By Andre Dignelli
My answer to this question might surprise you. In short, my answer is “No, it is not.” But here’s why everyone is trying to follow this formula:
It’s been ingrained in every child’s brain that the roadmap to success is by way of the equitation division. It’s the notion of tradition. History has proven that success in the equitation has led to the Olympic Games, hunter championships, prominent careers in the industry, and most recently, recruitment to a Division 1 college athletics program.
I would say that I’ve always believed it was the way. There was a formula: The American system entailed learning to ride in the hunter divisions before progressing to the equitation, which was the steppingstone to all things possible. I still do believe that. Just look at this year’s U.S. World Championship team: Three of the five riders won an equitation final, and the fourth rider was a competitor. I’m proud to say that two of those riders—Lillie Keenan and Adrienne Sternlicht—trained with Heritage.
But as I’ve matured and as I’ve gotten older—and hopefully wiser—I’ve also realized that good riding is good riding, and that can be achieved in any division. Now it’s probably been proven just as many times that people have been successful without it.
I think that the equitation has its place in every rider’s education. For sure, I know what it’s done for me and countless others that I’ve taught, whether they took it to the top and are names that you know or they used it as a way to be proficient in other divisions or even just to ride safely recreationally. It’s played a big learning tool in my program and in many riders’ successes. I don’t see a negative, other than that for some riders, if you stay in the division too long, it can become frustrating.
The equitation is a challenging division in which to excel, and I’ve learned that it’s not for every child. At some point, there’s a beauty pageant of sorts to it. It can be hard for many young riders to advance past a certain point if they don’t have the resources for a horse that’s going to help them be competitive at its highest levels.
The equitation has become more than just a division: I think the Finals have taken on a life of their own, which is a great thing. No other division for young people has captured that. The history and the hype and promotion of those events has led to what we have today, where kids dream of riding in them. These experiences teach young people how to handle pressures, among many other great life lessons. If the other divisions worked as hard to create similar platforms, we might be having a different conversation.
There is no hunter championship for a young person that means as much as winning the Medal Finals. NAYC is catching on for young jumper riders, but you can’t put those championships in quite the same category at the moment.
I can teach you to ride in any of the divisions. The sport has evolved. You can’t forget that until the last decade or so, most prominent professionals rode hunters and jumpers equally as well (I think of Rodney Jenkins, Leslie Burr Howard and Katie Monahan Prudent). As of late, the prominent professionals in our sport—at least, those that are riding at the Olympic level—don’t ride hunters.
There can be this feeling as well for riders that start in the equitation a bit later in their junior years, that there’s a clock that runs out once they turn 18. We’ve seen over the course of the last couple years that there’s been an extension now: The number of equitation finals now available for adult amateur riders seems to increase by the year. People love the feeling that the equitation offers them this big year-end goal that gets a lot of attention.
Should these other divisions be marketing themselves in the same manner as the equitation? I say that the answer is yes. If winning a hunter or jumper final got you into a Division 1 school, got you an all-but-guaranteed job in the industry, and made you a household name, more people would ride in them. It’s been ingrained in us that those that win the equitation finals are the best riders in our country.
I think other divisions should learn from that, because when it comes to pathways in our sport, nothing is ‘One size fits all.’
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.