Apr 07, 2024

Now On Course: More Than Just a Phase for 11-Year-Old Priscilla Pignatelli

By Meagan DeLisle - USEA Staff
Priscilla Pignatelli and Dittos Gold En Fury. VDP Photography photo

Some kids are just born loving horses. Eleven-year-old Priscilla Pignatelli is the perfect example.

“Her dad and I used to joke around that she has loved horses since she learned they said neigh,” recalled mother Grace Pignatelli. “We were non-horsey parents, so it took us a while to realize it wasn’t just a phase!”

Mesmerized, Priscilla would watch videos of horses non-stop. She eventually stumbled across some videos of event horses, and she was hooked.

“I loved to watch horses doing dressage because I thought they were dancing," she said. "I thought they looked so graceful on cross-country galloping through the water. I just loved it. My room was horses. I would gallop around the school. It was just my life, honestly.”

So Grace and her husband KJ enrolled Priscilla in horseback riding lessons in the Chicago area at the age of 9.

“The instructor came up to us and said, ‘She’s a natural,’ so we just jumped in head-first after that,” Grace recalled. They leased Priscilla’s first pony, a chestnut Quarter Horse mare named Clementine, and Priscilla got her start in the hunter ring. When the family moved from Illinois to Winter Garden, Florida, Clementine came with them. Their new location was perfect for Priscilla to finally get to dip her toes into the sport she had fallen in love with through video.

“Clementine was amazing, and she taught me a lot of stuff, but she wasn’t a big fan of eventing,” said Priscilla. So the hunt for the perfect next pony was on.

“It was really hard at that time because I knew Clementine was going home, and I didn’t have my heart horse really.”

Enter Emily Holmes. If you have evented in the Ocala area, then Holmes is no stranger. The organizer of the horse trials at the Florida Horse Park and many other eventing activities in the Ocala community is also the owner of the adorable 15-year-old Welsh Cob gelding Dittos Gold En Fury, or "Max." And it just so happened that Max was looking for his next young rider to show the ropes. Max and Priscilla have been inseparable since the summer of 2023.

Photo courtesy of Grace Pignatelli

“We were so lucky to connect with Emily, who has been so wonderful,” noted Grace. “She's been so helpful with everything and just a very gracious owner. And it was pretty clear from the first time Priscilla and Max met that they had something special.”

“Max is my world,” said Priscilla. “I love him so much. He is my best friend.”

The pair spent the last year really honing in on their partnership. They competed in a schooling show so that Priscilla could get some show ring experience in eventing, but Grace shared that it was Priscilla’s determination at home that truly impressed them all.

“She has learned so much over the last year. She was taking lessons three to four times a week and going in on her own twice a week to keep practicing. This kid’s got a lot of grit. She shows up at the barn and spends hours there, especially on the weekends.”

Max and Priscilla made their USEA debut together in February of this year where they won their Starter division at the Three Lakes Winter I H.T. (Groveland, Florida) on their dressage score of 32.3. While the victory was sweet, Priscilla knew they could improve on their performance.

“She took her dressage score sheet to the barn with her every single day and would pore over it," said Grace. "She would say, ‘OK I need to work on the size and shape of my circles,’ or, ‘I need more energy in the trot.’ She and Max really worked so hard together to improve the things that the judge noted on her scoresheet, and the following week they went to a schooling show at Barnstaple [Morriston, Florida] and scored a 20.”

Both parents were so proud of Priscilla’s determination, but it didn’t stop there.

“She said, ‘OK I did that at a schooling show, now I need to do it at a recognized show,’ ” said Grace.

The following week was the Three Lakes Winter II H.T., and Priscilla and Max went in with their game faces on and their homework behind them. There they scored a 20.7 in the Starter division, a score that would later make the the lowest-scoring winning pair in the country for the weekend.

“She works so hard, and she just started two years ago, just learning to walk and trot," said Grace. "Last summer she finished her first event scoring in the high 40s. So to see the progress and growth that she's made in less than a year, it's just one of those proud mom moments.”

KJ was especially struck by his daughter’s dedication to the sport.

Photo courtesy of Grace Pignatelli

“We had to explain to her teacher when we were talking about her homework that her after school sport takes at least three hours and involves the head-to-tail care of Max," he said. "It is just really interesting to see someone at such a young age putting in this time. I asked my parents, ‘Was I ever this focused?’ I don’t think so. Watching her focus on her sport and then come home and focusing on her grades and being with her family, her friends, her dogs—she’s a pretty well rounded little equestrian that we have here.”

With two wins under her belt, Priscilla has her sights set on the 2024 USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Nutrena Feeds this year. She also dreams of one day performing a freestyle dressage test to a mix of Taylor Swift’s biggest hits and thinks Max is just the partner to make that dream come true.

Wanting to continue to support Priscilla’s love for all things horses and strengthen her knowledge of the sport, Grace has begun volunteering as a jump judge with Priscilla at her side. Eventing has become a bit of a family affair for the Pignatellis, and they are happy to foster their daughter’s enthusiasm for what she loves.

“We made the right choice,” said Grace of signing up Priscilla for lessons two years ago. “She is doing what she is meant to do.”

Do you know a horse or rider with a cool story? Email Lindsay at [email protected] for a chance to be featured.

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