By Andre Dignelli
When I was younger, my mentor Judy Richter used to say to me: We mistake quantity for quality. At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant by that. I heard it, but I didn’t really absorb it. It was not until later in my career when I really understood what she was trying to say.
At Heritage, my team sits down at the end of the year/beginning of a new show year with each of our students and their families, where we’re saying, ‘Where do want to be a year from now?’ You have to have goals, some long-term and some short-term, and you have to create a show schedule that allows you to successfully—or what you hope is successfully—achieve those goals. You’re picking out shows that either have an atmosphere or a venue of some similarity to the championship event you’re trying to go; are close to home; or offer classes that you think you may need—or a combination of these factors. At the start of the year, that’s what we are doing at Heritage. We try to create a roadmap for each and every customer that will allow them to feel like they can reach these goals—or exceed them. We’re not showing just to show.
Because what I’ve found is that we’ve become a little bit of a society where when we’re not showing, we’re not practicing. When you’re not showing, it is not the moment to disappear or to take your foot off the gas. If I go to big event, and I don’t receive the results I was looking for, I come home and have to reassess: Do I have the right horses? Is this the right program? Am I teaching the tools that are needed to get the results? I take a look at myself and say, ‘That didn’t go the way I wanted.’ I hate that feeling, and I immediately think about what I can do to make that change.
That’s sort of the overachiever in me and the underdog mentality that is still ingrained in my own mind. It’s that fear of failing. I was that kid that didn’t want to go to school without doing my homework, and today I don’t want to go to a show without doing my homework. The kids I most admire are the kids that are telling their parents, ‘I don’t want to go on vacation. I don’t want to miss a day of riding.’ I don’t want to go to an event unprepared, and I love hearing that in Division 1 athletics, if you don’t go to practice, you don’t play. That’s the mindset we should be instilling.
To that note, I think it’s very important, and I’ve always said this, that you identify: Are you in this for sport? For recreation? Or somewhere in between? You need to be very honest with yourself about where you fit into that spectrum.
The sport is bigger than ever, which is a great, healthy thing. I think we’re of the mindset that, if you’re fortunate enough and can have enough horses, you don’t have to stop showing. The problem is, there’s only a certain amount of learning that is happening when you’re just competing. The art of learning how to compete is indeed an art: There’s an atmosphere, there are pressures, there are times allowed, and there are demands that come with showing that you can’t replicate. But it’s impossible to hone the skills for you and your horse over a single schooling fence in what has become an increasingly smaller schooling area.
There is no training happening there; you’re doing a quick warm-up to get ready for an event. In fact, that’s the opposite of training. It’s no different from running a marathon without jogging every day. We treat ourselves as athletes, just as we treat horses like athletes. That means, there is a need for downtime, for rest, for breaks, both physically and mentally. The learning begins at home— the classroom—and we have to get back to that. We’re developing horses, developing riders, developing horsemen.
Being home is an opportunity for kids or adults to interact with their horses and to ride them when they are not perfectly prepared. It’s the few times that we get to ride when we’re not in a rush. I think people will find that by showing less, their results will be better. Their horses will be sounder and happier. You’ll spend less money and get more for it, because you’ll show less often and have greater reward when you do. Then, showing will come back to meaning something instead of just being about going to the next event.
I believe in having a minimum of two weeks off between shows; I believe in a let-down and build back up process. I don’t like to show a horse more than two weeks in a row. I know that when I created that formula, which started years ago, even with the winter circuit, it was frowned upon. People said, ‘How are you going to pull that off?’ I think people have learned that it works and it’s the right way to do it. I’ve had to stand my ground many times, but horses are not machines. We have to look after them a certain way. Even when you do have the resources, it’s not as easy to find another wonder horse as you might think.
You can also go to the show and not show. Always be mindful that there are free lessons all around us. Watch the schooling area, watch what people do, watch people show, watch people give lessons. If you have one horse or don’t have a horse and want to keep learning, watch lessons being taught, and observe what’s happening. You can learn just by being around it. You don’t have to show every week.
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. Follow Heritage at @HeritageFarm.