Fran and Joe Dotoli Part III – Success at the Top

by Ann Jamieson

When Peter turned 16, Joe and Fran decided it was time to start his jumper career. They began looking for potential jumpers but Peter was one step ahead of them. Researching the classified ads, he found a 15.1 bay Quarter Horse gelding with jumper experience. Joe called the highly motivated seller, and realized he knew the horse. It was one David Hopper had brought him along in the Preliminary Jumpers. The horse definitely had talent, but David said, “was difficult to deal with.” 

The owner, in fact, was terrified of the horse and when asked to ride him did nothing but walk. Joe put Peter up, and he figured the horse out right away. Although small, even smaller than the ad said, the horse was game. Peter finished his trial by jumping a few very big jumps, and the next day they made an offer. They named him “The Wolf,” and his price of $10,000 (obo), made him a steal. His owner was right, “He was as ornery a horse as I ever dealt with,” recalls Joe. He would kick, and not just threaten; he would aim for you. But he approached jumping with his ears back and the same feisty attitude.  

The Dotolis arranged for Norman Dello Joio to coach Peter in the jumpers. The next year, he and Wolf were champions in the Junior Jumper division at the Washington International Horse Show and at the International Jumping Derby in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. They also took the Bronze Medal in the Prix de States at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show. Wolf’s aggressiveness translated into being a tough competitor, and, says Joe, “You had to love him for it.”

Peter attended Tufts University and competed on the school’s intercollegiate riding team. He earned the ultimate honor, winning the Cacchione Cup (named after founder of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association Robert Cacchione). After graduation, Peter turned professional and Surf lucked into a wonderful retirement home with a client of Peter’s who owned her own farm. He became a trail horse as well as her pet and lived well into his 30s.

Peter soon realized that the only way to realize his dream of reaching the ranks of an elite rider was to compete in Europe. He moved to the continent to test himself against the best in the world every day. Later he began to split his time between the U.S. and Europe, and was selected for the U.S. team at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Canada. Wearing the pink coat of the USET for the first time, Peter did not disappoint, riding Macanuto DeNiro to both Team and Individual Silver Medals. That year he was named Equestrian of the Year by The Chronicle of the Horse…for the first time.

In 2001, the Dotolis got word that Peter had qualified for the World Cup Finals in Gothenburg, Sweden. The World Cup is part of a very popular horse show, so Peter had three horses with him: Macanuto DeNiro, a nice speed horse named Job, and a sales horse, a mare named Fein Cera. The Dotolis liked the mare; she was elegant and well-bred.

Awards ceremonies at the big European horse shows are part of the excitement. When Peter and Job won their speed class by nearly two seconds, they made as much of an impact during the awards as they had in their brilliant win. The lights dimmed, a spotlight illuminated the entrance to the ring, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blasted from the speakers as Peter and Job galloped into the ring. When Fran, Joe, and Peter caught the shuttle to the venue the following morning, they shared it with Rodrigo Pessoa. Peter introduced them. “Rodrigo, this is Fran and Joe Dotoli, these are the people who taught me to ride.” 

Peter made a life-changing decision mid-show. Although things had gone well with Job, DeNiro wasn’t doing too well. A big horse, he didn’t take well to the small indoor.

Peter asked Fran and Joe’s advice. “I’m thinking of changing horses (from DeNiro to Fein Cera), what do you think?” 

Neither of them knew that was even possible. But he made the choice, and it was one of the most influential decisions of his life. The third day of the Cup consisted of two rounds over an enormous course. Fein Cera only got better as the course went on, scoring four faults in the first round, and a clear in the second one. She was one of only two who went clean in that round. They moved up to a sixth place finish.

Peter at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain

At the 2002 World Equestrian Games, Peter and Fein Cera placed third. But more important to Peter, she was named “Best Horse at the Finals.” Over nine grueling courses, she had one rail down. Peter was more proud of her award than he was of his own.

The Dotolis are particularly proud of the fact that no matter where he is showing, or at what level, Peter always takes care of his own horses. A true horseman, he grooms them, braids them, bathes them, bandages them, and takes note of their physical, and mental condition. 

About Cera, Peter says, “I was sort of lucky that she landed in my life. She was a very, very hot horse. You had to be as quiet as you could on her. She had so much energy, and blood, and nerve. She was an incredible jumper and incredibly rideable if you could sit really quiet. If you could keep it together you could do these incredible rounds at big shows, and she made it look effortless.

