Driven to Greatness — Andrea Fappani Becomes NRHA Leading All Time Rider and Crosses $7 Million Milestone
The National Reining Horse Association’s newest All Time Leading Rider, Andrea Fappani, said recently, “My father always felt that if we were going to do something, we were going to do it all the way. It wasn’t only for fun; it was about work and responsibility, but with that came a lot of reward.”
With recorded NRHA earnings well into the millions, it’s apparent the work has paid off. Prior to the 2021 NRHA Futurity, Fappani was just $207,000 from passing the $7 million mark and was close behind NRHA All-Time Leading Rider Shawn Flarida.
On Saturday, December 4, Fappani showed three horses in the MS Diamonds TX Level 4 Open Finals, tying himself for the Reserve Championship on Winding Inferno (Inferno Sixty Six x Wind Her Up Chic, owned by Teton Ridge) and Mr Farenheit (Magnum Chic Dream x Wimpy Little Girl, owned by Morin/Vandorp).
With each reserve title paying $125,000, plus an additional $9,906 won on his third entry, Fappani unseated Flarida to become only the fourth All Time Leading Rider. That accomplishment has only been achieved by three NRHA Hall of Famers – Bill Horn, Tim McQuay, and Flarida.
NRHA President Rick Clark said, “Andrea is an amazing horseman who has worked so hard at it. Who would have thought seven million dollars would ever be achievable? I think he is showing us all that the sky is the limit. On behalf of NRHA’s Board of Directors and Staff, I congratulate Andrea and his incredible family.”
For Fappani, the moments following the completion of the Futurity L4 finals were emotional. He said, “This means so much. It’s what I have been working on all my career. It wasn’t so much the number, seven million, it was more the accomplishment of coming from another country, setting my mind to it, and becoming the best I could be. It’s a great feeling. It’s been a long way and a lot of hard work, and both my family and my help have sacrificed a lot to help me get here.”
The Shaping of a Champion
The intensity, drive, dedication, and commitment all began in the late 1970s on a dairy farm in Bergamo, Italy. Fappani’s parents, Sergio and Maddalisa, were fourth-generation dairy farmers. It would have been the natural step for the young man to follow in the well-worn and successful footprints of his parents, but a different desire drove him.
“My dad introduced me to horses when I was about four years old, and I began taking lessons. He wanted me to have a hobby that we could share together,” Fappani recalled.
At the time, western performance equine events were almost non-existent in Europe. “Most everything in Europe was English riding, and jumping in particular. I took to it pretty fast. That’s how I started and what I did for the first two or three years before a friend introduced us to reining,” he said. “He told us there was something amazing that we needed to check out. I took my first reining lesson at eight years old, and never looked back.”
For Fappani, who says he was a small and skinny kid, the demeanor, training, and athleticism of the American Quarter Horse was the perfect fit. “That first lesson on a reining horse gave me a lot more confidence than what I had with the horses I was riding at the time. I was a bit timid, so those big warmbloods were intimidating to me,” he admitted. “I was comfortable with the reining horses and was able to create a whole new personal relationship with them. That’s why I stuck with it.”
Fappani experimented with different sports but never found anything that gave him the same feeling as being horseback. “I never thought I was that good at anything else. Horses gave me confidence to get past my shyness. It was easy for me, even at an early age, to communicate with them, and teach them a trick or a maneuver, or whatever it was,” he said. “That sparked my interest in training and eventually showing.”
His parents, particularly Sergio, instilled a sense of responsibility and a work ethic that fostered a drive for greatness. If Fappani would put in the work and do well in school, Sergio promised Andrea would have the opportunities to learn as much as he could. That mindset fostered a drive for greatness, and as long as Fappani put in the work and did well in school, Sergio promised Andrea would have the opportunities to learn as much as he could.
He took lessons with Alberto Serena, NRHA Hall of Fame inductee Guy Gauthier, Gaethan Gauthier, and two-time NRHA Futurity Champion Craig Johnson.
When he was 14 years old, Fappani began to spend summers in the United States and Canada to learn from different trainers. “I wanted and needed to learn as much as I could and to be better all the time. I think that was a big part of my success later on…it’s not that I can’t look back and be happy with what I’ve done, but I never want to get complacent. I want to always strive for more both with the horse, with my personal life, and everything else,” he said.
By the time Fappani was in his late teens, he was getting help from several trainers spending time in Italy, including Jim Kiser, Don Boyd, and Mike Davis. “There were a lot of Americans in Italy at the time training for Italian owners, and I was fortunate to learn from them,” he said. “Their help played a big part in my upbringing and were the basis of what I developed later in my own program. I learned a lot of pieces from different people, and I feel lucky that I had those opportunities.”
A turning point in Fappani’s career came when he met Todd Bergen, a young reining trainer who would eventually garner more than two million dollars in earnings in both the NRHA and the National Reined Cow Horse Association.
