By Doris Degner-Foster
The Dignelli family name is well known in horse showing circles. Andre Dignelli is recognized in the equestrian world as a top trainer, especially in the equitation ring, while his brother Michael Dignelli runs their Heritage Farm in New York and Wellington, Florida. But Andre and Michael aren’t the only Dignelli men making names for themselves in the equestrian world.
Dean Dignelli, Michael’s son, has the horse gene in his blood also — even if he took a different path in life prior to discovering his passion for horses, riding and the equestrian world. As a teenager, Dean was interested in team sports and his talent for baseball opened doors to new opportunities for him. Dean played college baseball on a Division 1 athletic scholarship for Iona College in their home state of New York, where he earned a degree in business management.
“During the summer before my junior year, the reality that I might not go pro in baseball occurred to me,” Dean remembered. “And that’s when I went up to the barn manager at Heritage Farm and asked him to give me a chance. He put me under his wing and really showed me the ropes. I went from grooming to every job possible in the barn.”
As a farm employee, Dean worked at horse shows during the summers. People he met were initially interested in him when they learned of his family name, but the interest dropped when he said that he didn’t ride, but played baseball. “I’m extremely competitive and I didn’t like that — it put a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” Dean said, “Riding is in my blood so I thought I could probably do it.”
Following the Family Tradition
Although he hadn’t ridden much since childhood, Dean began taking riding lessons again with Matt Matell after graduating from college, with a plan to compete. “I immediately loved the sport because of being able to create a bond with the horse. It’s an unbelievable experience,” Dean said.
As a newcomer to showing, Dean respected the experience of Andre and the other trainers on the staff at Heritage Farm. “I had full trust with every trainer, so I was not someone to argue against them,” Dean said. “They had been doing this longer than I had so I just tried to soak it up like a sponge and do what they said.”
Some people would find it hard to work with a family member, but Dean’s Uncle Andre inspired him as his trainer. “Andre is calm, cool and collected,” Dean said. “He’s the captain that holds the whole team together, so it was never difficult to work with him.”
Dean was so hungry to learn that he would talk his father into helping him when no one else was available. “As the business manager and partner in the business of Heritage Farm, he hadn’t trained anyone in 15 years,” Dean said. “I thought it was cool that he helped me. He was a great teacher.”
For Michael, it opened up a whole new aspect of the father/son relationship. Previously, their conversations about Dean’s goals centered more on baseball, not about horses and riding. “During Dean’s learning process, I mentored him in terms of guiding and teaching him about how to really ride and walk the course, and how to do the jump-off,” Michael said. “At times I would help Dean with riding on the flat to make that step into an intermediate rider.”
Dean emphasized that his goal when he resumed riding was to become a national champion, and his riding career went according to his plan. Within three years, he ranked in the top five in the adult amateur division. In 2016, Dean won the Adult Amateur Jumper Finals at Pennsylvania National and at the Washington International Horse Show, back to back. Dean said, “In my mind I was thinking, I did it, I showed people that I was a Dignelli.”
As the assistant to the barn manager, Dean began taking on more responsibilities. In addition to being the “go-to” guy at the farm, he also was in charge of the logistics for shipping the horses to shows — a vast job with around 100 horses housed at Heritage Farm.
It Started With a Golf Cart
“I started a golf cart company because I needed transportation at the shows,” Dean said. “It was called Dean’s Iron Horses, and the company was selling a top product for a much better deal than my competitor.” Dean bought a dually truck and a 40-foot flatbed to transport the golf carts to shows, and obtained a class A chauffeur’s license.
While taking care of that business along with the logistics of shipping the farm’s horses to the shows, Dean reasoned that from his experience of successfully transporting large loads of golf carts, he could transport horses himself and soon started Iron Horse Transit. Like the high goals he set when he first began showing horses, he plans for it to be the best equine transporter in the industry for the area.
Growing up around the atmosphere of Heritage Farm, Dean learned the importance of professionalism in business and his personal involvement in customer service. “I think it’s vital that there’s a face behind the business so that people can create a relationship with the company,” he said. “That way, they know it’s not just some big brand. I treat all my customers like family, and my drivers, too. It’s a team effort all the way around.”
With four semis and a seven-horse trailer on the road as part of Iron Horse Transit, Dean is determined to maintain the same high standards as the company grows, and he continues to compete in amateur-owner classes. That firsthand knowledge sets Dean’s business apart because he understands that the cargo is not just a commodity to take from one point to another, but a specialized athlete that takes a very high level of care. “Since I’m also a rider, I understand these horses are elite athletes and that people truly love these animals,” Dean said. “I carry myself as if the horses I ship are my own horses on the trailer.”
The impression Dean strives to give to clients is that they are horsemen, and that his and his employees’ concerns about the horses they are hauling is simply part of who they are. “I don’t pick up horses along the route,” Dean said. “We are all about taking customer’s horses from point A to point B. Obviously, the truck could make more money if we went this way and that to pick up horses along the way, but it comes down to the horses’ care.”
Constant contact with clients during the trip is important to Dean: Texts and phone calls at fueling stops help put nervous clients at ease. “It goes back to where there’s a face to the company,” Dean said. “They’re not calling an answering machine. In one press of the button they are in instant contact with me at any time of day or night — there’s someone behind the company that they can attach themselves to.”
Thanks to growing up in a family that is known for excellence in the horse world, Dean is carrying on a family tradition whether on a horse in the show ring or behind the wheel of a semi truck transporting a load of horses. There’s no doubting that Dean is a Dignelli.