“She came at the perfect time in my life.” Peter had committed to moving to Europe and “wanted to get as high as I could in the world standings. I stopped all my teaching and focused on my riding. When you have a horse like that everything changes. I made the team for the WEG and she was incredible, and then the Olympics. Because of her presence in my life, your name recognition gets higher and your world ranking gets higher. One good horse in your life changes people’s perspective. So I was able to maintain my time there in Europe for quite a while at a very high ranking.” 

When Peter was named Equestrian of the Year for the second time in 2002, he was unable to attend the ceremony and asked Joe to fill in for him, giving him a prepared statement. In part, it read, “The results of 2002 came to me in large part because of a special horse named Fein Cera. She is the most outstanding animal I have ever worked with. She is the kind of horse that riders and trainers dream about, making our work seem easy. For this I feel really fortunate.”

In 2004 Peter and Fein Cera made the Athens Olympic team along with Beezie Madden and Authentic, McLain Ward and Sapphire, and Chris Kappler and Royal Kaliber, with Frank Chapot as Chef d’Equipe. The Dotolis were seated in the stands with Peter’s family, all proudly wearing hats that were embroidered with “Peter Wylde” and “Fein Cera.” The first round was a qualifier.

When Peter and Fein Cera entered the ring, Joe recalls, “It was an awesome feeling to realize that we were sitting at the Olympics watching Peter ride for the United States. We all had goosebumps. They cruised around the course like they were jumping a hunter course.” The last jump was a huge oxer. As soon as they cleared it, Peter and Fein Cera galloped through the finish line…clear. They galloped across the stadium, and as Peter passed them, he gave them a huge smile and flashed a thumbs up. The American team finished with a silver medal. Joe had tears in his eyes as he watched Peter receive it. He wasn’t the only one.

One of the things that Peter says he really loved about Fran and Joe’s stable was that “it was very hands-on. All the kids were expected to chip in and help. We went to the shows and we did everything. Setting up the stalls, bandaging, braiding, grooming, and mucking out. We took care of our own horses; we knew everything about what was going on with our horses and it was a very healthy way to grow up as a kid. I feel like it brought me closer to the horses I was riding, and to have that responsibility in my life as a young person. When you live with horses, taking care of them, you come to respect them. 

“When your only involvement is just sitting on their backs you don’t realize their personality and their character and that the horse is a breathing animal that has moods and an opinion. When you are aware of all of that it gives you a very different perspective of how to ride and train your horse. So many kids never get that part of it. If you have no sense of that, if you just get on and ride your horse, then it’s a very different experience. The best philosophy of training horses is to understand what the horse is about and what it’s thinking and what it’s doing. That’s such a wonderful thing to learn as a human, to relate to animals in that way. 

“We all worked together as a team and Fran and Joe cultivated that. I feel forever lucky that I grew up in the Fran and Joe Dotoli environment. They both are a huge part of the person I am today and the success that I’ve had in my career was in large part due to Fran and Joe Dotoli. Joe is one of the kindest, least judgmental, and open minded people you will ever meet. To this day we have been very, very close. One of my happiest moments in the past few years was the homebred hunter I gave to Annie and the Dotoli’s granddaughter Nora. Fran and Joe and I sat in the side of the ring and watched Nora and my homebred win. She’s been champion with him three times. Nothing gets better than that, honestly. As long as I’ve been doing this, that experience was so fun. It was one of the highlights of my time.”

The Dotolis say, “It’s so nice that we see him on a regular basis; it’s great to have him around. His integrity and quality is always top shelf. It never changes. Now he’s in Ocala,” adds Joe. “He helps out some eventers, working with them on Show Jumping over the winter. He brings out the best in everyone around him; he brings out the best in the horse. It’s great to see someone that positive. It’s a hard business and it’s easy to get down and get negative. But he never takes that route. He’s such a natural with a great eye and enthusiasm and it’s infectious so it’s fun to be around.”

Other Top Horses and Riders

The Dotolis bought the amazing equitation horse known as Tuna (Catch of the Day), for Andrea Moore, a talented young rider they were working with. Joe had gone out to judge the Detroit/Motor City Shows in Bloomfield, Michigan, and saw a horse in the jumpers with such a beautiful rhythm that he thought he would make a great equitation horse. John Madden apparently thought the same. He came up to Joe and said “That horse I had in the jumpers I thought would make a great equitation horse.” Joe said, “So did I, would you let me have first dibs until the second week? I’ll come that Monday with my client and see if we can make it work.

“The horse had a prominent head and didn’t have much weight on him because he was showing in the jumpers. When he arrived with Andrea and her mom, they had just given him a bath.” Tuna was standing on the crossties soaking wet, and “We kind of approached him from the front and you can imagine what he looked like.”

