Saturday, May. 18, 2024

Hunter/Equitation Horseman Of The Year: Patricia Griffith

At 5'9" tall, most young riders would believe their pony days were far behind them. But when Patricia Griffith joined Heritage Farm in 1997, she was instantly considered the barn’s resident pony rider and trainer because standing next to 6'2" Andre Dignelli and 6' Kate Oliver, Griffith was the shortest professional on the staff.

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At 5’9″ tall, most young riders would believe their pony days were far behind them. But when Patricia Griffith joined Heritage Farm in 1997, she was instantly considered the barn’s resident pony rider and trainer because standing next to 6’2″ Andre Dignelli and 6′ Kate Oliver, Griffith was the shortest professional on the staff.

Little did she know at that point how far her height, or lack thereof, would take her, with a collection of talented children and small equines who’ve dominated the sport for the past decade.

Griffith’s students have earned nearly every major accolade available in the pony hunter divisions, with her most successful rider to date, Lillie Keenan, making history with two unprecedented sweeps at the 2007 and ’08 USEF Pony Finals (Ky.) and sweeps at the ’07 Pennsylvania National and ’08 Devon (Pa.) horse shows.

“That was a crazy moment,” said Griffith of this year’s Pony Finals where Keenan earned five out of the six hunter championships. “It was a goal to win all three again, but statistically speaking it’s not looking good when you have a model, hack and one over fences. You’re hoping to win with somebody, but you’re never sure how the day will end.”

That day, Aug. 16, 2008, ended with camera flashes, armloads of ribbons and silver and many smiles; it will long be remembered as a highlight of Griffith’s career. “When you look back in the 40-year history of the Pony Finals, no one has ever accomplished this before. It’s an amazing record, and Lillie is an amazing child. I don’t know if it will ever be broken,” said Griffith, with a smile, “at least in my lifetime.”

Griffith and Dignelli, the man behind Heritage, made note that the result was from many years of hard work.

“Having trained Addy [Phillips] and Maggie [McAlary] before, Patricia had really seen it all,” said Dignelli. “It was different with Lillie because we were all better at it. We had the experience to know when the competition was right and when the ponies were right. We’ve had a lot of talented kids over the years, and they’ve all taught us.”

Personal Profile

Age: 31

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Hometown: White Plains, N.Y.

Family: Parents John and Kathryn Griffith and brother George.

On developing her work ethic: “My mom drove me out to the barn at every ungodly hour and then picked me up,” said Patricia. “Sometimes I braided 20 horses a night, mostly school horses. I could do that many in one night because they didn’t have much mane!”

Employer: Andre and Michael Dignelli’s Heritage Farm, Katonah, N.Y. Co-trainer: Kirsten Coe.

Hobbies: “I’m an avid hockey and basketball fan, especially the Yankees, and my friend plays for Montreal,” said Griffith. “I also enjoy karaoke. I went to an all-girl’s Catholic school and was in the choir.”

Pam Keenan, Lillie’s mother, considers Griffith more than just the person who’s spent the past five years teaching her daughter to ride. “She probably thinks of me like a mother, but to me she’s my best friend,” said Pam. “For Lillie, Patricia’s been a great role model. She teaches by example—to see her put everything she has into making her riders and horses is such an inspiration. To me, she works 24/7, but it’s what she loves.”

Griffith began her formal training with Patricia and Greek Neff at Twin Lakes Stables where she learned to braid and tack up horses in exchange for riding. She taught students at summer camp, but, at the time, educating herself was her No. 1 priority. “I was a serious student from way back and took honors and A.P. courses through high school. I thought I’d someday be a veterinarian,” she said.

Griffith had her heart set on attending the University of Virginia, and even though she had received academic scholarships to Penn State and Fairfield University (Conn.), when she was waitlisted for UVA everything changed. She took a year off and turned professional, “just to see what happened.”

It wasn’t long before Dignelli noticed the slender young rider in Florida and recalled that he’d seen her locally in New York. He offered her a working student position and promised to take her to the USET Talent Search Finals-East. “She was basically undiscovered as a junior,” said Dignelli. “I told her, ‘If you work hard, I’ll do my part.’ We hit it off right away.” Griffith placed fifth in her first USET Talent Search Finals in 1997 and moved up to second place the following year.

Griffith made her own mark in the show ring in 2008 aboard Laura King’s Vida Blue and North Country. Her most memorable moment was winning the WCHR Professional Challenge at Capital Challenge (Md.). “It was so exciting, and having such wonderful horses to show makes all of the hard work so worthwhile,” she said.

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Griffith’s first pony stars were Austen and Addison Phillips, with the ponies Blue Mist and Blue Winsome. Maggie McAlary joined the party soon after with Toy Story, and then came Adrienne Sternlicht, Schaefer Raposa and Keenan among the many talented Heritage pony riders.

“Some people observing Patricia might be daunted by how she is [at the ring] because she’s so serious,” said Pam. “But they don’t hear the other side, which motivates the child. There’s never the correction without the praise as well.”

Fellow pony trainer Charlie Moorcroft has known Griffith since their junior years and said she’s one of his three role models, in company with Emerson Burr and Geoff Teall. “She has an amazing drive, focus and calmness that she instills in her riders,” he said. “I consider her one of the most successful pony trainers ever. Her students don’t go in the ring hoping to do well, they expect to do well.”


Patricia Griffith’s 2008 Competitive Highlights

Wild Horsefeathers/USEF Pony Finals (Ky.) Champions—grand pony and medium pony (Neverland/Lillie Keenan); reserve grand and large pony (Vanity Fair/Keenan); grand green and small green pony (Sparkle Plenty/Keenan); reserve grand green and large green pony (Bracewood’s Camelot/Keenan); medium green pony (Happy Meal/Keenan). Best child rider (Keenan). Emerson Burr Perpetual Trophy (Griffith).

Devon (Pa.) Champions—grand pony and large pony (Beau Rivage/Keenan); reserve large pony (Vanity Fair/Keenan); small pony (Rolling Stone/Keenan); medium pony (Light Up The Year/Keenan). Best child rider on a pony (Keenan).

Hampton Classic (N.Y.)—regular working hunter champion (Vida Blue/Griffith); regular working reserve champion (North Country/Griffith); small pony (Pink Floyd/Keenan); medium pony (Blu Venture Rainbeau/Allison Toffolon); grand pony and large pony (High Cotton/Keenan). Leading hunter rider (Griffith). Best child rider on a pony (Keenan).

Capital Challenge (Md.) Champions—WCHR Professional Challenge (Vida Blue/Griffith); regular working hunter (Vida Blue/Griffith); WCHR Pony Challenge (Vanity Fair/Keenan); small pony (Pink Floyd/Keenan); grand children’s hunter (Aramis/Keenan). Best children’s hunter rider (Keenan).

Tricia Booker

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