It’s not just about the ribbons. It’s about the partnership. And some riders are lucky enough to find that horse of a lifetime that warms the heart as well as shines in the show ring.
Sheila Ann Sadighi of Essex, N.J., has her horse of a lifetime. She loves him not only because of their ribbons in the jumper ring, competing at venues she only dreamed of as a child, but even more so for the giant personality in his relatively small equine body and the lessons he teaches her as an adult amateur coming back to the show ring after decades away from riding.
Sadighi and Ulano, a 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Celano—Karmijn) just came back from the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Zones 1 & 2 Jumper Team Championships at Princeton Show Jumping Fall, held Sept. 21-24 in Princeton, N.J., where they won the Zone 2 individual gold in the 1.10/1.15-meter adult amateur jumpers.
Sadighi is an attorney and spends her weekdays as a partner in Lowenstein Sandler’s Litigation Department practicing in securities litigation and enforcement. The company has offices in Manhattan and Roseland, N.J., but weekends are when she has time to spend with Ulano, known around the barn as Vinny, or as Sadighi calls him, Vinny Sloberino, referencing the television show Welcome Back Kotter and the character of Vinny Barbarino, played by John Travolta.
“Vinny is a dog in a horse’s body,” Sadighi said with a laugh. “He has the biggest personality, he’s all heart. If you get the right itch spot, he drools.”
Of his jumping, she said, “He does not have textbook form, but he knows the job and leaves the rails up. He jumps extra high so he can dangle his legs. I’ve shown him photos and told him, ‘If you don’t do that, you don’t have to jump that high.’ ”
Sadighi rode as a kid and through college, taking a 24-year break before making a comeback to riding and the show ring.
Now nearing age 46, she looks back at that time as a junior and remembers being a “jumper minded” rider but without the number of jumper classes that shows now have to choose from. She remembers coming up through the pony equitation classes and later agreeing to do the Medal and Maclay classes just so she could do the schooling jumpers as preparation.
At the time, she rode with Sally Hart at Overmeade Farm in western Massachusetts, where she said she is grateful she learned the fundamentals of flatwork and horse care.
When she was 14 she got the horse she thought was her horse of a lifetime, Azuki, a Belgian Warmblood who she owned from when he was 10 until he died at age 33 after retiring while she was in college. He was nothing like Vinny, yet both were horses of a lifetime.
“I can’t believe I got a second horse of lifetime,” she says of Vinny. And she now has a second chance at the sport she is passionate about.
She competes with Vinny at venues such as Devon (Pa.) and HITS Saugerties (N.Y.) where she never would have dreamed she could go as a child. As a kid, the idea of riding at Devon was like getting to the Olympics.
Sadighi got her start again after taking her daughter Leyla, now 11, to lessons to see if she’d like it. This was about five years ago, and soon Sheila discovered it was she herself who wanted to ride.
“I started riding a school horse and taking lessons once a week, and once you have the bug, you never really lose it,” she said. Then a college friend doing the adult amateurs won her zone championships and Sheila saw the course in the USHJA’s In Stride magazine. She realized she missed not just riding, but competing.
She started window-shopping and looking online, and when she saw Vinny, something clicked.
Vinny was in upstate New York, a good six hours away, but Sheila said to her trainer, “I know this is the horse, call and have them ship him down,” saying she’d commit to a one-month lease just to bring him down.
“I hadn’t jumped three feet in 25 years,” she said. “He jumped me loose.” She didn’t care, and a match was made.
Her trainer, Alexandra Fierro, is a “fantastic horsewoman,” who prioritizes the horse but also understands the demands on Sheila as a mother and attorney.
“I’m 46. She’s not going to fix how my toes turn out,” Sheila said. “She knows I’m on my own plan for a lot of things; she’s a great sport.”
Sheila now owns Vinney, who she said tops out at 15.3¼ .
“He totally gets it,” she said. “He hears the buzzer and is ready to go.”
She calls Vinny a “Thoroughbred in disguise,” adjustable, fun and handy, who will always go and will jump from anywhere. But he’s first and foremost a beloved pet and family member.
Sheila and Vinny’s accomplishments, in addition to the recent zone championships, include the circuit championship for the high adult jumpers, 36 & over division at HITS Saugerties in 2015 and winning the $3,000 High Adult Amateur Jumper Classic at Devon in 2016.
As for where the pair are going next, Sheila says she plans to stick with the 1.10-/1.15-meter jumpers since Vinny is 16 and she cares more about his long-term happiness than jumping bigger. And, she points out, because of his unique style, he jumps as if he’s going 1.30 meters to get clean over the fences.
Moreover, Sheila is a full-time lawyer, without a lot of spare time. “I don’t ride every day, I don’t go to Florida for the winter,” she said. Sheila does about 12 shows a year and doesn’t show from October through April. “I’m a professional amateur; I’m consistent in my inconsistency!” she said.
Sheila keeps Vinny at Fierro’s Veritas Farms about 35 miles away and does her riding on the weekends—most of it out on trails and rarely in the arena, she said. She’s tried to ride one or two other days a week, but there are times when she’s only a weekend rider.
It’s a kind of therapy, Sheila says, of leaving the city behind, going on a trail ride, and grooming her horse. “I like to groom him, hang out with him, tack him up, see if there are any changes,” she said.
The rest of the week, Fierro ensures Vinny is in a program keeping him fit and prepared. It helps that Sheila and Fierro’s husband Brandon work at the same law firm. She’s been known to tease Brandon, “Worlds collide, like Seinfeld.” They discovered the connection back when Leyla first took lessons with Alexandra.
Sheila supplements her riding with her study of the discipline. “I’ve always been such a fan of the sport; I love to soak up all I can about theory,” she said. She reads everything from Steinkraus to George Morris, and walks every course at every show. While she can’t attend Florida’s Winter Equestrian Festival, she watches the livestream every night.
She is grateful for having the opportunity, the partner, and trainer and family support from her daughter and boyfriend, and she “doesn’t take a single second for granted.
“I’m so thankful to have this horse and finally have that perspective and that life experience and mental ability to put together all those pieces you build on over your life,” Sheila said of her return to riding. “It’s very humbling and makes me be a better mother and lawyer.”
Vinny and her riding teach Sheila lessons in patience. “I’m a control freak and type A, but riding provides a mental balance. It really always reinforces that lesson that you can’t control everything, all you can do is the best you can do,” she said. “There’s a lot of luck in this sport. You can put in your best effort and have an unlucky rails and that’s OK. You can be happy with your horse and riding.”