Joe and Fran Dotoli Part I – A Lifelong Love Affair – Beginnings

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Joe Dotoli on Champ's Bit

BY ANN JAMIESON

Falling for Horses

“I followed a pretty girl to the barn. She left, and I stayed.”

So began Joe Dotoli’s lifelong love affair with horses. The pretty girl, Maryanne, was his sister’s friend. Joe, enamored with her, “didn’t care where we were going!” Neither of Joe’s parents was involved with horses, and his only previous experience had been a few pony rides as a small child. 

Maryanne had attended school in Europe for a period and had been bitten by the horse bug overseas. When she returned home, she purchased a horse and boarded it at a state park, the Blue Hills of Massachusetts. The park featured a large riding stable where you could board a horse. One Saturday morning, Maryanne was at Joe’s house and didn’t have anyone to go riding with. She asked Joe if he wanted to go. 

“Sure, I’ll go with you,” he answered. In that instant, his whole life changed.

“Walking into that barn, there was something very different to me, I knew right away that this was something I needed to know more about. Really,” he adds. “That was it. I was hooked.”

There was a Monday night auction at Maryanne’s barn featuring all types of tack, old school horses, and former racehorses. Joe was interested in all of it. He soon began working for Harold Bellevue at Broken Wheel Ranch, mucking 20 stalls a day in order to have a chance to ride. Harold proved a great mentor to him. “He didn’t do anything at a very high level but he was a good horseman, and he taught me a lot about how horses think, how to understand a horse. He was more of a cowboy than what we would think of as a trainer today in our business, but I learned an appreciation for the horses.”

Joe, after a lot of convincing, was allowed to attend his first few shows. With a small sorrel Quarter Horse named Pee Wee, he competed in reining and gymkhana events. But he wanted to learn to jump and soon got the opportunity when a horse rescued from slaughter came home in the trailer one day. 

Harold suggested Joe take the horse to lead a group out on trail. Joe, focused on learning to jump, found a small tree down across the trail, and seized the opportunity. Detouring the rest of the group around the tree, he headed the bay right towards it. The horse apparently shared Joe’s inclination for jumping and cleared it with plenty of daylight between him and the tree—nearly losing his rider. Thrilled, Joe bought the horse for $250, the price Harold had paid for him. With Harold’s instruction, he showed the horse, who he named “Full Count,” in jumper classes to great success. “He always tried hard, and gave his best,” Joe remembers.

Joe also learned about how vulnerable horses can be when Harold’s favorite horse, Rusty, fell and broke his shoulder. While they tried hard to save him, it didn’t work. Joe vowed that day to “keep the trust. I would never take advantage of their giving nature, their kindness, and their desire to please us.” Joe believes he has kept that trust. Anyone who knows him can be sure that he has.

Fran

During Joe’s sophomore year in college, he met someone who would change his life, a freshman named Fran Cunning. Their mutual love of horses made them instant friends. They “were the only ones in the lounge areas on Monday morning who wanted to talk about what happened at the horse shows over the weekend.”  

Fran had a very different start than Joe’s. She had trained and shown with some of the best, including the founder of the American system of riding, Gordon Wright.

As a 10-year-old, Fran begged her parents to let her take a riding lesson. Powers Stable in Dover, Massachusetts was not too far from their house, so that was the natural starting point for Fran. It turned out to be where an amazing list of notable horse people began to ride, including Brian Flynn and his sister Kathy, Debbie Hoyt, Karen Stives, and Anna and Ralph Powers Rowe (whose nephews David and Jimmy were Olympic alternates for our eventing team, did very well in the sport and eventually created Dover Saddlery). Powers Stable was not a big place, and there was no indoor ring. But it was in a good location at the right time with a lot of good people. 

Fran recalls, “There was nothing fancy about it but clearly they gave us a love for the sport and a good foundation. At that time, we showed and hunted with Norfolk Hunt (which I loved and hunted with for about 35 years) and Pony Clubbed.” Soon the local shows weren’t quite enough for Fran, so her parents set her up with some other trainers, most notably Gordon Wright. “I had a lot of great training and saw a lot of great things, other shows, top riders, so that was very cool.” 

