, to rest, to go back and train, to work on the lessons learned in competition. We strategically planned off-weeks during our winter circuit, with a few more this spring in between weeks at Old Salem, Saratoga and Saugerties.
This year, because there was no Devon, we haven’t had a sort of championship, head-to-head outing for our students since the WEF Equitation Championship in March, so the Gladstone Cup has become more important to us than in other years. When you’re preparing for major championships, you need events to see how you measure up. So, we’ve given Brandywine a bigger place on our calendar, and that’s where we’re headed next.
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.