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  • Writer's pictureCatie Staszak

Heritage Farm: The Professional's Choice

Natalie Jayne and Baylee McKeever. Photos by KIND Media, LLC.

In Thedinghausen, Germany, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum is a world away from her roots. The only female rider in history to reach the top of the World Jumping Rankings, Michaels-Beerbaum is most famous for her success while sporting the German flag, but her roots are American, having come up through the equitation system. “Here in America, I grew up in this system, and I know how good it is and how great it is in producing young riders,” Michaels-Beerbaum said. So, three years ago Michaels-Beerbaum established a new seasonal home at the Winter Equestrian Festival. Instead of navigating courses in the International Arena, she’s ringside at Pony Island, supporting her daughter Brianne as she contests the pony divisions. Brianne, 10, trains under the tutelage of Heritage Farm, who, over the course of the last three decades, has established itself as a go-to training destination for children of professionals in the sport, boasting a long line of successful professional collaborations. “I have so much respect for this group of families, for their contributions to the sport, the roles they play, and who they are,” said Heritage Farm head trainer Andre Dignelli. “I take so much pride in getting the opportunity to work with these children and give them the best chance at success. It’s rewarding. We’re all collaborating and sharing ideas, and we learn so much from each other.” Michaels-Beerbaum was connected with Heritage Farm’s Patricia Griffith at the recommendation of former Heritage student Lillie Keenan. Keenan and Michaels-Beerbaum remained in touch after Keenan purchased Michaels-Beerbaum’s mount Fibonacci in 2017. Fibonacci returned to Michaels-Beerbaum upon his retirement in 2019. That same year, Brianne began receiving instruction from Griffith. “There’s a whole different setup in Germany. Where we live, pony trainers are nonexistent,” Michaels-Beerbaum said. “I’m grateful for the three months of supervision she can get [in the U.S.] from someone else. I’m actively around, but it’s nice to watch her train with someone else and learn from someone else. It’s a wonderful opportunity.” Brianne has made the most of her seasonal stints in Wellington, climbing from the Children’s Pony to the Green Pony and Large Pony divisions aboard her main mount Rashinga, who travels with her from Germany. Michaels-Beerbaum originally scouted the mare to be a pony jumper, but Griffith saw the mare’s potential in the hunter ring and executed a highly successful career switch. In 2021, Brianne and Rashinga have so far recorded wins in the Large Pony Hunters and WIHS Pony Equitation. Brianne also made her debut in the Low Children’s Hunter division, her first foray into the show ring aboard a horse. “There’s an advantage in riding to learn from another professional with a different perspective on the sport,” Michaels-Beerbaum said. “I haven’t done hunters or equitation in so many years. It wouldn’t be my professional specialty now. It’s been really great [for Brianne], and she’s done well.”

Brianne Beerbaum and Rashinga, shown with Patricia Griffith, take home the Large Pony Hunter championship at the 2021 Winter Equestrian Festival. Photo Courtesy Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum.

Success at Every Stage

Natalie Jayne was eight years old when she began riding with Heritage. At 17, she enters her last junior year as a major contender for equitation’s biggest championships, having recorded wins aboard multiple mounts in nearly every equitation class on offer at WEF 2021.

Her mother Lynn has long operated the successful Our Day Farm out of Elgin, IL, but when Natalie began indicating she was ready to pursue the sport more seriously, Lynne sought out outside assistance, looking to establish a sense of separation between coach and parent.

“When you are a mom, you have so much to teach your child: the basics in life—manners, hygiene, responsibility, help with homework, household chores—the list goes on and on. You want your child to enjoy their sport, and an outside source helps to teach your child with a different tone and perspective,” Lynn said.

