By Dani Moritz-Long
Portraits by Shelby Phillips
Sometimes something wonderful comes from something seemingly tragic. This, in fact, is exactly what happened to 22-year-old up-and-coming professional Geoffrey Hesslink when, as a 9-year-old boy, his competitive swimming career came to a screeching halt. A playground accident left the then-aspiring professional swimmer with a broken arm and damaged nerves, which made his swimming career — which started at the young age of 5 — an impossibility.
Fortunately, Geoffrey’s dad — someone he describes as his biggest role model and number one fan — quickly came to the rescue by realizing Geoffrey’s childhood dream of riding horses.
“My father decided to see how real that interest was,” Geoffrey said. “He took me to my first riding lesson at a barn in a neighboring town [near Shelburne, Vermont]. I was hooked from the first time I sat on that pony.”
Laughing as he remembered those first few rides, Geoffrey says his dad had “no idea what he was in for.” His parents, neither of whom had a background or interest in horses, found the idea of horseback riding completely foreign and thought that, like it was for so many, ponies would be a short-term phase in their son’s life. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Geoffrey, of course, is glad to have proved them so. “I’m forever grateful to have found something that makes me happy every single day,” he said.
An Impressive Junior Career
As Geoffrey’s riding career began to take shape, people started to notice him and Geoffrey himself realized the potential to turn passion into profession. Particularly, Geoffrey said, after he began riding with Heritage Farm’s Andre Dignelli, known for producing equitation, jumper and hunter champions, his innate talent and dedication started producing results.
Among his junior highlights, the now-22-year-old most fondly recalls his USET Finals win and placing in the Maclay Finals. Perhaps most impressive, however, was earning his first national title at the end of his junior career in 2014 when he captured the Platinum Performance/USEF Talent Search Finals East Championship.
Retrospectively, Geoffrey credits his dad and Andre for his success, which Geoffrey explains is rooted in hard work and perseverance.
“No one is going to give you anything,” he said. “Everything is earned and worked for. So, hard work and putting in the effort is the only way to really make it and succeed in this industry. My father is the smartest person I know, and he has always told us, ‘Talent is one thing, but to be successful you need to work harder than everyone else.’”
He added, “Not being from the wealthiest family in a sport that is primarily very wealthy also made me appreciate the opportunities that I got. It made me realize that, when you get those opportunities, you need to take advantage of them and be on your best game.”
This foundation, coupled with an ever-enduring love for horses, has been paramount to Geoffrey’s transition from junior rider to professional. Thanks to his mentors, Geoffrey says he’s found himself aptly positioned to continue climbing the equestrian ranks.
“I truly love what I do, and I’m constantly looking for ways to learn and make myself better,” he said. “I appreciate the people who support me, and I try to not only be a very coachable rider who is constantly learning, but also a keen observer.”
As most of Geoffrey’s catch rides in his junior career were hunters, the young professional can primarily be spotted in the hunter ring and derby field.
“I have grown to appreciate the hunters and love competing in those divisions,” he said. “As a professional, most of the opportunities have continued to come in the hunters as well. I also really enjoy doing the derbies, as they combine the beauty of the hunters with the skill of equitation.”
Jumpers, however, aren’t out of the question as Geoffrey, who is now based in Wellington, Florida, says testing his skill in those divisions is next on his list.
“I’m eager and excited to get experience in the jumper ring soon, and I hope to compete in the Under 25 Grand Prix,” he said. “That’s my next goal, and I’m really looking forward to it. Like many riders, I would love to represent the United States internationally someday.”
In his quest for self-improvement, Geoffrey’s professional career has been off to a strong start, with titles like 2016 National Hunter Derby Hallway Feed Rider Champion, 2016 USHJA Reserve National Hunter Derby Rider of the Year, 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals Reserve Champion for Section A and 2017 USHJA International Derby Finals Champion for Section B.
Amplifying Geoffrey’s potential for greatness is the purchase of his first horse, 6-year-old Cadoretto, who Geoffrey describes fondly as an “unbelievable horse for me.
“When I was a junior, I never had the luxury of owning my own horse,” he said. “My parents couldn’t financially support it, so I was always catch-riding. When I became professional, I really wanted something of my own to work on and focus on. I bought Cadoretto as a young investment horse last spring and he has blown away my expectations.”
Without doubt, remarkable things lie ahead for the rising pair.
Coming Full Circle
While Geoffrey’s personal riding ambitions do play a significant role in his day-to-day life, he’s also hard at work helping produce other rising stars at Heritage Farm, where he now helps Andre in bringing up junior riders.
A self-described people person, Geoffrey said, “I enjoy helping every kid, having a connection with my students, the horses that I ride and the people that I help.” Plus, he says, “equitation has a soft spot in my heart.”
Having only recently concluded his own junior career, Geoffrey says he often finds he has a special connection with Heritage Farm’s students. Coining himself a “good middle man,” he said, “The kids take my advice seriously and take what I say to heart, but, at the same time, I think they find me relatable and easy to approach.”
His best advice to his students, and any young rider looking to climb the equestrian ranks, is simple: Nothing is more important than hard work.
“The advice that I would pass on to younger riders is the same advice I was given: Hard work and effort will help you be successful. Everyone,” Geoffrey explained, “is replaceable. You need to find your strengths and make yourself invaluable and work hard to earn the opportunities presented to you.”
Photos by Shelby Phillips, www.shelbyphillipsphotography.com, unless otherwise noted