“Todd came to the Italian Futurity; it must have been around 1995. He saw me riding, and said he would give me a job if I ever wanted to come work in the United States. I felt he saw something in me, and maybe there was something more in the back of my mind,” he said.
Bergen, of Eagle Point, Oregon, recalled, “Andrea was so focused, and reining was all he thought about. He was very serious about what he was doing. It doesn’t surprise me at all he has gone on to be so successful. He is one of the most driven people I have ever been around.”
Fappani soon found himself on the West Coast, riding with Bergen and NRHA Futurity Champion John Slack. “I took a chance and came to the United States as a Non Pro. I also rode with Brett Stone at the Stone Ranch for a few months,” he shared.
In 1998, Fappani returned to Italy to complete the military service required of all Italians. When that was completed, he surrendered his non pro status and returned to Oregon to work with Bergen full time.
“Andrea was already very talented on a horse, but just like any young trainer, he had to find a way and find a program. Once he got ahold of that and understood that part of it, the possibilities were endless with him,” Bergen shared.
“Those five years in Oregon changed everything for me. Todd showed me so much about what needed to happen on a horse to be successful and he is the person I would say has had the biggest impact on who I am,” Fappani said.
It was while at Bergen’s that Fappani got his first big chance at success. A young American Paint Horse Association registered colt named RR Star (Like A Diamond x RL Miss Kitty) was in the barn, and Fappani was handed the reins. At the 2001 NRHA Futurity, Fappani piloted RR Star to the Open title, becoming one of the youngest Open Futurity Champions ever at just 24 years old, just two years after becoming an NRHA Professional. “That was the peak of my career as an assistant trainer,” he said.
In 2003, Fappani and his wife Tish set out on their own. “The big question to me had always been was I good enough to win the Futurity. Then when I reached that goal, I thought I should just put my head down and see if I could get to the top. It’s been a process ever since, and what has pushed me to keep going,” he said. “You know, winning a year-end deal was never enough for me. For me it was always the big picture of getting better, having better clients, developing consistent show horses for my clients, and creating a business that represented excellence. I wanted to connect my name and my brand to a real professional way of doing things.”
Fappani became an NRHA Million Dollar Rider in 2006, less than eight years after becoming an NRHA Professional.
A student of the game, Fappani has spent his life studying horses, the work of others, learning what makes a legend, and what combination would prove to have the greatest long-term benefit for the horse. “The ones who have been competitive at the highest level for a long time are the ones that have everything in place to be successful at every aspect of the business.”
His gold standard? Shawn Flarida.
“Shawn has always been a person I looked up to, because he wants to win so much, and has been able to stay competitive for so long. There’s just something special about him and his program, and I have talked to him about it, studied it, and learned as much as I could,” he said. “He has won so much that it’s obvious he has something figured out that I feel like I myself don’t have yet. He can deal with pressure; he can get the best out of his horses and get them to peak at the right time. Those are all special qualities.”
So how does it feel to surpass Shawn on the leading rider list? “It’s something that I never thought could be done. I am happy I achieved it. I told my family that if I only get past Shawn for a year, or even just a month can be in that same league, because I know him and how hard he’s worked to get where he’s at,” Fappani said.
“I feel lucky because when I started on my own, there were two or three customers of Todd’s who kept their main horses with him, but gave me the opportunity right away to train some of their second string,” he recalled.
Capitalizing on those opportunities, Fappani finished second and third at the 2003 NRHA Futurity with NQH Little Jac and Command With Me.
There are a few owners whose names are almost synonymous with Fappani’s, one being NRHA Two Million Dollar Owner and Hall of Fame inductee Eleuterio Arcese of Italy. In 2011, Fappani piloted Arcese’s Spook Off Sparks (Smart Spook x Setting Off Sparks) to the Open Futurity Reserve Championship, then in 2020, Fappani piloted All Bettss Are Off (Gunner x Wimpys Little Chic) to the NRHA Open Futurity Championship. “Mr. Arcese saw me growing up in Italy and has always been a part of my career. His remarkable breeding program has given me some amazing horses to ride,” Fappani said. “I’m proud that over the years I have been able to win on some of his really good ones.”
Fappani also credits Two Million Dollar Owner Pat Warren of Rancho Oso Rio, the Scottsdale, Arizona headquarters of Fappani Performance Horses, for his success. “Twelve years ago, I came to Arizona to manage this ranch, and I think, together, we have won more than a million dollars on horses that were born and raised here,” he said. Standout Rancho Oso Rio-owned horses include NRHA Open Derby Champion Tinker With Guns and Custom Spook, earner of more than $235,000.