Asked what it was like training with Gordon, Fran replied, “He was larger than life and very interesting. Some of his techniques you would not be able to practice today. He certainly made his mark and had some real effect on the horse world. His top student was George Morris and he brought horsemanship across the country and brought a method to it. 

“Gordon had some very clever basic ideas that he was able to put together in his books. He carried it through with his clinics, and the people that enjoyed that spread the word further. It gave a curriculum to teaching riding. He was a very clever man, part horseman, part circus act rolled together. You didn’t forget it. You didn’t open your mouth, you didn’t question what he told you to do. He was quite something.”

Some of the training was very basic. Go forward, go straight, and be consistent. Be clear with the horse. “He was sort of gimmicky in his personality but he was not gimmicky in his teaching. He was very fundamental.” While some people found Gordon’s teaching very boring, “I didn’t think it was boring at all. You could put the basic exercises together so that they were quite difficult to execute. Change your pace and direction every six strides. It seems like an easy thing to do until you start to execute it. Then throw in some jumps, throw them in in a serpentine. 

“Although not university trained, Gordon’s basic education was very wise in that it was built on what you did before. You didn’t go forward until you had the first lessons learned. And that’s just good education. Too often a riding instructor will walk into the ring and wonder what they’re going to work on today, rather than having a whole lesson planned. I think I learned more about that in college and when I taught school, and I didn’t realize until I went to school that that’s what they did. It was all about education, that’s why they were so successful.”

Joe Dotoli on Champ’s Bit

After college Fran was still riding as an amateur, showing mainly in hunters and some equitation while teaching school. “Equitation wasn’t as big back then as it is nowadays,” remembers Fran. “I had some nice hunters and did a little in the jumpers. I had a horse called ‘Color Me Blue,’ and a horse called ‘Champ’s Bit.’ He was quite a famous working hunter that we bought from John Vast and his daughter. He was the smartest horse I ever dealt with; he was almost human.”

Shortly after that, Fran pursued her judging license. Both she and Joe have now had their judging licenses for over 50 years.

She’s seen a lot of changes in horse shows over the years. “One big change is in the numbers: the number of shows, the number of horses at the shows, the number of cards you have to hold, the number of scores you have to give. So numbers in all kinds of ways. It’s so different from when I first got started where you could pretty much keep track on the back of a cocktail napkin. There would be half a dozen classes and a dozen horses in each and there you had it. If you had a decent eye you could practically keep it all in your head. That’s not the case anymore. You have weeklong shows with 12 rings going and 200 rounds a day, and circuits of shows going on all at the same time.

“So in order to keep it all straight you need to have a very good idea of what you want, what you feel is the benchmark, and then at the same time you need very good bookkeeping skills to allow you to keep track of it all, and remember it all in a systematic way. Like anything, it takes practice, constantly trying to get better at it.

“I really love going to different places, seeing different horses and how things are done in different areas and meeting different people—new horses coming up, that part is fascinating. It’s so fun when you judge with someone that maybe you know by reputation but you haven’t sat down with. If you judge with someone for a few days, they’re practically on your Christmas card list. To learn the different experiences that people have and yet there’s the commonality that we all have, the love of the horse, the love of competition, that part is fun.” 

Fran’s background in education served her both in teaching riding, and her work on the many committees she’s served on. She tried to help bring more systems to the organizations, teaching them about how people learn, and giving them an educational moment to help them put across what they’re trying to teach. In addition, she strives to teach judges to do a better job. Fran loves teaching, of any kind! “I love to teach riding, especially kids who are like sponges, who want to be taken seriously, I really enjoy that.”

A biology and chemistry major in college, Joe’s plan was to become a vet. Unfortunately, he didn’t get into vet school. There were no vet schools located in New England at the time. The schools were all regional and the local ones, the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, only took one student each from New England, making the chances of anyone getting in from that region nearly non-existent. Joe who attended Stonehill College, in Easton, Massachusetts, wasn’t getting in.

