Ask Andre: How Important is the Horse to Championship Success?

Samantha Schaefer and Heritage Farm's Pioneer won the 2011 USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals—East

By Andre Dignelli

As the last equitation championship of the year was pinned at the National Horse Show, the first thought that came to my mind was this: None of this is possible without the right horse.

It’s a long season. Competing in all of the championships from the North American Junior Equitation Championship and the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals all the way through to the ASPCA Maclay National Championship might not even be possible with one horse. And if one horse is able to do it once, that horse is probably not up for doing it year after year.

Success in these championships, first and foremost, requires the ability to find the right horse—a horse that has the stride, the scope, the athleticism and the temperament. You then need the ability to train that horse, and most importantly, you need the ability to manage that horse and maintain them.

If you don’t ride in a program where you have access to this level of horse—and additional horses—you’re immediately at a disadvantage. If you do find the right horse, and then that horse is not up for the task, you don’t want to be left on the sidelines. Junior riders only have a finite amount of time to compete in these championships.

At Heritage, we’ve tried to safeguard this by establishing a feeder system. Myself and my team are always scouting for potential talent, and we buy all the horses that we think might fit the bill. Our horses typically start out in hunter classes or doing the 3’3” equitation divisions or schooling jumpers, and we bring them along, usually for about six months before they start to make a presence in their main division. Our staff rides them, and our working students get the opportunity to help bring them along. Some horses make it to the top—like Charisma and Fitz Blue—and others become nice Child and Adult Hunters, 3’3” equitation horses or do other jobs.

Horses only have so many jumps in them and so many years of peak performance. We’re very careful with that. Still, you can’t win championships without a lot of practice. We’re not practicing on Charisma. We have other horses to bring along, and it’s mutually beneficial when they come to championships and get valuable experience without necessarily competing.

Jacob Pope (left) and Lilli Keenan (right) rode Heritage Farm’s Uno to win in the ASPCA Maclay National Championship (2012) and WIHS Equitation Championship (2010), respectively.

We understand the goal. We are trying to produce national champions year after year. Looking back at the last 35 years at Heritage, most of the winning success stories we’ve had have come with students that rode horses that we brought along in this program. This year, one of our riders changed course to ride one of our horses the week of the event when her horse was not up for the task. Ahead of Maclay Regionals, we paired Heritage Farm’s Janus Union with Addison Reed, and they went on to get ribbons at both Medal and Maclay Finals.

Addison Reed and Heritage Farm’s Janus Union finished 7th and 11th, respectively, in the 2022 ASPCA Maclay National Championship and USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final.

Access to the right horses is complicated, let alone expensive. You need to make sure that you’re in a program or connected to program that can satisfy the demands of these championship tests.

We are only as good as our horses.

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.