April 2016 - CPHA Spotlight: Susan & Daniel Ighani

Napa dressage and show jumping dynamic duo are doing it their way.

by Kim F. Miller

As a venture capitalist, Eric DeBenedetto relies on his ability to assess potential, in ideas and, equally important, in people. It didn’t take the amateur rider long to see great potential in Daniel and Susan Ighani, whose Ighani Sporthorses in Napa was brand new when Eric signed on as a client four years ago.

Daniel hacking out at Toyon.

Susan schooling Bundaberg.

Susan, a dressage trainer, and Daniel, a show jumper, had impressive resumes, but that alone is not always an indicator of future success. “Their level of professionalism and perfectionism meets a very high standard, and it always adheres to what’s in the best interest of the horse,” Eric says. As coaches, both “are very demanding and their system is based on a solid foundation that you can reproduce on your own. It’s not tricks.”

Eric is a serous student of the sport and approaches riding “as a second career.” For like-minded people, Ighani Sporthorses is an exhilarating place to be. “You feel – in a good way – that you are back in school,” he explains. “You have that sense of fulfillment that comes from developing your ‘career’.”

Daniel and Susan started Ighani Sporthorses with no horses or clients of their own. During independent stints in Europe, they brainstormed about the type of business they wanted to operate together when they returned to the United States.

“We want to develop top athletes with happy, healthy bodies and minds,” explains Susan. “We want to train ourselves, our horses and our clients to be competitive and to go as high as they can all go, and also to enjoy the ride.

We want an energy and an environment at the barn in which people can have serious goals and serious fun along the way.”

Luciana watching daddy ride.

Eric, Susan and groom Martha with Luciana.

They also want to lay their head on the pillow each night with a crystal clear conscious. “It was and is important to Daniel and I to maintain our morals and ethics about how we get to where we go,” Susan explains. ‘It’s not worth it to cut corners, treat people poorly or deceive people.”

While still in Europe, they chose Northern California as their desired location. “As much as we love Southern California, we wanted to be somewhere that we had a chance to start from scratch.” Trainers with credentials similar to theirs are plentiful in Southern California, but less so up north. They also found the lifestyle appealing. “We wanted a place where we could start a family and we’re big foodies!” Susan shares of one of the Napa area’s many draws. (see sidebar for insider restaurant recommendations!) The family aspect of their vision began in September when their daughter Luciana arrived.

The Ighanis are grateful for having landed at Camille and Ed Penhoet’s beyond-beautiful Toyon Farm. They had inquired about one available farm in the area, but lost the opportunity to a professional with an existing clientele.

Toyon’s owners weren’t looking for a trainer at the time, but most of their stalls were available and a positive first meeting with Susan (Daniel was still in Europe) led to an offer to use the lovely property as “a place to land on U.S. soil.”

Four years later, Ighani Sporthorses is thriving at Toyon Farm. With their insistence on doing things their own way, the couple thought it would take a long time to build up a clientele. But it’s happened relatively fast. Their students’ show ring successes have helped make their mark, but much of the growth is the organic kind that comes from doing good and having good come from it.

Landing at Toyon Farm turned out to be a perfect fit for their horses-first emphasis. Stabling, paddocks and arenas are surrounded by grapevine-covered rolling hills and many miles of trails that weave through them.

The impact of the environment on the horses is big, Susan asserts. “Horses aren’t designed to sit in stalls all day.” Paddock time is part of every horse’s daily routine, as are excursions beyond the ring. Gentle hills make for great conditioning, and peaceful paths through the vineyards provide quiet time for horse-rider bonding. “Not every minute spent in the saddle needs to be an intense training session,” Susan says. “Having some bonding time is super helpful.”

Ighani Sporthorses’ marketing tagline, “Where passion meets performance,” resonates with their clients. “The people who end up riding with us want to get to know their horses,” Susan explains. That’s true, she adds, even for those competing at the most intense levels of the sport.

Variety is another key to rewarding horsemanship. “When you can use the jumping, dressage, trail riding and hill work, you can really help clients and horses be well rounded. It helps keep it interesting and fun.”

Good Riding Is Good Riding

It’s rare that formal training and extensive experience in dressage and jumping are housed under one roof and accessible, directly or indirectly, to all clients and horses.

A graduate H-A Pony Clubber and an eventer through most of her junior years, Susan was “always that nerdy little 8-year-old doing freestyles!” She gravitated to dressage full time in her late teens and has since ridden everything from young horses to Grand Prix stars, along the way working with many top names.

Susan training Billabong with Guenter Seidel.

Daniel and Ransome.

After five years as an assistant trainer in San Diego, where she and Daniel met, Susan moved to Germany. She rode for longtime USET dressage coach Klaus Balkenhol and, later, for top international rider Arnd Erben’s yard. She has been a student of Guenter Seidel for many years and continues to work with the German-born, U.S. Olympian during Guenter’s monthly clinics at Toyon.

