By Catie Staszak/Catie Staszak Media, Inc.
In Natalie Jayne’s earliest years riding with Heritage Farm, head trainer Andre Dignelli recalled that his biggest criticism of the young talent was that she didn’t ride with enough connection.
But after the now 17-year-old Jayne rode to the top of the 2021 USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East, Dignelli couldn’t help but think it was Jayne’s soft riding that led her to the top of the class.
“[She had] four solid rounds [in the ride-off], beautiful style, and a softness and ease about the way she approached it,” Dignelli said. “We joked after the class was over: ‘For all the years of harping on you to touch the reins, to have more pressure and more connection, you won the class because you don’t touch the reins.’ She can hush or whisper the horse around, as well as or better than most.”
After three days of competition, Jayne, partnered with Heritage Farm’s Charisma, became the 10th student trained by Heritage to win the historic championship. Heritage Farm boasts 11 total wins in the class, including Dignelli’s own victory in 1985.
“This is a class that we have prioritized over the years, probably initially because of its importance in my own career and probably the role that I think this class plays in other kids’ careers,” Dignelli said. “We’ve built our program around being prepared and coming with the right horses. I think it’s notable to say that we brought 10 kids [to this final], some at the end of their junior careers and some at the start.”
They all received the same kind of preparation. Jayne’s week at the Gladstone, NJ championship began at Heritage Farm’s Katonah, NY base. Jayne, who herself bases out of her mother Lynn’s Our Day Farm in Elgin, IL, flew in to Katonah on Tuesday to join other Heritage riders in some final practice sessions.
“Andre set up courses from past finals and different gymnastics to make sure we were prepared,” Jayne said. “We jumped a course, and we did it a little similarly to how we did the horse switch [in the work-off]. We’d warm up, jump two jumps, and then jump a new course. There was a lot of preparation for everyone that went [to Gladstone]—the same preparation and the same courses.”
That preparation paid off in more ways than one. After a successful flat phase, Jayne walked the gymnastics phase of the competition and saw significant similarities to what she had practiced.
“I was walking with Austin [Krawitt], and we [said to each other], ‘Wow, we just jumped the exact same exercises preparing for it,'” Jayne said. The numbers [of strides] were different, but it was the same exercises.”
“My feeling with the gymnastics was this: It basically was a riding lesson,” Dignelli said. “[The course] asked, Can you go from collected to forward in the first line? Do you have a good understanding of track in the second “S” line? Are you able to demonstrate turning left and right? And in the follow-up line, Can you go forward to steady? Could you ride effectively to a water obstacle?”
“It was basically a riding lesson that I would teach or want to see, and that’s how I approached teaching the kids to execute it.”
Jayne entered the gymnastics phase in fifth place on a 90 score, and after the gymnastics, an 82.5 score placed her one position lower in sixth. Minor mistakes were made, but she was still very much in the running and had extra confidence in knowing her horse. Jayne has been riding Charisma for nearly two years.
“When you’re at an event where it’s scored, and you know after each phase where you stand and what the judges thought, it can go two ways. If you thought you did well and you score lower, it takes the wind out of your sails, but if you score in line with or better than you thought, it pumps you up and encourages you that they’re looking for you or like what they’ve seen,” Dignelli said. “I felt like that’s how they were scoring Natalie. She had good performances, but they were not perfect. Her scores showed that [the judges] were looking for her and liked what they saw.
“You could see mathematically that she was not that far out of the lead,” he continued. “We had a little conversation. I said, ‘Listen, if you lay it down, we know you have the ability, and especially with pairing with this horse, you can knock it out of the park and be in the hunt.”
In the jumping phase, Jayne and Charisma delivered. They set themselves apart, receiving an 89 from the judges—the second-highest score of the day. It moved the pair into third, earning them a place in the final four work-off. There, all riders entered the arena on a clean slate.
“What was most helpful for me was knowing it was a clean slate in the top four,” Jayne said. “I wasn’t worried about being behind, and I was confident in my abilities to ride the other horses, hopefully, nicely.”
The USEF Show Jumping Talent Search’s final four requires each of the riders to execute a course on their own horse before repeating the task on each of the other three riders’ horses. Jayne climbed closer to the top of the leaderboard with each ride, from Charisma to Dominic Gibbs’ Cent 15, Luke Jensen’s Conthacco and Audrey Shultz’s Mac One III.
“She had a stunning ride on Mac, and when she got off and came back to the line, I commented to her, ‘Whatever happens, you gave it your all. There’s nothing more in my opinion you could have done,'” Dignelli said.
The judges agreed. Jayne won the biggest championship of her still-young career, a most meaningful victory for Heritage Farm given that she has ridden with the operation since she was just seven years old.
“It was a full-circle moment,” Dignelli said. “From seven years old to this and all the stages and all the moments in between—it has just been unbelievable.”
“It didn’t really sink in right away, in all honesty!” Jayne exclaimed. “It’s starting to now. It means a lot [to win], especially [this] final. It’s one of the most difficult finals, one of the more important ones. A lot of riders have won that final and gone on to the Olympics or have become [top professionals]. It’s special for those reasons.”
Jayne, Charisma and the Heritage Farm team continue on to the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, Washington International Horse Show and National Horse Show to complete their indoor season.
“Natalie really embodies that Heritage is and what I’ve always wanted Heritage to be,” Dignelli said. “You could start riding with us—I have a lot of joy for the pony ring and getting kids started— and you could stay all the way through this and beyond.”
Previous Heritage Farm Champions
USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East
- 1985 – Andre Dignelli
- 1991 – Peter Lutz
- 1995 – Jackie McQuade
- 1997 – Ellie Ritch
- 2009 – Matthew Metell
- 2011 – Samantha Schaefer
- 2012 – Jacob Pope
- 2014 – Geoffrey Hesslink
- 2015 – Victoria Colvin
- 2019 – Daisy Farish
- 2021 – Natalie Jayne