‘It Can Be Tough, but It’s Worth It’: A Day in the Life of a Working Student at Heritage Farm

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or the past 12 weeks, Kierstin Antoniadis has been clocking in at her job six days a week. It's not just any type of job typical of a 16-year-old, but one that requires her undivided attention, hard work, and dedication as she’s working for one of the most renowned junior equitation trainers.

Yes, she still goes to school — she's an ‘A’ student, in fact — but she attends an online school that works with her unusual schedule. That 6 a.m. daily alarm? Simply par for the course for this working young woman, as is sacrificing social time with her friends and family in favor of finishing up after dark.

So what is it that drives this teenager to forgo school dances, sleepovers, and weekend parties? For Kierstin, this isn’t just any job — she’s a working student at Andre Dignelli’s Heritage Farm during the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Wellington, Florida, a coveted position that only a lucky few ever get to call their own. A passionate rider with dreams of winning equitation finals and potentially even going pro, Kierstin isn’t simply punching a time card; she’s soaking up the knowledge, lessons, and know-how that come as a welcome perk to the job (between scrubbing tack and feeding horses, of course).

It's no secret that life as a working student isn’t easy, especially during a busy show season. Although no day in Kierstin’s life is the same, she walked us through a ‘typical’ day in her life during North America’s biggest winter show, as well as some important life lessons she’s learned along the way.

Early Bird Gets the Worm

Can you name many teenagers who get up before the sun rises? For Kierstin, this is her normal. “On a typical day, when there’s no showing or anything, we get here at 7 a.m. The first thing we do is make grain for the afternoon, and then we basically start [down the list of the horses we’ll be flatting that day].”

Give a Helping Hand

“[Between riding], we help the [professional grooms] take care of some of the horses that we’re particularly involved with. We also help out with some of the jobs that are a bit in-between, like the jobs that the grooms may be too busy for, or the managers are too busy for. You just jump in and do it; sweeping rooms, organizing tack, makings errand runs — stuff like that.” Teamwork makes the dream work!

Absorbing New Knowledge

“Being able to ride different horses every day has shaped me a lot [as a rider] because I never got the chance to ride different types of horses before [working here]. I always had the same horses that I rode every day. But when you get to ride different client’s horses, and you get to see the way they react after being ridden by this specific person or a specific way for a few days, it’s taught me a lot about [horsemanship].”

After ten years of being a working student, this eventer has some frank advice for young riders hoping to go pro.

“I’ve learned a lot of new things, too, because I was really only brought up in the hunters — I didn’t know anything about the equitation or jumpers. So I’ve learned all the different equipment, the different tack, bits — it’s a lot to learn, but so good for me to learn about. I can now ride my green pony three times better than I could before. I take everything I learn here and apply it to new projects.”

The Art of Balancing Work and Showing

Kierstin’s life is one big balancing act as a dedicated working woman while at the same time making a name for herself in the show ring. “The most challenging part [of the day, if we’re showing] is balancing the show day with my responsibilities back at the barn. Everybody here is really in tune with that though and steps in to help out. But at the same time, if you have five to flat here [at the barn] and then show in three classes at the horse show, it’s a lot of running back and forth.”

"Andre doesn’t bring us on as working students because he wants extra hands, he does it because he really does want to see people get better [as riders] and grow [as people]."

Getting Schooled

Although her schedule is tough, Kierstin makes the most of her long days. “I’m currently a junior in high school which is one of the hardest years. I do online school so it’s easier [with my schedule]. But you do a 12-hour day here, and then you go to a tutoring place and you sit at a desk for another three or four hours — it can be tough, but it’s worth it.”

A Quiet Moment Alone

“My favorite part of my day is definitely riding the horse that I get to show, Kori D’Oro. He’s my all-time favorite horse. Another part of my day that I love is that there’s always a 30-minute gap at some point where we have nothing really going on, so [the other working student and I] can just hang out, talk about things ... it’s a nice breather for the day.”

Remember that time a working student won the ASPCA Maclay Championship?

Sacrificing a Social Life

A typical high school student’s weekend is spent hanging out with friends and going out to parties. But for Kierstin, getting enough rest is imperative. “Sometimes, I’ll have some friends who will text me Saturday after the show and they’ll ask to hang out and I’m like, ‘I’m going to fall asleep by 7:30 tonight, so I don’t think so.’ Or they’ll mention, ‘Oh, I’m tired,’ and I’m like ‘Oh, me too! I had to wake up before sunrise this morning!’ It’s a little bit challenging [as a teenager], but it is really rewarding.”

Learning From The Best

“Andre has already taught me so much. Not just in riding, but he’s also like a life coach for me and some of the kids here. He talks about certain things that just change your point of view, like the flip of a switch. Hanging around him in lessons or even just talking, every time I learn something new. He’s taught me a lot about how to change my personal outlook on things. He definitely gives a lot of advice on how to settle things down and change into who and what you want to be. He doesn’t bring us on as working students because he wants extra hands, he does it because he really does want to see people get better [as riders] and grow [as people] and accomplish what he can help them do.”

Don't miss Andre Dignelli's answers to our Last Words quiz in Issue 13 of NOËLLE FLOYD Magazine.

Looking Towards the Future

“I’m definitely figuring it out. Last year if you asked me the same question, I’d say I want to keep riding but I also want to maybe be a vet or do something like that. But now I think about all the work I’ve put into it. I know I want to ride through college. And now I’m thinking that afterwards, I will want to keep showing as a professional. Working as a working student is definitely a long-term thing for me. It’s kind of hard to get into just for a little bit and then get out. I’ve always had a strong work ethic. I never wanted to be one of those kids that kind of just sits around waiting for their horse to be ready. Working here has taught me a lot about how your results are equal to the work and dedication [you put in].

“When I show up to work here, I always think, how did I get so lucky?”

Read this next: 'I Work Really Hard ... I'm Not the Most Naturally Gifted Rider': Ashlee Harrison on Putting in the Work, Breaking Barriers, & Returning to the Show Ring

Photos by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.

Written by Erin Lane

Erin Lane is the Director of Insider at NOËLLE FLOYD and a living definition of crazy horse girl. A lifelong hunter/jumper rider and avid polo player, Erin believes that equestrian education should be accessible to all riders and is on a mission to bring that to life through Insider. Shaped by the horse community, Erin wants to give back, build relationships connected by a passion for horses, and vibe with her fellow horse girls. You can pretty easily win her over with bay horses, weenie dogs, and wine in any form.