She is currently campaigning two horses herself: Bundaberg at Prix St. Georges, and her full sister Billabong at Fourth Level. Both are owned by Susan and Martin Koffel. The trainer is also in the hunt for her next FEI horse.
Daniel brings a similar caliber of experience and influences to the show jumping side of the business. He left his native Argentina to further his education and worked for Lynn and Guillermo Obligado in San Diego for five years. Next, he gained European mileage working for international rider Holger Hetzel’s training and sales operation in Germany. The post enabled Daniel to campaign many different horses up through the Grand Prix levels at national

and international shows. Returning to the big ring on his own or a client’s Grand Prix horse is a goal for the future.

Watching contemporaries prepare their horses at shows, Daniel notes that he’s not alone in incorporating dressage. “Things have evolved quite a bit in the last 15-20 years. In their own way, everybody is trying to work with dressage as everyone is trying to get the most competitive advantage they can. Like working with a nutritionist or going to the gym.

“I’ve always been passionate about ways to improve the horses and helping them be the best they can be,” Daniel continues. “Dressage really helps us get the best out of our jumpers.”

Susan and Daniel agree that “good riding is good riding.” They are at ease schooling each other’s horses and collaborating on horses and students. Open minds underscore their belief that horsemanship education is a never-ending endeavor. Star hunter/jumper student Ransome Rombauer experienced this first-hand when she began her pursuit of high-level equitation successes. Although Daniel won the first and only equitation class he ever competed in -- at the Sonoma Horse Park in 2014 -- he was not familiar with it as a competitive division.

Ransome’s mom Laura Rombauer recalls that Daniel “was very open to collaboration” when it came time to navigate the unique nuances of the equitation world. Jenny and Kost Karazissis, the late Bill Cooney and current coach Karen Healey are among the professionals who helped guide them. Daniel’s openness to working with and learning from these equitation experts sets him apart as a professional, Laura observes.

Winning the USET Talent Search West last fall topped Ransome’s “Big Eq” highlights last year. Her horsemanship has made equal advances under Daniel and Susan’s watch. Finishing second in the national Emerging Athletes Program finals and being among 12 selected for the George Morris Horsemanship program reflect that. Beyond the show ring, her ongoing work rescuing Miniature Horses (California Riding Magazine, June 2015) regularly incorporates horsemanship knowledge shared by the Ighanis.

“They are really all about preserving the horses while doing what we need to accomplish our goals,” Ransome says. As a coach, Daniel has helped her go from “a passive to an assertive and much stronger rider.” Learning to use her seat and weight aids has been a big part of that, as is Daniel’s gift for instilling confidence in her.

Working with Susan in advance of the dressage test that comprised the flatwork portion of the USET Finals contributed significantly to her win, Ransome says. In a broader sense, the daily exposure to formal dressage training, including the regular visits with Guenter Seidel, adds breadth and depth to her education.

Eric DiBenedetto came to Daniel and Susan as a jumper rider with Grand Prix goals. He went a ways down that path, then realized that, at 50, dressage could offer equal rewards with less risk of bodily harm. Transforming his jumper and himself to the dressage court, Eric and Apollo were First Level champions at the Great American/USDF Region 7 Adult Amateur Championships last September -- less than a year after taking up the discipline.  He has since purchased a more seasoned dressage horse and planned to debut at Prix St Georges in March, while he and Apollo will contest Third Level this year.

The ability to switch disciplines without switching stables has also helped several horses. Occasionally, a jumping path is no longer suitable for a client’s or a sale horse and they can often find nice second careers in dressage.
Eric’s hunch about the Ighanis has paid big dividends. In addition to their attributes as trainers, Daniel and Susan are delightful to be around, Eric comments. “They are humble and unassuming people.” He’s thrilled with the progress he and his horses are making and thrilled that the young professionals’ business is evolving just the way Daniel and Susan envisioned it.

This is the third profile in our new CPHA Spotlight, in which we’ll feature a professional member of the organization each month. The CPHA provides a forum, voice, and many valuable programs and benefits for equine industry professionals throughout the region, including those who live elsewhere but compete and/or work within it regularly. Members can be trainers and anyone else who earns at least half their income from working with horses. CPHA also hosts prestigious medal classes and finals for juniors and amateur members. For more information on the organization’s good works and getting involved, visit www.cpha.org.

Napa Foodie Fixes from Susan

Fremont Diner: “Best country style cooking, especially the deviled eggs and the chicken and waffles!”
ZuZu’s: Downtown Napa, small intimate Spanish style tapas restaurant
Ox Bow Public Market: Everything from sushi to Mexican and all in between, plus great coffee, cheese bar, local ice crea, and the best oysters! The perfect date night place or Monday off to hang out with the family.
Home!: It’s not a restaurant, but I must admit, my all-time favorite place to eat is our kitchen at home. Daniel is such an incredible cook!