Fran and Joe Dotoli Part II – Peter Wylde

Joe and Peter Wylde in Florida

This article is a continuation of a series, for part one, click here.

The solution was for the young couple to start a year-round barn at Fran’s parents’ farm in Medfield, Massachusetts. Fran had kept her horses there as a kid, and they continued the Young Entry Stables name they had chosen for the camp. After four years, Fran quit teaching school. Their first daughter, Annie, was born in 1973.  Later they expanded to a larger farm with about 25 stalls, also in Medfield. The barns, which had been the original livery stable for the town, were in a state of abject disrepair. They required a tremendous amount of time and work to return to some semblance of useable condition.

Joe kept teaching school, working in the Boston system. He and Fran soon had two little kids, and he felt he needed the security of a regular job and health benefits to support the family. After finishing school for the day, he would head to the barn and teach along with Fran. As their students were mostly children who didn’t get to the barn either until after school, it all worked out. Joe wrote a book, called A Piece of Chalk, about his teaching experience in Boston, which took place during de-segregation and busing.

Like all horsepeople, Fran and Joe have had unique horses, including some that seemed almost human. Joe remembers Fran’s horse, Champ, very clearly. “We used to have a six-horse van. We’d put six horses on the van, and then Annie’s little Walk Trot pony would go up the ramp and turn around and face the door. Then Champ would place his butt to the ramp and Joe would say get up there and he would look left and then right and then back up the ramp because there wasn’t any room to turn him around when he got up there. He would back up the ramp and get up there and then the pony would go under his belly and off we would go. I would never even think to do that with any other horse. He knew exactly what I wanted him to do.”

Fran says, “Color Me Blue was a splashy kind of horse and a very good mover. We always did well under saddle. If he decided he was going to jump that day, you were in good shape. Otherwise, forget about it! But I did enjoy field hunting him once we realized his showing days were frustrating. I took him field hunting and he was really good at that. Probably the fanciest field hunter out there! You have to find the right niche for them, you know?”

Peter Wylde’s Junior Years

Fran and Joe were happy teaching, training, and growing their barn family. “Then one day this little kid shows up,” says Joe, “his name was Peter Wylde. He made us famous, and now he’s training our granddaughter along with our daughter and her husband.” 

When Peter arrived, they realized it was time to give up the camp. They were going to need to focus to bring him to his potential. They knew from the start that Peter possessed incredible natural talent. Everyone knew it. The word was out that this young man was a rider that would go places. Peter was “always a delight. He has a wonderful family and was always great to work with.” 

While Fran had given Peter some up/down lessons as a small child, he had mainly trained with Clem Russell. When Clem decided to go back to school for a degree, 12-year-old Peter landed like a gift in the Dotoli’s barn. 

Joe recalls, “It was the luckiest thing that ever happened in our careers.

“In fact,” says Joe, “when Seddon and John Wylde asked if we could train Peter, Fran and I had all we could do not to look like blithering idiots.” 

Peter grew up with horses living on either side of his home, and a close family friend had horses. He knew immediately that they would be an important part of his life. He began riding at the friend’s farm, just playing around.  “I really liked it, it was just fun for me. My parents had actually offered my brother MacRae riding lessons and he didn’t want them, so they didn’t offer them to me.”

After a few months of playing and riding at his friend’s house with the horses, Peter asked for lessons. He was seven at the time. “It hit right away, I really, really loved it.” He remembers there was a big riding place across the street, which turned out to be Fran’s parents’ home. Nearly 15 years later Peter ended up renting it (Fran’s parents had sold it) and started his own business there!

Peter recalls, “Horses were all around me and I saw them and was just drawn to them from the beginning.” He was 13 and on his third pony when he started riding with Joe and Fran. His first pony Easy Does It (Carmel) was plain, but a good jumper. A chunky school pony, she was purchased from Mt. Ida College. Carmel was one of the only ponies to ever hold a measurement card for 13.2 3/4 hands. Peter, wanting her to card as a large, grew her feet for about eight weeks before he took her to get measured. He wanted to jump 3′, not 2’6″, to jump higher, not lower.  So Carmel had to be measured as a large, and she was. 

Clem wanted Peter on something fancier, so they sold Carmel and bought a second pony. Although fancy, this pony came with a dirty stop and unfortunately badly shook Peter’s confidence. That pony was sold as well, and they purchased yet another pony, Devil’s River. Devil was a very fancy pony and a great jumper. Peter rode him for a short period of time until Clem decided to go back to school. 

Peter kept Devil at home and was responsible for his care. His mother asked Joe if he could train Peter, “because my mom felt strongly that I should have a male trainer.” Although Joe was still teaching high school at the time, he was willing to edit his teaching schedule to fit into Peter’s day. When Peter came over with Devil’s River for his first lesson, Joe knew some changes had to be made. He knew immediately that there was some damage to undo. 

The pony looked like he was decked out for battle. He was tacked up with a double twisted wire bit, a short martingale, and draw reins. Joe had Peter go into the barn and change to just a snaffle, after explaining what he was doing and why. When the two reappeared, Devil was a different pony. His head came down, his stride was longer, and his ears were up; he was much happier. From that day forward Devil never went in anything but a plain snaffle.

Peter with Devil’s River

Peter proved an exceptional student, absorbing everything like a sponge. Far advanced over other riders of his age, he was capable of naturally doing things that others were incapable of no matter how much they practiced. Finding a distance was never a problem, it was simply a matter of which distance Peter wanted!