Other notable owners and horses include Manuel Bonzano and Big Chex To Cash (Nu Chex To Cash x Snip O Gun, LTE $194,260), Steve Simon and Custom Legend (Custom Crome x Dry Doc Bobbie, LTE $228,364), and Michael and Michelle Miola’s Platinum Vintage (A Sparkling Vintage x Starjac Miss, LTE $249,908), SG Frozen Enterprize (Frozen Sailor x RS Rose SJ, LTE $274,083), Chic Dreamin (Magnum Chic Dream x Skeets Red Dunit, LTE $247,272), Epic Titan (Gunner x Princess In Diamonds, LTE $82,298), and Custom Cash Advance (Custom Crome x Cash In Roan, LTE $228,607).
For Fappani, his owners have become like family, and they trust him explicitly with the care and training of their horses. “They’ve always understood that I put the horse first and not myself, and they trust me to make the decisions. That means a lot because I don’t have that weight on my back. I do things the way I want them done, and it’s paying off. I believe that’s what has allowed my program to succeed,” he said.
With hundreds of horses he has ridden to NRHA earnings over the years, there are a few that stand out.
“RR Star was a huge challenge to train, and I think the reason we were successful was because I was hard-headed. He wound up being an amazing horse for me, and put me on the map,” Fappani shared. “Custom Legend still holds the record for the highest score ever, a 236.5, in a run-off at the NRBC. He will always be a special horse to me.”
There is one horse that Fappani says is the quintessential “Fappani” horse, and that’s NRHA Million Dollar Sire Lil Joe Cash, on whom Fappani won the 2011 NRHA Open Futurity Championship. “I always use Lil Joe as the example of what I want. He clicked with my program from day one, and we just melted together at the beginning,” he remembered.
It’s Fappani’s desire to never stop learning from the horses and honing his horsemanship skills that have made each and every one that has stepped foot into his arena significant. “The ones that are more challenging, that I might not have won as much on…those are the ones who made me a better trainer and horseman. Those are the ones that made my program stronger, made me change my approach, and gave me a much different perspective.” He added, “I’m going to remember them because they made me better.”
There is no part of Fappani’s program that hasn’t been subject to his intense scrutiny, and that includes the people who he works with daily, his assistant trainers. “I’ve had some great ones over the years. The first few years aren’t as much fun, but you do it for the passion of the horses and because you want to learn. It’s a lot of hours and not much exposure,” he said. “Even though they aren’t in the arena making it happen, they’re a big part of the program.”
Professionals that have passed through his barn include Marco Ricotta, Arno Honstetter, Luke Gagnon, and Adam Hendrickson. NRCHA Professional Nick Dowers also spent some time at the Scottsdale ranch. “He only worked for me for a little bit, but I learned more from him than he learned from me,” Fappani said.
In fact, Fappani says he’s learned from almost every assistant trainer he’s had. “One thing I tell people is that you can learn something from everybody. I truly believe that anyone who has a passion for a horse has something that they’re good at. They may not be great at everything, but there is something you can learn from them,” he said.
Fappani listed his veterinarian, Dr. John Newcomb, farriers Randy Toon and Arek Boulding, and marketing manager Cam Essick and her husband Jim, as valuable team members who have been with him for 19 years. Another long-time team member at 15 years is equine dentist and veterinarian Dr. Roy Mausling.
The most important person to his career is even closer, and that’s his wife, Tish. “She takes care of everything so I can concentrate on what I like to do, which is training horses and spending all day in the arena. She organizes everything and raised our two great boys. I wouldn’t want her job; she does so much,” he said.
In fact, their two sons, Jeremy and Luca, are the accomplishments he is most proud of. “They are our greatest achievements. We told them it didn’t matter what they wanted to do, if it was horses or not. All that mattered was that they put their mind to it,” he said. “I am proud of how committed they are.”
Luca, now 17 years old, is following in his father’s footsteps and has already won more than $388,000 in competition. Jeremy, 15, is a successful motocross racer. “Luca puts horses in front of everything else. He keeps great grades in school, but he will ride a couple before he goes to school, then comes back, rides more, and then does his homework at night. Jeremy is the same way,” he said. “Watching them, I know they are going to be successful in life, no matter what they decide to do. I never pushed them to pick something early on. I just told them to put everything they’ve got into it. It’s fine if they change their mind and want to do something else; I just want them to learn how to do things the right way.”
NRHA Commissioner Gary Carpenter congratulated Fappani on the momentous achievement. “Undoubtedly, this milestone has great meaning for Andrea and his family,” he said. “In addition to his personal sense of achievement, it tells us so much about the trajectory of our sport. The momentum, excitement, and our visibility continue to grow. A milestone of this magnitude is something the entire industry can celebrate.”
Leaving a Legacy
The Fappani legacy of hard work has been passed down through generations. “I remember when my father would tell me stories about his dad and his grandpa. They started with five cows, three generations before, and by the time I left Italy, my father had the biggest dairy farm in Europe. He built a huge legacy. I wanted one of my own,” Fappani said.
View article on NRHA