Ask Andre: Do You Have to Spend the Entire Winter in Florida to Have Success as a Rider?

Dottie Barnwell Areson. Photo by Tyler Bui

BY Andre Dignelli

Our program at Heritage Farm is akin to a tree, and the Winter Warriors are the roots of that tree.

You can’t get good at anything without having access to it, and in 2016 we had this idea that we needed to leave our doors open at our base in Katonah, NY year-round, even during the winter months. The Florida show circuit was becoming longer and all-encompassing, and for our younger and less experienced riders, it was cumbersome to make that commute to have access to our horses and our training.

We understand that not everyone can migrate to Florida for five months of the year. Many of our riders attend brick and mortar school; have full-time, in-person jobs; and have families—spouses, children, siblings. So, we put Dottie Barnwell Areson at the helm, and the Winter Warrior program has grown by leaps and bounds. Families no longer need to be in Florida for months at a time to learn how to ride or to ride with us, but given that we also own a farm in Florida, they can make that trip for whatever amount of time suits them. There’s a flexibility to come and go to Florida as you please; it’s the best of both worlds.

The Winter Warriors has become Heritage Farm’s feeder program, and we know that it’s working because of the success we’re having at high-level events and championships. Erin Morera rode to the Reserve Grand Pony Hunter Championship at the 2021 USEF Pony Finals, and this past fall, Maxine Boeding won the gymnastics phase of the USHJA Jumping Seat Medal Final, was second in the jumping phase and finished sixth overall.

That first year in 2016, there were about 12 horses in the Winter Warrior program. This year, there are nearly 50. There’s a huge benefit to being able to come to the barn and ride horses on a daily basis, as well as to showing locally in New York, where you can show in multiple classes in a day, go home to hone your skills and go back out and do it again—without the cost of being on the road at A rated shows, trying to learn the basics of riding.

That being said, we also understand the importance of having to be in Florida on the bigger stage—of going head to head with more advanced competition, of being faced with more technical courses, etc. At Heritage, we are able to cover both; we’re proud to be one of the few places where a rider can take his or her journey in the sport from start to finish. It’s not just about going from Short Stirrup to Big Eq classes: Heritage Riders can watch Kent Farrington in the Olympic Games and Lillie Keenan at the World Championships and know they came up the ranks here.

The path is so clearly defined. We have firmly set our roots, and every generation can see what the next rung on the tree looks like.

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.

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