The Jaynes’ relationship with Heritage has evolved and strengthened over the years, with great success earned at every stage. Natalie rode small pony Blueberry Hill to the Grand Pony Hunter Championship at USEF Pony Finals in 2014. In 2020, Natalie received WEF’s Christy Conrad Perpetual Trophy for Equestrian Excellence, awarded to the junior rider who earns the most points in the USEF Medal, USEF Talent Search, ASPCA Maclay and WIHS Overall equitation classes throughout the circuit. This year, she is mounted aboard Heritage’s special equitation horse, Charisma.

“The collaboration has been key in [Natalie’s] success,” Lynn said. “I am a smaller operation and built my reputation about individualized programs with the help of one assistant. Heritage is a large operation with many trainers, and Natalie has been able to experience both sides of the business. The emotional part of the top competition and the high pressure situations work better when a parent can step aside to let someone who is not so personally invested make the ingate calmer. I am always there, and we definitely discuss the plans, but Heritage conveys them and puts them in motion.”

Natalie Jayne ringside with Andre. Photo by KIND Media, LLC.

Co-Developing Contenders

When it comes to qualifications, few industry professionals boast the accolades or the experience of Lee McKeever. After all, he’s been McLain Ward’s right hand for more than three decades, contributing to Olympic and World Championship gold medals, five-star grand prix titles, and a World Cup Finals victory.

But when Lee’s daughter Baylee receives instruction, Lee and wife Erica ship Baylee’s horse Salvatore from their home at Castle Hill to Heritage, where Baylee has trained for the last four years.

“When it’s your children, it can be hard to help them yourself. We reached out to Heritage, because it’s so close to us at home—it’s 10-15 minutes away,” Lee said. “It’s been a great experience. Patricia was unbelievable, and now Andre is helping her more and has taken it to the next level.”

When Baylee is in the ring, Lee and Erica are rarely far, but the parents maintain their role as such. Baylee, 16, kicked off her 2021 season with her first WEF Big Eq victory, topping Section B of the ASPCA Maclay during Week 4.

“It’s just great seeing Baylee grow as a person and as a rider. [Between] Heritage and getting experience with McLain, it’s the best of both worlds,” Lee said. “Every day, she learns something new. We’re very grateful to be working with Heritage and are looking forward to a great future.”

Baylee McKeever and Salvatore with Andre and Erica and Lee McKeever. Photo by KIND Media, LLC.

Competitors Turned Teammates

James Leone and Mark Leone, Jr. are the most recent junior riders with industry roots to ride with Heritage, joining the team from their family’s Ri-Arm Farm in July 2020. Their father, Mark Leone, Sr. was Dignelli’s peer in the show ring when the two professionals were coming up in the sport. Leone, Sr. made nearly 30 Nations Cup appearances with Team USA and competed in 10 World Cup Finals, while Dignelli won a bronze medal at the 1991 Pan American Games before turning his focus toward teaching.

“I’ve watched and marveled at Andre for last 25-plus years,” Leone, Sr. said. “He’s developed so many great riders with consistency through multiple generations. You think of Kent [Farrington], Lillie [Keenan], Tori [Colvin], and it guides you to think, That could be a good situation for my kid.

Mark Leone, Jr. receives guidance from Andre at the 2020 Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final. Photo by Taylor Pence/US Equestrian

Mark, Jr., 17, and James, 14 are garnering results despite a later introduction to equitation. James was among the top five 3’ riders at the New England Equitation Championships last fall and took runner-up honors in the THIS Children’s Medal 14 & Under this winter at WEF. Mark, Jr., meanwhile, finished eighth in the 2020 USHJA 3’3” Hunter Seat Medal Final and qualified for both the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final and the ASPCA Maclay National Championship last fall.

“Despite having expertise in field, it’s different when it comes to your children,” Leone, Sr. said. “You need a clear-headed perspective, some objectivity. I had to develop the confidence to let go of my kids and say, Here’s where we need to go. The reality is, there needs to be a higher expertise with someone you respect and can take it to the next level.

“Everyone has something to learn, he added. “I wouldn’t mind popping in for a lesson!”


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