By Andre Dignelli
I watched the movie King Richard recently, and the film really resonated with me. For those unfamiliar with it, it tells the story of the meteoric rise of tennis playing sisters Venus and Serena Williams—through the eyes of their father/manager/coach, Richard Williams.
There is no doubting the immense talent of the Williams sisters. But the film leads you to wonder: Would their success have been possible—or as great—without the tireless support and promotion from their father?
I couldn’t help but notice some parallels within the horse show industry. I truly believe that every rider needs an advocate. This is not in reference to finances. This is in reference to fighting for opportunity.
I believe this because I understood how it helped me. Growing up, my brother Michael was my advocate. He was always asking, “What about Andre?” The squeaky wheel got the grease. Of course, it required my own hard work and dedication to the sport, but Mike always made sure I wasn’t forgotten. This brought opportunities my way sooner in my career than for other members of my staff. This is not to say that their families did not support them; they just were not in the trenches with them quite as much.
“I was at the barn several hours before I rode my first horse and several hours after I rode my last horse,” says Heritage Farm trainer Patricia Griffith. “I had to make my own opportunities. I always had horses to ride, but only until they were sold.”
“I didn’t know I could call up Heritage [when I was a junior rider],” says trainer Michael Andrade, who grew up in Heritage Farm’s hometown of Katonah, NY. “I was riding down the street—literally. I didn’t know there could be an opportunity for me [until later in life].”
King Richard brings the role of the advocate front and center. Whether it’s the Williams sisters, or someone like Tiger Woods—they had an advocate. In the 30-plus years I’ve worked in this business, I’ve sat with countless families that wanted that for their child and that child’s riding.
Pam Keenan did that for Lillie and is still involved with her Chansonette Farm. Susan McAlary (Maggie), Murray and Terri Kessler (Reed)…they constantly pushed for more opportunities, more rides. I see it now with mothers like Myrna Treuting for our working student, Alida Treuting, and Shayne Wireman for Skylar.
I believe these riders and their advocates can be influential in the careers of other junior riders coming up the ranks. It’s just another reason why success in this industry truly takes a village.
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