Amina Sade’ Bursese says she was just learning her diagonals when she started riding Fiti AL, but 10 years later, she and the petite PRE stallion are cantering down centerline at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in CDI Grand Prix classes and holding their own.
“It’s been an amazing learning experience,” the adult amateur said. “When I ride the younger horses now I try to create what I have with him, and it’s been so nice having such a confident horse. It’s made me not have to worry about anything else, and that’s made competing fun for me.”
Bursese grew up in upstate New York, where her parents bred Spanish-Norman horses, a cross between Andalusians and Percherons, as a hobby. The family would sell the horses as foals, and Bursese was more interested in fashion at the time, anyway, so riding didn’t click for her—yet.
Bursese started her career with the fashion designer Ed Hardy in New York City, then moved to Paris when one of his designers, Christian Audigier, branched out on his own. She opened three stores for Audigier there, came home after nearly two years and was recruited by Chanel.
When horses finally crossed her mind again, she was thinking about using them in the entertainment business, not about riding them. Bursese had been intrigued by the entertainment business since watching the filming of “The Real Housewives Of New York,” where her aunt Sonja Morgan was a cast member. Later, when she was involved in a work project in which her company rented an Andalusian for a photo shoot, she realized it cost a lot of money to rent the horse and thought her family might be able to make some extra money by renting theirs.
Fancying Spanish breeds, she bought a 6-month-old PRE, Valentino, with the intention of training him for movies and photo shoots. She admits she had no idea where to start and didn’t realize a 6-month-old foal wasn’t ready to be trained.
She started looking for someone to train the foal and found Diego Gonzalez, a Mexican dressage rider who’d spent time in Spain and was living in California working for a breeder. He’d also trained two horses for the movie “Troy.” Bursese flew him to New York to see if he could help her with her horse.
“On his resume, all I saw was [the movie], and was like, ‘oh, he’s perfect!’ ” she said with a laugh. “He came and was like, ‘Well, your horse is 6 months old, so there’s not much I can do with it, and your other horses are really old lawn ornaments.’ ”
Even though training the foal in question proved to be a false start, her relationship with Gonzalez was not.
“When I met him, I instantly fell in love with him, and told my mom, ‘We can’t let him leave!’ ” she recalled. The two became a couple and married.
Gonzalez was interested in PREs, so he and Bursese started a business importing them from Spain in 2011, although Bursese said she was still a complete beginner with her riding at the time.
She learned the basics from one of Gonzalez’s students who had a lesson barn and also rode some of the imported sales horses, including “Fiti,” who had become too much for the client for whom they’d imported him.
“I didn’t think it was such a good idea, but my husband did!” she said with a laugh. “When I’m pretty sure he’s wrong, he ends up being right.”
“I don’t know if he just knew me and my temperament and my dedication to just, everything in life, but with a hot horse, and me being so patient—because he was the way he was, being Fiti—it taught me how to ride a lot differently than if I’d learned on another horse,” she continued. “I learned to be quiet and light and patient and all those things, and I think that really came from the horse and less being told. He was extremely patient with me. He was super forward, but I don’t know if he could just sense or feel that he needed to take care of me, but he never did anything too wrong.”
When the client decided to sell, her trainer Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel asked Gonzalez and Bursese to find Fiti a new rider. At that point, the couple had grown to love the petite stallion (Jondo—Lavanda II, Empaque), so they bought him back.
“He was, and still is, a super good horse, but he’s hot,” Bursese said. “As someone learning how to ride, it was really difficult, but also very good. At that point, I knew my posting diagonals, but it took a while to get that!”
“He’s just so special,” she added. “When he came from Spain he was very hot, but in a defensive way. He was not well-ridden—always trying to protect himself. It ended up being a perfect match. I would never put a horse like that with a beginner, but because he got to be in charge, it actually worked. He got confidence because he had to be the confident one. I wasn’t.”
Trained by her husband, as well as von Neumann-Cosel, Gary Rockwell and Lisa Wilcox, Bursese and Fiti progressed together from training/first level to Grand Prix.
“He really started to show the quality, gait- and temperament-wise, as he got more confident and as the work got harder because he’s so hot,” she said.
Once Fiti started showing some potential, the couple began breeding him, and Bursese says he got better under saddle as a result.
“When he had something to do, he was just happier,” she said. “That’s when we started the breeding with him. He got better with the breeding. Every stallion’s different, but it was more work and more jobs for him, and he got better. When he got to Grand Prix is when he started to shine the most. This is our third year. We’re finally starting to figure it out sometimes!”
At home, Fiti, now 18, does anything and everything, Bursese said.
“You can take him anywhere,” she said. “You can be at a show now and tomorrow take him on a trail ride with 10 other horses, and he just never bats an eye. It’s been an amazing learning experience. When I ride the younger horses now, I try to create what I have with him, and it’s been so nice having such a confident horse. It’s made me not have to worry about anything else, and that’s made competing fun for me. My husband is adamant about not just being in the ring. We do cavaletti work and jump on the trails. I think that helps a lot.”
After she began spending more time with the horses, Bursese quit her job in fashion and moved with Gonzalez to upstate New York. They ran a training business where Gonzalez did the riding, training and competing for clients, but he eventually got burned out. He suggested they try to make their own way with their horses and their own money.
They now live in Jupiter, Florida, with their own horses and two clients. Bursese helps with Gonzalez’s family manufacturing business, and the couple also are starting their own tequila brand, Tequila Scenario, named after Gonzalez’s beloved former FEI horse. They’re currently awaiting licensing.
Fiti breeds for Hilltop Farm from March through September, and Bursese has been competing on the Adequan Global Dressage Festival circuit this winter in the CDI ring, finishing fourth in the CDI3* Grand Prix freestyle at the end of February and contesting their first CDI4* in late March. Bursese’s family took a break from breeding horses, but have gotten back into it in recent years, breeding PREs and Andalusians by Fiti. Bursese still has Valentino, the horse who brought her and Diego together. He’s been trained through Grand Prix and is a schoolmaster and trail horse for visitors to their farm.
Bursese said even she is surprised by the trajectory of her dressage career. She loves riding as an amateur and seeing where she stacks up in the big ring.
“I give so much credit to all the professionals out there, I just don’t have the desire to do that,” she said. “I get so attached to the horses I ride. Every time I sit in the saddle it’s like, ‘But I want to keep it!’ When I’m riding, I don’t really have goals in the sense of making it to Regionals or Finals or qualifying for this. I’m just alway trying to get a better feeling, and hopefully that reflects in a better score.”