“Things happen for the best. I never regretted the fact that that’s the way it worked out, it just did. I’ve spent my life with horses and maybe that wouldn’t have happened if I’d been a vet.” Then again, he might never have met Fran. Throughout college, they remained friends and began dating after Joe graduated.

Teela-Wooket

“That’s the way I started, it was pretty meager beginnings,” notes Joe, “but once Fran and I got married, it really took off from there.”  Both were riding as amateurs at the time, with Joe mainly showing jumpers and Fran sticking predominantly to the hunters. 

At that time, under the American Horse Shows Association, the only way you could make money as an amateur in the rule book was as a summer camp instructor. Fran and Joe were just out of college, teaching high school and grammar school. To earn an income with horses, they started going up to Roxbury, Vermont to teach at a camp named Teela-Wooket each summer. Joe says a staggering number of riders he’s met over the years, including Brian Flynn and Jay Sargeant, got their start at Teela-Wooket. The list of graduates of the camp reads like a who’s who of the horse world.

He and Fran fell in love with it. The riding director for the camp was an Austrian named Captain T. Fred (Cappy) Marsman. Joe recalls that Cappy was the first person he knew who featured dressage as a discipline of choice.

“Major Mike,” an instructor, proved a huge influence on the young couple. In his home country of Poland, he’d been the captain of the Polish riding team, earning Olympic medals in both show jumping and three-day eventing in 1928, a feat accomplished only by two other riders. He also judged the Olympics in 1936 in Berlin, incurring Hitler’s wrath for failing to salute.

Major Mike preached that there were no shortcuts in training horses, and to always go by the mantra, “Be patient, be kind, be patient, be firm, and be patient.” Joe cites him as being second only to Fran as “the greatest influence on my theories and beliefs regarding horses, riding, and teaching.” Mike’s training was methodical, based on repetition, reward, and a complete understanding of the horse.

If Joe put a martingale on a high-headed horse or used any bit more severe than a snaffle, Mike would march up and pronounce, “Joe, this is American instant coffee.” Then he would pivot on his heel and walk away.

Teela-Wooket was so successful that it had a dedicated train that ran from Grand Central Station in Manhattan up to Roxbury, Vermont. Girls would take the train and spend the summer there. The camp had an incredible 110 horses! While a few of the kids brought their own horses, they mainly learned on camp-owned ones. 

A good-sized group of parents wanted their kids to focus on riding; they were not looking for the kind of camp where there was one hour for archery and one for pottery and riding was just thrown into the mix. But Teela-Wooket was a general camp, with various activities, and many parents were not happy. Discouraged by their daughters’ lack of progress, they encouraged Fran and Joe to start their own camp focused on riding and horsemanship. 

The Dotolis did just that, leasing a farm in Randolph, Vermont, and calling it Young Entry Stables. A “young entry” in the hunting field is a hound in its first year of hunting. And since all of their students were kids, the name Young Entry Stables (also known as “YES”) fit the bill. An ad in The Chronicle of the Horse earned them six students. Joe and Fran were in their 20’s, running a camp, and Joe was astonished that “six sets of parents thought it was a good idea to send their kids to us.”

The parents were right. The camp grew from there. “That’s the part that scared me,” laughs Joe. “These two kids (meaning he and Fran) who’d never done anything in their lives and the parents thought, ‘Sure, it will be okay to send our kids to them.'” The kids were motivated. Besides the school horses and their own, they rode sales horses as well. The camp was so successful that Fran and Joe are still in contact with some of those first six students. At their recent annual holiday party, several of them were in attendance.

The second year the camp attracted 12 riders. The third year it grew to 18, and in the fourth year, it had 28. That proved too many, so they went back to 18. With those 18 students, they continued the camp for 15 years. “It was highly successful!” exclaims Joe. That success came with a challenge. “Then we got kids that got too good and didn’t want to leave when the summer was over.”  

Click here for part II

Click here for part III

Click here for part IV


About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years. She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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