Growing up around horses and receiving riding and jumping training from a teacher who couldn’t possibly care any more about her success than any other (the instructor happens to be her mom), Newtown’s Ellie Ferrigno has quickly become an advanced rider for her age.
Now 12, Ferrigno is competing against horse lovers who are two, three, four, five — sometimes as many as six — years older than her.
And she’s still winning.
Ferrigno trains at Rabbit Hill Farm, which her mom and dad, Abbi and Rock, own. Abbi Ferrigno rode and trained horses for 20 years, reaching the grand prix level, so she knows a thing or two about advanced riding. She shares her expertise with her daughter, first bribing her to ride ponies with money; like many children, Ellie Ferrigno was resistant to want to work at something at first, so her mom rewarded her with a dollar each time she rode.
“I really thank you for pushing me into riding because I love it,” Ferrigno said to her mom between recent riding lessons at the farm. “My mom really pushed me.”
Ferrigno’s been riding for as long as she can remember, but only took to being on ponies when she was 7 or 8 years old. “My love for riding started four or five years ago,” Ferrigno said.
There’s no financial incentive now.
“The harder I work, the better I get — so that’s my motivation,” Ferrigno says.
And she’s gotten quite good.
Nationally ranked, Ferrigno has won numerous awards in the state, and also at the zone and national levels. She competes in the Connecticut Hunter Jumper Association and in zone one (which covers all of New England) in the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF).
She competed in the Connecticut Junior Medal Finals, a horse event, at Fairfield County Hunt Club in August and placed fourth.
Ferrigno qualified for the ASPCA (American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) Maclay Regionals this month and the USEF Hunt Seat Medal Finals at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show.
Ferrigno continues to compete on ponies and horses, and she and her parents go to about 30 shows per year throughout the Eastern US — as far south as Florida and as far west as Kentucky.
“The car rides are definitely long. It’s cool traveling though,” Ferrigno said. “I don’t think it would be the same if we didn’t go to all of these faraway places.”
Her favorites are the Devon Horse Show in Pennsylvania, for which riders must qualify, and the Washington DC International Horse Show, in part because of the opportunity to walk around and see the monuments and other sites, Ferrigno notes.
A seventh-grader at Fraser Woods Montessori School, Ferrigno is afforded the opportunity to travel for shows thanks to the support of the school’s educators, her mom says.
Standing just under 5-foot-6, and having ridden for most of her young life, Ferrigno is close to becoming too tall to compete in pony divisions against riders her age, so she’s made the transition into horse competitions in the past year.
There are a wide range of ages of competitors at horse shows, since they are open to any rider 18 and younger, and Ferrigno is regularly the youngest, her mom notes. That can be tough at times, but the 12- year-old has adapted to socializing with older horseback riders.
“It’s really cool because we all ride together — we’re all friends,” Ferrigno said.
Developing Skills And Ponies
Rabbit Hill Farm develops ponies as babies and turns them into show ponies who age and eventually go on to be children’s pets. Ferrigno rides each of the barn’s several ponies, helping them develop as much as she works her own skills.
“She really has become part of the training team,” her mom points out. “She is very dedicated.”
So much so, that she rides three to four hours per day during the school year and puts in about nine hours on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as during much of her time off during the summer. Ferrigno’s mom has her redo jumps and approaches to jumps, giving her tips on how to best work with each pony or horse.
With her career several years off, Ferrigno looks forward to continuing riding and is hopeful of attending a college not far away so she can go back home to ride whenever she wants. She’s already thinking it might be enjoyable to be a horse trainer sometime down the road.
Riding a variety of ponies throughout the years has required making some adjustments for Ferrigno. “Some ponies just let you get on and think it’s great,” she said. And there are horses like Heidi who “has a goofy, playful personality. But she’s stubborn.”
Rhett is Ferrigno’s first pony. He’s gotten a little older now and Ferrigno has outgrown Rhett, and pretty much all of the other ponies. She started riding horses a little bit last year, and has gotten more and more training on horses this year.
“It’s hard sometimes because horses have a much bigger stride than ponies,” said Ferrigno, noting that timing jumps can be tricky.
She makes it look easy, though.
But it hasn’t always been so simple as it may look. Ferrigno as fallen off ponies and horses “plenty of times.”
She doesn’t hesitate to get right back on and continue riding … and winning.