When John Pigott won the Cacchione Cup at the IHSA Nationals in Murfreesboro, Tenn., in May 2003, his only complaint was that his team wasn`t there to share the victory with him.
This year he doesn`t want to go to Nationals unless he can bring the entire University of Vermont team with him. They missed qualifying by just 1 point last year, but with two shows remaining they`re in first place in their region.
Pigott wasn`t always so devoted to his team. In fact, when Pigott, 21, arrived at UVM in December 2001 after finishing his junior career with the USAEq Medal Finals at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show and the BET/USET Talent Search Finals, he had no intention of trying out for the equestrian team. Pigott, of Newport, R.I., had chosen the school for its strong animal science department and knew little about the riding program.
But a friend convinced him to go to the try-outs.
“I`d never seen the team aspect of riding before,” said Pigott, who soon realized that he liked competing on a team. “For experienced riders, it`s really important to keep an open mind. I like it that everyone contributes.”
About 30 students ride on the team, and they practice twice a week at Madeleine Austin`s Imajica Farm in Williston, Vt. Pigott is co-captain this year with Meaghan Blaikie.
At first Pigott was put off by the intercollegiate format of riding unfamiliar horses with no warm-up. “It was a tough change from the show circuit,” he recalled.
Of course, Pigott had been showing for as long as he can remember. He began riding at the tender age of 6 when his mother, Dawn, introduced him to the sport, and he moved directly from short stirrup to juniors because he grew too quickly to ride the ponies.
“You could never keep him in a division because he was always looking at the next division,” said Dawn. “If he`s not learning anything, he`s not happy.”
During his deferred semester in the fall of 2001, he rode with hunter/jumper trainer Andre Dignelli and competed at the top indoor shows on borrowed horses. Pigott never had the money to buy a veteran equitation horse, so he had made do with his “jack-of-all-trades horse,” Petrus. “He wasn`t fancy, but he always tried,” Pigott recalled.
Riding with Dignelli marked a turning point in Pigott`s equestrian education. “Andre opened a whole new door to my riding,” he said. “Andre teaches people how to win. He prepares you to excel.”
Suddenly Pigott was able to ride eight to 10 horses a day. “He grew up when he went to Andre`s,” said Dawn. Until then, “he didn`t have the chance to ride or jump at the heights those kids were.”
And Petrus remained the only horse Pigott owned, which put him at a disadvantage on the show circuit. “It`s difficult to catch-ride and have a lot of success as a junior,” explained Dignelli. But that weakness became a strength in intercollegiate competition.
Making The Transition
Competing in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, the lack of a fancy mount didn`t hold Pigott back since which horse you ride is a matter of the luck of the draw. “He`s more used to catch-riding than other college students with equitation backgrounds,” said Dignelli. “He`s more familiar with imperfect horses than his competitors.”
After Pigott gave the format a chance, he found that he loved it because “it teaches you to respond to a wide variety of horses and to adjust instantaneously.” All of a sudden his playing field had been leveled, and he had a chance to prove that he could outride his competition on any horse.
Not that his triumphs were immediate. Austin, the UVM equestrian team coach, first met him at the team try-outs. “He had a great deal of ability, but also some faults,” she recalled.
Austin, who has become one of Pigott`s strongest supporters, believes that with his natural ability and strength, his few position flaws are the only thing that stand between him and any riding achievement he wants, even the Olympics. She hammers on him to correct them, dealing with the flaws, in her words, “like an infestation of vermin!”
The time spent in the saddle with Austin and with Dignelli began to pay off in 2002, when Pigott claimed fourth in the Cacchione Cup at IHSA Nationals. In 2003, in addition to claiming the Cacchione Cup, he also won the open over fences class and was second in the open flat class.
In the summer of 2003, Pigott was able, as a result of his Cacchione Cup triumph, to make his international debut and compete in Hanover, Germany, on an American team competing through the International Student Riding Association. In this international competition, students must compete in both dressage and show jumping phases. They still draw horses, but the top levels are more difficult than the IHSA competition.
Still, Pigott continued to excel, placing second in the show jumping in Germany. In July he rode at the Student Riding Nations Cup in Bedford, N.Y., where his team won first overall and he won the show jumping. And in January he competed in the Netherlands and placed fifth in dressage.
Not Your Average Student
For all his accomplishments, it`s not Pigott`s riding prowess that stands out to his supporters. It`s his outgoing and determined personality. Dignelli and Austin can`t stress enough how hard he works, and how much he deserves his success.
“He is fabulous, delightful!” said Austin. “He`s a dream student, the type that every trainer would kill to have.”
Dignelli`s first impression of Pigott stuck with him. “He made it his business to get to the farm and offered to do whatever he needed to get lessons,” said Dignelli. “He was a go-getter, aggressive and focused, reminding me of myself.”
Pigott`s determination to do whatever it took to improve impressed Dignelli enough that he took a special interest in him, giving him opportunities to ride horses and go to shows.
Dignelli is always on the lookout for someone who needs a leg up, but he finds few students are willing to put in the time and effort to make it worth his while.
“John stuck out because he was there every summer and holiday working,” he said. “He impressed everyone that he was looking for an opportunity. Few kids work that hard.”
Pigott credits his mother for his attitude. “She`s gotten me as far as I am,” he said. “She stopped riding to keep me going. She continually tells me to test myself and that the sky is the limit.”
When he won the Cacchione Cup, Pigott had the opportunity to thank her for her support. He`d been riding in his mother`s saddle, but two saddles were among his prizes, so he gave her one.
“I`m really excited to have a saddle again!” said Dawn.
Of course, Dawn`s favorite story about her son precedes the day when he became a national champion.
“I remember he used to ride a Shetland pony named Gumpy,” she said. “He would go in to ride his course, and Gumpy wouldn`t behave. He would just do his own course!”
Although Pigott is serious about his riding, he`s equally serious about his education and squeezes riding into his hectic schedule. He is double-majoring in chemistry and animal science and plans to attend veterinary school after college.
The IHSA Nationals actually conflicted with his finals last year, and Austin remembers him staring at his math book for the entire flight to Tennessee.
When Pigott isn`t studying, he is at Imajica Farm or completing his work/study in the community development and applied economics department office.
Similar, But Not The Same
The International Student Riding Association is far less well known than the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association. But the ISRA is part of a larger, multinational organization, the Association Internationale des Etudiants Cavaliers. Competition is open to students who are over 18 or within one year of graduation when they compete at their first international competition. They`re then eligible to compete until they`re 28.
Competitions are designed in a tournament style, with each round increasing in difficulty, and every rider must compete in at least the initial round of dressage and show jumping.
Riders draw for their mounts, just like in the IHSA, but they can warm up for five minutes and are allowed two practice jumps. One horse competes with three riders in each round, and the best rider on that horse moves on. Thus, the “luck-of-the-draw” is diminished because riders are only judged against other riders on the same horse.
In the first round of dressage, the entire team rides together in a quadrille-style dressage test. The remaining rounds are judged individually, and the final two rounds consist of a musical freestyle and a Prix St. Georges-level test.
The first round of show jumping is judged on style and accuracy, the second on faults, with a secondary score for style. The last rounds are judged on faults and time, with the final round at a height of 4` to 4`9“.