Even as a young teen, he could imitate all the top riders, from Kevin Bacon to George Morris to Rodney Jenkins. And his focus in the show ring was unsurpassed. In 1979 Peter and Devil took the Large Pony Hunter championship at the Washington International Horse Show. During the stake class, the last fence of the course was a single oxer at the end of a long diagonal approach. Peter and Devil had been having a terrific round and Joe and Fran expected an easy canter across the diagonal until Peter could see a good distance three or four strides away. That didn’t work for Peter. As soon as he turned the corner he shocked his trainers by urging Devil into a strong gallop. Peter had already seen the distance, and galloped right up to it! “It gave me goosebumps,” Joe remembers. It also settled who would be the winner. There was no question.

Brian Flynn was watching, and he asked Joe, “Did he see that? He didn’t see that, did he?” 

“He saw it,” Joe replied.

“Wow, he’s special,” Brian declared.

How right he was.

Peter was fourth at Pony Finals with Devil’s River, and Reserve Champion at Washington. At the beginning of his 15th year, the pony was sold. With Amanda Lyerly, he went on to earn Pony of the Year, going on to become a very famous pony. After Devil’s sale, Peter became a working student for the Dotoli’s. “I spent every moment that I possibly could at the barn. Fran and Joe were like second parents to me; I was at the Dotoli house more than I was at the Wyldes.”

“You couldn’t miss him,” recalls Joe. “Everyone knew there was something special about him. I don’t know why his trainer decided to go back to school,” says Joe “but I’m eternally glad that he did. There are not too many people like him. He has such enthusiasm for the sport, which I still have to smile about all the time. He had such feel he didn’t even know what he was feeling it was so intuitive for him. Sometimes all I did was tell him what he was doing because he didn’t know the name of it. His talent is quite extraordinary.

They lived so close. Our barn was on a dirt road at the Medfield/Dover line. Peter was probably a half mile from the farm and he would literally hack his pony up the dirt road every day and take a lesson. After his lesson, he’d put the pony in a stall and help us for the day. Those were the old days when kids came to the barn and spent the whole day.”

“When people ask, we say all we ever claim is that we didn’t screw him up,” laughs Joe.  “It’s so nice that we’ve all stayed close through the years. He certainly had to move on and have different experiences. We didn’t finish his education by any means. But the fact is he appreciates what we did do, which is really nice and I don’t think that happens too often in the great scheme of things.” 

Other trainers noted Peter’s talent, and Jimmy Lee invited him to ride with him at Belcourt Farm for one summer. The Wylde’s accepted the offer. While there, Jimmy got a grey Thoroughbred, Native Surf, in for sale. He had been doing extremely well in the conformation hunters, taking championships at Harrisburg, Washington, and New York with George Morris in the irons. Knowing that the Dotolis were looking for an amateur horse for a customer, Peter told them about Surf and they flew down to try him. Peter had him polished and gleaming. They purchased him for the client and Surf went north to his new home in Massachusetts. 

“We bought him, and she got along with him and did well with him, but soon stopped riding as much. The client wanted to get him sold, so we put Peter up on him.” Since Devil’s River had been sold the previous spring, the Dotolis had been looking for a horse for Peter. When Surf became available, his owner let Peter ride him and the match was a hit from the start. The stunning grey with the handsome young man aboard caught the judges’ attention. 

And they won. Qualifying for the New England Medal, the AHSA Medal, and the ASPCA Maclay, they were getting noticed. That year Peter and Surf won the New England Finals but weren’t quite ready for the big three. The following year at the Medal Finals, Peter had a great first round, getting called back sixth. But in the next round, a perfect trip turned into a disaster when Peter and Surf added a stride in the combination, the very last jump on the course. Fran and Joe were devastated, and as they went to meet Peter wondered what they were going to say to him. When they arrived, they discovered they didn’t need to say anything. Peter took it all in stride and never blamed his horse for anything. In fact, he just asked them to hold Surf so he could run to the rail and watch his friend Sandy Nielsen’s round. She won that day.

Joe says, “We always maintain that we have learned as much, or more, from Peter as he has learned from us. Peter never let a mistake or bad round affect his next round. When a class is over, it’s history. Learn what you can, and move on.”

Peter let it go, and two weeks later he “decimated” the competition in the Maclay with a flawless round. “Peter and Surf owned the course. He saved this awesome effort for his moment on the biggest stage. When he jumped the last fence, I thought the roof was going to come down on Madison Square Garden. The noise was deafening.”

For the first time in the history of the Maclay, there was no additional testing. The top ten riders lined up in the middle of the ring, and Victor Hugo Vidal announced the winners from tenth to first. Fran and Joe held their breath until they heard the magic words. “And now, the 1982 Maclay champion from Medfield, Massachusetts, Mr. Peter Wylde.”

The crowd was still standing and cheering as Peter petted Surf on the neck and took a step forward, bursting into a big smile. Fran and Joe were escorted by the ringmaster onto the red carpet leading to the presentation area. They were presented with the Woodrow G. Gatehouse Memorial Trophy as the winning trainers of the Maclay Champion. A dream had come true. And Ronnie Mutch declared it “the least controversial win in the history of the Maclay.”

Both Fran and Joe were tired, but they knew Surf was even more exhausted. The horse comes first, and Joe was the one chosen to take Surf home, along with Traci Emmanuel, the Dotoli’s groom, (who is now a prominent show photographer). They were both shocked as they neared home to suddenly have flashing blue lights appear around them.

“Don’t tell me we are going to end the day like this,” said Joe, disheartened.

Instead, one cruiser pulled in front of them, and one behind them, escorting them home like the victors they were.

That spring, Peter was given the place of honor on a float in the Memorial Day parade. Medfield was honoring its hero.

Click here for part I

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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