Road To The Finals: Small But Mighty

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By Jennifer M. Keeler

Every year when riders and horses from across the country gather in Lexington, KY, for the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, they not only bring top performances to the Alltech Arena – they also bring amazing stories. From overcoming tough odds, facing life’s daily challenges, healing from medical and veterinary conditions, or simply being the unlikely underdog, the tales which unfold at the Finals are nothing short of inspiring.

Back by popular demand, USDF’s exclusive series titled “Road to the Finals” will once again share competitors’ stories as they try to earn a ticket to the Kentucky Horse Park on November 9-12, 2017. Each month a different rider from across the country will allow readers behind-the-scenes access as they pursue their dreams of competing with the best of the best at the Finals. This month you’ll meet Ana DiGironimo of New Jersey.

Small but Mighty
Ana DiGironimo & Anna Mariah C
Pilesgrove, New Jersey (Region 8)

Ana DiGironimo first sat in the saddle at the tender age of three and never looked back. As a child, she had an avid desire to learn and succeed and became involved in her local Fox and Hounds Pony Club (for which now, as an adult, DiGironimo is the dressage coordinator). By age 10, Ana participated in her first North East Junior Young Rider championship, now known as Lendon Gray’s Youth Dressage Festival, where she met Gray and a special journey began. As a huge pony advocate, Gray prepared a young DiGironimo to participate in the first ever CDI FEI Pony competition held at Port Jarvis, NY.

Ana and Anna Mariah, Dressage level champion at NJHANA All Arabian Horse Show

As a diminutive rider, DiGironimo felt right at home on ponies from the beginning. She continued to develop as a rider under the watchful eye of Gray with her mounts including Orion, Cadanz and Gray’s own Ballywhim Arden Mor. Throughout a stellar junior/young rider career, DiGironimo was undefeated in the Great American/USDF Regional Championships from 2000-2008 from Training Level through Intermediaire I. She participated in national championships and FEI competitions and was a member of the Region 1 team at the NAYRC from 2006-2007, and was crowned as champion of the 13 & under Dressage Seat Medal Final and reserve champion the following year for the 14-18 division.

After earning college degrees in psychology and speech language pathology, DiGironimo (now 27) returned to the competition ring as an adult and has been equally successful: as a Grand Prix rider and trainer and USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold Medalist, she owns and operates DQ Performance Horses, a full-service training facility in southern New Jersey with a variety of clients from beginners of dressage to Grand Prix.

“We have a bit of everything including our token hunter rider,” DiGironimo laughed. “We cater to each rider’s goals, and our number one priority is for everyone to learn and enjoy her horse. It’s been such a blessing and wonderful experience; and when my students succeed, I feel like I succeed. I truly enjoy helping to bring out the best in each rider, and just having fun.”

In addition to training and coaching, DiGironimo still finds time to ride and compete herself, and one of her most charismatic mounts is her eight-year-old, 14.2-hand black roan Arabian mare Anna Mariah C++. At first, it was an unlikely pairing. “When I first saw ‘AM’ in a field, I could see that she was beautiful but was told that she could be quite difficult,” DiGironimo explained. “I said, ‘I’ll ride her!’ They were right –she was very strong and opinionated, but I felt like we had a connection from the start. I was her last chance as a rider – if it didn’t work she was going to get bred, and when I heard that I was even more determined to make her into a dressage horse!”

As DiGironimo embraced her new training project, she realized it would be a slow road to the winner’s circle. “We spent the first three months just walking and trotting around, getting her to relax, developing a feel for one another, and working to correct past issues she had in her training,” she said. “Only when AM trusted me were we able to move ahead.” DiGironimo’s patience paid off: after showing their first year at Intro, Training and First Level, the pair took home a Top Ten placing for First Level at Arabian Nationals in Raleigh, NC. “By that time I was hooked on this feisty little mare,” DiGironimo noted. “I continued to train her, and had the opportunity in October of last year to purchase her from her previous owner. I jumped at the chance.” 

With big plans for her small mount, DiGironimo had her new mare officially measured and discovered she not only had a super partner, but a super PONY on her hands, so next stop was a road trip to the National Dressage Pony Cup Championship Show in Lexington, KY, in July. “We whipped together a Third Level musical freestyle in 10 days and off we went,” DiGironimo explained. “I still work with Lendon, so she prepped us just as we left for our journey to the Kentucky Horse Park. We made quite an impression with our Wizard of Oz freestyle and WON! I was so proud of her – with such little practice she danced into the judges’ hearts like I always hoped she could.” 

While at the Pony Cup, a friend encouraged DiGironimo to think bigger: pursue qualifying for the US Dressage Finals in November. “I thought it would be cool to compete there as one of the only professionals on a pony, but also on a non-warmblood,” said DiGironimo. “But of course we had to earn an invitation through Regionals where I knew the competition would be tough. With vigorous preparation and seeing Lendon [Gray] just two weeks before Regionals, I knew we were ready. We’d come so far in just a few months with this insane goal of going ‘all the way’, but I had to try.”

So DiGironimo and AM joined the nearly 700 horses in attendance at the Great American/USDF Region 8 Championships and NEDA Fall Festival in Saugerties, NY, on September 21-14, hoping to punch their ticket for the trip of a lifetime. “We got to Regionals and had super warm ups, and I had changed our freestyle before the show thinking I could gain points on the technical side and degree of difficulty,” she explained. “But I was wrong: our warmup freestyle test was five points below our average for our old one. So with less than 24 hours until our championship ride, I went back to the drawing board.”

DiGironimo trusted her gut and went with what she knew would work, and her decision paid off: despite stiff competition and being the only Arabian pony in the class, the magic of their charming Wizard of Oz music and the elegant pair’s talent paid off as they were rewarded with a score of 68.300% and fifth place – less than one point from the reserve championship and successfully earning a coveted wild card invitation to the Finals.

“To say I was thrilled is an understatement,” said DiGironimo. “I rode my best and left it all in the ring for the judges to decide where we stand. Now ‘we’re off to see the wizard’ in Kentucky and I am so proud to be representing not only Arabians, but also ponies at US Dressage Finals next month; and if we’re lucky and click our heels three times, we may just be able to pull off a miracle.”

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