Top equitation and hunter trainer Andre Dignelli has been producing national hunter, jumper and equitation champions for over 20 years. Over the last decade, Andre has produced an impressive roster of medal-winning Big Eq riders, including Lillie Keenan, who won of the 2011 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship and the 2013 ASPCA Maclay National Championship. He has also worked closely with riders who are now at the top of the sport including Tori Colvin, Reed Kessler, Kirsten Coe and Kent Farrington.
Andre came from a non-horsey family and along with his two brothers, convinced his parents to move to rural New York. They eventually talked their father into building a makeshift barn where the boys soon started their own boarding business.
Andre couldn’t afford to pay for lessons and so he learned from watching others. When he was 15, he took his Thoroughbred gelding to Judy Richter’s Coker Farm. Under Judy’s guidance, Andre qualified for the US Equestrian Team Show Jumping Talent Search Finals in 1985 at age 18, which he won riding Judy’s retired grand-prix jumper Dark Sonnet. Andre credits this win for forever changing his trajectory.
He went on to work for Judy as an assistant trainer and he rode her jumper Gaelic in two World Cup Finals and the 1991 Pan American Games where they earned a team bronze medal and placed fourth individually. That same year he co-trained Peter Lutz to wins in both the Maclay National Championship and the USET Finals. Andre decided to focus on teaching and in 1994, with his brother Michael, Andre bought Heritage Farm in New York and turned it into a state-of-the-art facility.
Andre has always been incredibly driven and his decades-long success can be attributed to his hard work, determination, attention to detail and his preparation skills. I caught up with Andre at the end of October at the Washington International Horse Show where we chatted about how he worked up through the ranks and made a name for himself in the horse world, how he built his business into what it is today and to what he attributes his success.
You can listen to the full interview wherever you get your podcasts, but in the meantime, here is a snippet of our conversation.
You came from a non-horsey family, how did you and your two brothers catch the horse bug?
My brothers are nine and 10 years older than I am and they convinced my parents to move from New Rochelle which is a sort of a suburb of New York City, to rural Cortland, New York. It was a big move for our family. My parents purchased 5fiveacres which we thought was a sprawling piece of property at the time because my older brothers decided that they really wanted to have horses and it was foreign to us. We started out with some horses in the back yard. I was only five or six at the time. I followed them around and they next thing you know, I was up on a pony and I liked it right away. It just started from a real backyard situation. We didn’t know what we were getting into and to think that it mushroomed into this is kind of incredible.
At what point did riding become something serious for you?
You know, I always kind of knew once I was shown this side of it with the competition and the horses. I liked it right away and from a very early age I was building barns with Lego sets and Lincoln Logs and I just sort of visualized this reality that has become my life. I wanted a barn and I wanted to have a ring and the jumps and that was sort of just the vision from a very early age. Somewhere around 12 or so I started to realize I was good at this. I loved the horses, but I had some sort of feel for it. I would go to local horse shows and I would do well and it motivated me. All my energy was focused on this. Early on I thought this might be something for me. It never felt like work, so that’s a good feeling. I just remember building those barns and painting barrels as jumps and I didn’t know it at the time but I was preparing myself for what was to come.
What made you decide to focus on teaching instead of competing?
I don’t know that it was this conscious decision. The way I understood the sport is in order for opportunities to happen for myself I had to basically make other people happy. I had to provide a good service. Teaching was my job, or part of my make up at Coker right from the beginning. In those years of that success, the same year I had success at the Pan Am Games, I had my first student win an equitation final. So it kind of went hand-in-hand right from the beginning and I just knew that in my eyes, that’s how it works in America that things could happen for me if I could provide a service for other people. So at a young age, I dreamed big and I wanted all of it. I knew that teaching was a huge part of the business. I learned that craft right away and I enjoyed it. I found it very rewarding.
I think the transition slowly started to change when I opened my own business because I understood that I really had to make ends meet and I had to have a real strong training business. With that, it probably cut into some time to compete on my own and cut into some resources to buy my own horses. It seemed really daunting to write checks for grand prix horses when I needed to put new fencing and buy new jumps and all those things. And then at some point in my early 30s, I was having a lot of back trouble, so riding all day was really difficult. I never stopped riding, I just started to slowly step away from competing. I for sure feel that my success wouldn’t be the same if I had never competed at the level I am trying to teach and in the rings that I’m trying to teach. I get as much joy working with a good rider on a small pony as working with a top rider in the grand prix and everywhere in between.
What would you say has contributed to your success?
I think I’m a product of a good system. I don’t think that I’m the world’s most gifted rider. I had to rely on a good system and a good work ethic. I taught myself and learned from others to be the best rider that I could be. I think I’m probably a better teacher. I’m a good listener. I feel like I’m at the shows and I’m always learning and taking in new ideas, so I’d say I’m open-minded. I also know that to be good at anything you have to put in 10,000 hours and I’m a product of that system—work ethic and one foot in front of the other. I have a very steady personality and I think that has been a huge bonus. I attribute a lot of the big successes to be, in a championship setting that I remain the same; I remain calm. When the emotions are very, very high, I have a way of keeping it very calm for everyone and I think that’s why my students have succeeded for years and years in all of these different championships. I don’t want to say that that’s been luck. Luck is once in a lifetime. That’s from that good system of being overprepared. I was a kid that didn’t want to go to school unless my homework was done. Smart? I’m not sure about smart—but a worker, definitely a worker and I think that’s my teaching style. My students know they can count on me.
I think it all boils down to fear. I think that I’ve always been afraid to either show up unprepared at school or show up at any show and win nothing. I think with all successful people the common thread for many is fear. If the fear goes away, the winning probably stops.
Do you have a favorite training exercise?
When I grew up at Coker, every day we would jump what Judy would call “puppy jumps,” which was her phrase for little fences. We have cavallettis in the ring and that’s pretty much a staple every day whether they are on the lowest setting or the highest setting. That simulation of stride control and practicing timing and track, I think that’s the staple. I often feel that the course gives the lesson. The course that I have in the ring is very thought out and it changes a lot. I call it changing the furniture.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
That it was okay to dream big. I’ve always been a real dreamer. I really believed that all the opportunities out there were not just for other people. Did I think that as a gay man at 52 that I could be married and have children—I don’t have children but the possibility of having children. I didn’t think that was going to exist for me. I had big dreams and I’m happy that everybody around me supported them and nurtured them but that I wasn’t afraid to dream big for myself. And that it’s all going to be okay. All the work and all of that was worth every bit of it—the sacrifice, the efforts.
About the Practical Horseman Podcast
The Practical Horseman podcast, which runs every other Friday, features conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts to inform, educate and inspire. It is co-hosted by Practical Horseman editors Sandy Oliynyk and Jocelyn Pierce. Upcoming episodes are with show-jumping Olympian Laura Kraut, World Equestrian Games team gold medalist Adrienne Sternlicht and top hunter and equitation trainer Frank Madden. Find the podcast at iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud or wherever you get your podcasts.