by Jane K. Dove
Basking in the bright glow of a perfect autumn afternoon, the meticulously maintained Heritage Farm in Somers bustles with equine and human activity.
Horses and riders come and go along the pathways linking the immaculate barns and indoor and outdoor riding rings. A Welsh pony works out on a treadmill under the watchful eye of a groom. Riders practice equitation in the large indoor riding ring. And, at the hub of it all, renowned trainer Andre Dignelli commands the central outdoor riding ring, schooling his clients over jumps for a crucial upcoming United States Equestrian Team (USET) competition in Gladstone, N.J.
Andre’s older brother, Michael, looks upon the scene with justifiable pride.
“Andre and I have shared a focus and a passion for horses that started in childhood and has grown stronger over the years. You are looking at the result of our joint efforts.”
Those efforts had their origins right here.
“We grew up in southern Westchester County, not far away from the Pelham Bit Stables,” Michael said. “Both of us rode there as kids and worked in the barn. We developed a real love of what we were doing and somehow convinced our parents to move north, which they did, to Cortlandt. We finally had a small amount of acreage and converted some buildings on the property to a backyard barn. We also put up some fencing for two horses and a pony.”
As they grew a bit older, the two boys, nine years apart in age, started riding in local shows, paid for by funds from a small riding lesson business they had started on their family’s property.
“It soon became apparent when Andre entered his teens that he had real talent as a rider,” Michael said. “I knew that to go to the next level we needed an excellent trainer, even though we were on a shoestring budget.”
Michael took the lead, visiting several large establishments in the area and finally found the mentor they needed in Judy Richter, who headed the well-known Coker Farm in Bedford.
Under Richter’s skilled tutelage, Andre quickly advanced, winning the USET competition in 1985 on a jumper she loaned him for the event. He was 18 and his future career was launched.
Andre went to work at Coker Farm as a trainer and rode competitively for several years. He was ranked number three in the United States and number 26 in the world and was part of the Equestrian Team, winning a bronze medal in the Pan Am games.
While Andre’s equestrian career was blooming, Michael had taken a different route.
“I married, had two children and was running a dry cleaning and tailoring business in Chappaqua,” he said. “But the idea of working with my brother to achieve our childhood dream of our own large, successful farm never left my mind.”
Richter was in full support of the idea.
“She encouraged Andre to go to the next level and open his own business, giving him the chance to start out of Coker Farm. He took advantage of her generous offer and trained clients at Coker Farm for a while. But both of us still really wanted our own independent facility.”
Dream to reality
Michael began scouting out properties and in 1994 found the site that is now Heritage Farm.
“Even though it was run-down, we saw the potential and purchased it a year later with the help of a loan from the Small Business Administration,” he said.
Realizing the enormous task that was before them, Michael decided to keep the dry cleaning business going while they worked on renovating the farm.
“I had a wife and two sons to support and felt more comfortable keeping it operating. My wife was a big help,”
Fortunately, Andre was becoming increasingly sought after as a trainer and had developed a reputation for guiding his students on to win major national competitions. The clients kept on coming, the business kept on growing and major renovations were completed, creating a magnificent facility.
Horse lover’s paradise
Today, Heritage Farm is one of the premier establishments in the area.
The 40-acre farm can board 104 horses and has 45 staff members, including top trainers and professional riders Patricia Griffith, Laena Ramond, Dottie Barnwald and Erin Stewart.
The Dignelli brothers have spent a substantial sum renovating the existing barns, rings and paddocks to perfection and adding on when needed.
“We have a crew of groundskeepers that constantly groom the facility,” Michael said. “Business and property management is my end of the operation, and I am meticulous about physical maintenance. I want everything in perfect condition at all times. My goal is to have anyone who visits Heritage Farm say, ‘This is the place I want to ride.’”
A walk around Heritage Farm reveals the fruits of the brothers’ hard work.
A large indoor riding ring, two outdoor rings set with colorful, freshly painted jumps and a grass Grand Prix jumping field provide more than ample room for training for local and national events. The interconnected yellow barns are immaculate and have large box stalls for clients’ mounts. The brothers have additional stabling for horses they buy and sell.
Adjacent paddocks are enclosed by classic horse fencing, and walkways have plenty of deep footing for horses and humans alike.
Inside the barn complex, a comfortably furnished lounge area is separated from the indoor riding ring by a large plate glass window. Several tack rooms for everyday and competitive equipment and horse washing stalls, complete with overhead heat lamps for drying, are a few of the other features at Heritage Farm.
Michael lives on the property with his wife, Joanne, and sons, Justin, 24 and Dean, 22, in a stately colonial home overlooking the Grand Prix field.
“I am pleased with the way everything looks, but it is still a work in progress,” Michael said. “We are always looking toward improvements.”
A partnership that works
Looking back over the road that led them to Heritage Farm, Michael said he and his brother have had a solid partnership since childhood.
“Andre was always very driven and focused from the time he started riding,” Michael said. “I have been happy to help foster his talents and help bring us to the level where we are today. Now he does the horses, and I do the business end. It works to keep the ball rolling.”
Michael said the partnership could not have worked out without their mutual drive, determination and dedication.
“We are both passionate about what we do and both of us love the lifestyle. It’s a lot of work, but very rewarding.”
Michael said he is very proud of his younger brother and gratified that he now has the recognition he believes is so well-deserved.
“Andre has walked the walk. He’s done it. He is incredibly responsible and a very positive role model. He serves as a mentor in many of his students’ lives and is totally dedicated to what he does. He has earned every bit of what he has achieved.”