BY ANDRE DIGNELLI
I am certain of this: Judy Richter has been the biggest influence in my life and career.
I have enjoyed all of the photos and tributes shared on social media; and catching up and reminiscing with people that I interacted with and met during that time in my life—and I think Judy would have loved it, too.
I love that everyone is getting to hear about her. Generationally, things change, but I think it’s important for people to know her story. Without her, I believe there might not be a story for me, or my story would be very, very different.
Judy and I’s relationship spanned 40 years. More importantly, I think there was a deep connection between us. We texted and emailed, but we also met in person. We shared pictures and stories and ideas. When things weren’t perfect, we knew that nothing was going to happen that was bigger than us. I like to say that she saw me, and I saw her. We were open and honest; we communicated what we were feeling directly.
“I’m proud of you. You’ve made a difference in my life. I love you.” We always made time for each other. We were family.
I first started riding with Judy when I was 15. She’d say that she saw something in me, but I know what she really saw, at least physically: a young, 15-year-old, skinny kid who had big dreams and a bad riding outfit. I always tell the story of when I first started riding at Coker Farm, and the barn went to Lake Placid. Judy said, ‘Hey, I could use some help at the farm if you’re around.’ I said, ‘No problem,’ and for the two weeks of Lake Placid, I mucked 20 stalls a day and rode 10 horses. She would check in periodically, and she was aware that I was doing it, putting in the work. That was the initiation, and I passed.
What Judy did, was she created opportunity and possibility for me. It was on me to walk through the door and make something of that, but she opened that door for me.
It didn’t matter that we couldn’t have been more different. I was a young gay man trying to find my way, and she wore Lee jeans. She knew I was different, but she was respectful and encouraging. She was open-minded with me. She knew she’d toughen me up, and she did. I ended up working for Judy for 10 years.
A standout moment from our time together was two years into our relationship. I ran after her in the driveway at USET Finals when I was 17 to tell her I had made the ride-off. I remember, she rolled down her car window, smiled and said, ‘I guess I should park the car.’ That day and that victory sparked the next phase of our relationship.
I don’t know that I exuded some great talent, but I for sure didn’t cower at the work, and Judy appreciated that. She was a worker. She was the ‘boss lady’ in a time when I had not met or seen anybody like her. She was a tall, striking woman with an athletic build. There was just something about her. She was strong. She was like the Queen of Bedford, NY. But underneath that, there was also a warmth and a charm that she showed to me and to countless others.
There are so many memories and qualities that I could recall. Among them are her ‘Judy-isms.’ Many or most of them, I’m not going to be able to share publicly, but the people that know her best will think of them and smile.
She was also a dangerous woman with a sharpie. We didn’t have cell phones, so she carried a notepad and a sharpie in her pocket, always taking notes at the ring. She taught me how to be able to do all the aspects of running my own business, because she ran her business, and she could do it all. She was the consummate horsewoman.
On a more recent visit to see Judy, I met her at her house. She had her go-to lunch: a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. We sat and reminisced with our dogs on our laps. Looking around the room, her home appeared unchanged from my youth, aside from some new photos that were added to the walls. I remember sitting there and taking it all in. We swapped stories and enjoyed each other’s company, like we’d done many times before, but this time felt different. I knew that we were nearing one of our last visits, and when I stood to hug her, we both burst into tears. We mutually understood that what we had done together was meaningful and special and that we had made the very most of it.
Nobody has helped me more than Judy Richter did, and I never forgot it. Over the years, I’ve always said that to have success in this sport, you need someone to notice something in you. Judy did that for me and for many, many others, and I have tried so hard to pay that forward.
With Judy, if she saw that you had the dream and those stars in your eyes and were willing to work hard, and you could show her that she was making a difference by helping you, she would do anything for you. The same things hold true for me today.
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.