Ask Andre: What Are Your Greatest Takeaways from 2021?

Photo by KIND Media

By Andre Dignelli

As the world readies to begin a New Year in 2022, a new horse show year has already been underway for a month.

The city never sleeps, as they say, and that for sure has held true for us. We haven’t taken our foot off the gas. We’ve done a lot in December. The holidays are our one real opportunity to rest and reflect.

We were hoping that 2021 would bring a return to normalcy—or what we remembered as normal. 

  • In the winter season, the World Equestrian Center Equitation Championship was a wonderful addition to the calendar. It was a great place for people to have an event with a championship feel, with a championship course, and it was a great way for people to see that venue.
  • We’ve now gone two years without the Devon Horse Show. What has that done, if anything? Devon always had a championship feel, especially to people in the northeast. People would plan their entire seasons around qualifying for Devon. I think Devon prompted people to buy or lease horses specifically for the event. It remains to be seen what becomes of Devon in the coming year, but not having it definitely played a role in some people’s preparation for indoors, with there being a little bit of a void of a championship for that time of year.
  • It also played a real role in why the USEF Junior Hunter National Championships and the Gladstone Cup were so well attended. There were certainly many young riders who said, “There’s a chance I’ll never get to ride at Devon as a junior, and this is my opportunity.” In hindsight, that event became so big, it almost outgrew that venue.
  • Natalie Jayne winning the WEF Equitation Championship did a lot for her confidence, and we saw that throughout the season, with the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals — East being the highlight. The numbers (of entries) are on their way back up at those finals. I was worried that class had become a little too exclusive, but they lowered the jumps from 1.20m to 1.15m, and that made it more accessible; it became easier for riders to borrow a horse or to use their equitation horse. I continue to think that event is important. I think it’s important for junior riders to see that facility and to experience that atmosphere. It’s the closest step we have to a jumper championship or to the next level. When your equitation career is winding down, that final is sort of getting you closer to some of the higher levels of jumping. 

    I was happy to see the event back at Gladstone after a year away. I hope they continue having the event there for as long as possible. There’s a history there, and I think young people need to be aware of that history. That place exudes that. Unlike when a class is held somewhere else, at Gladstone, the weekend is all about those riders. There’s nothing else going on. They are the showcase, and that’s important. 
Longtime Heritage Farm student Natalie Jayne, riding Heritage Farm’s Charisma, won the 2021 USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East. Photo by KIND Media.
  • For the first time in many, many years, the Pennsylvania National Horse Show got a new look, or a facelift. Like with everything else, people are always a little bit worried about change, but I was happy to see the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final back at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex. We embraced the new look, and it was very well received. You could see the incredible attention to detail and the effort the new management put in. 

    That included showing in a secondary ring that we’ve never had before. At first, I would say it was met with skepticism, but it definitely made the weekend easier. You had an opportunity to show a little bit to see where you were at. A lot of times, we bring extra horses to these events, and it gave those extra horses a reason to be there. They could compete in those classes. In a lot of ways, it became a training tool in preparing for the Medal Finals. I haven’t decided if that’s for better or worse, but it made it easier to prepare for the actual class. It gave riders a practice round they didn’t have before to measure if their horse was quiet enough, or they could work out some of the little details. In our case, we had a few new partnerships competing, and those classes gave them a round to get to know each other a little bit. We hope the show continues to improve, but I think they brought some new life back to the show.
Skylar Wireman rode Heritage Farm’s Fix Blue to the Reserve Championship in the WIHS Equitation Championship. Photo by Shawn McMillen
  • In the fall, the weather can be very cold, and that’s challenging, particularly at venues like Tryon, which hosted the Washington International Horse Show for a second year, and the Kentucky Horse Park, home to the National Horse Show. Even though the National is an indoor event, the equitation riders spend 90 percent of their time outside, in stabling or schooling. For people that ride at the National in the hunter or high-level jumper divisions, their experience is different from those in the equitation. Those riders, trainers and staff are basically freezing outside during crazy hours of the morning and night. Unless these events are run at a different time of year, these are variables you can’t change, but it’s very hard for these shows to be overly well received when there are so many people freezing. I would love to see that explored.

    It’s worth noting that when it comes to the course at the ASPCA Maclay National Championships, we’ve grown accustomed to, specific to [course designer] Bobby Murphy, very elaborate jump decoration. I think this has added an element to my job as both a teacher and a horse finder. You know now that you’re going to go there, and there are going to be jumps that, visually, you haven’t seen before. You not only need a well-schooled horse to succeed in that class, but you also need a brave horse. You have to make an effort to have some of those jumps or to build some of that equipment, which seems to be ever-changing. It’s also awesome. Regardless of the technicality of the course, the jump design plays a big role in the outcome of that championship. Those training barns that don’t have that kind of equipment are at a real disadvantage going there. I would say that, with the exception of an occasional hunter derby, there are probably not too many other ways to simulate those fences until you build them yourself.

What typically happens after all those shows are over—the day Maclay Finals ends—we’re sort of resetting the clock. How do we do this better? How do we fulfill the needs for next year? 

The horses take a break, but our mental capacity goes right into the next season. We made our third trip within a six-month span to fulfill what we thought were a lot of horse needs that we had for the upcoming season. I’m finding that it’s become challenging to get all of the horses we found on planes to get here to the United States. With the resurgence of COVID-19, there are restrictions again on some travel. We were just putting our masks away, and now they are back out.

December was filled with meetings with our students and their families to assess: One year to date, did we achieve what we wanted to achieve? We look back, we look current and we look forward. That sort of happens with every family that rides with us.

Before you know it, we’re home at our farm in Katonah, NY, and we realize the weather is changing. The next thing on your mind is coming to Wellington, FL. We have a farm here, so we came early. I think a lot of people are coming early. By doing so, we’ve done a tremendous amount of business. We’re training and showing horses that didn’t get as much attention this fall. We’re meeting with new clients. 

Of course, we also have our “Winter Warrior” program for our younger riders as well as for riders unable to travel to Wellington. Our base is very big, which has always been our strong suit. The kids that have ridden with us from the beginning of their careers and stayed through with us to the higher levels of the sport have always been our hallmark, and that continues. 

We all know the negatives of COVID, but the positive is that it gave both junior and amateur riders alike, who suddenly were either working or studying virtually from home, the opportunity to be immersed in the sport in a way that they hadn’t before. That was the upside. A lot of people, instead of taking their vacations and traveling and doing other activities, felt reasonably safe going to horse shows and being outside and continuing to do the sport that they love.    

Even though everything going on in the world is scary, what’s going on in the horse world is exciting. Business is stronger than ever. People want to ride, to train, to show, to learn.  

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