Andrea’s mother looked at Joe and said, “Is this the horse? Look at his head!”

Joe answered, “If this horse becomes as good as I think he will, that head will become his trademark.” He did, and it was.

Andrea got on him and went down to the schooling ring. “There was a five stride, and I said do it in five.” She did, so Joe said “Now do it in six.” She did, and he said, “Now do it in eight.” She did. Then she did it in four, and Andrea said, “I never felt his rhythm change. He had the most elastic stride, a huge stride, he could make it go from nine feet to 15 feet without changing a thing.” 

“He was the only horse to ever win the New England Finals twice. He won it with Andrea Moore (Ice); he won it with Julie Taylor (Calder).”

The Dotolis started the incredibly talented hunter Baryshnikov. “He was a great horse. He won everywhere,” says Joe. A Hanoverian, (7/8 Thoroughbred), he came from Hamilton Farm, top-level dressage breeders who stood the stallion Galoubet. The farm was in Hamilton, Massachusetts, where the Dotolis were located at the time. “We got a call from Meg Plumb,” who told Joe “We have this young stallion.'”

He was three or four at the time, green broke, and meant to be a dressage stallion. But Meg was having trouble getting people interested in him because he was too small and moved too close to the ground. The second part of that description made the Dotolis sit up and take notice.

“Would you be interested in taking a look at him?” Meg asked them.

“Sure we would,” they answered, and he was shipped to their farm. 

The amazement in Joe’s voice was obvious as he exclaimed, “Well he was the best mover I’ve ever seen! Both Fran and I were like ‘Wow wait a minute!'” The horse was obviously green but phenomenally talented. They put their student James Lala (yet another top rider they started) up on him. Even though the horse could barely canter yet, they let James jump a little crossrail to get a peek at his style. Joe remembers the moment clearly. “Oh my God, we said, ‘Stop! We’ll buy him!'” 

Their customer, Andrea Larsen, was looking at the time for an amateur horse so they talked to Andrea’s dad. “You might have to wait for a little while for him to grow up, but she might end up with the best horse we’ll ever find for her if she’s willing to be patient.”

They said “Absolutely,” and the horse was theirs.

“Even as a stallion,” Joe recalls, the horse was “so easy, that by the end of that following year he was showing in the pre-greens with a professional and showing in the adults with Andrea. He went on the van with the other horses and never was a problem.” They bred him as well, and he had 15 babies (through shipped semen). After that they had him gelded. When Andrea stopped showing, her dad let the Dotoli’s daughter Annie show him in the juniors.  

Annie Dotoli showing Baryshnikov (owned by Andrea Larson) at the Washington International Horse Show

The Dotolis had no intention of selling him. But a big customer in the midwest, Jubilee Farm, kept coming up to them with bigger and bigger offers. They wanted him! Finally, the offers got so high they proved irresistible. The Dotolis, realizing they’d never have another opportunity like that, agreed to sell him. He was 12 and Annie was in her final year of juniors, and off to college soon. It was the right time. Baryshnikov went on for quite a while after that, continuing his winning ways.

“He was a good one,” says Joe understatedly. “I wish he had finished his career with us but sometimes you don’t have the choices you might want.” Baryshnikov went on to do the amateur owners and working hunters, with Sandy Ferrell showing him in the workings. She loved the horse and did unbelievably well with him. “The smart ones,” says Joe “can either work with you or against you. If they work with you they turn out to be great; if they work against you they turn out to be rogues.”

Ox Ridge

The next chapter of Fran and Joe’s lives centered around the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, Connecticut. Having heard about the opportunity, they inquired about the responsibilities there. Joe had undergone some health challenges, and they felt it was a good fit for them, something he could handle more easily than their own barn. 

After undergoing major surgery he bounced back and felt great. Some of their students at the club included Lee Gallagher (Tricher), Melanie Dorf (Brown), and Andrea Moore (Ice). Their business at Ox Ridge encompassed a wider range, focusing more on amateurs than juniors.

Ox Ridge wanted the Dotolis to revive the business, which had declined significantly. Numerous managers had been hired for this purpose, but none of them had managed to turn things around. As a result, there were only 32 members when the Dotolis arrived to take over. The club had, in fact, gone through so many managers that Joe and Fran were concerned that coming on board might not be a wise decision. But they stuck it out. With the programs they instituted to increase membership, they brought the total to 130 members. It was quite a shift! 

The former managers had let all the old club stuff go, including many of the social activities, and Fran and Joe brought it back. “We got a sense of community going, we brought back things like brunches.” When it was time to quit Ox Ridge the Dotolis moved to a place they’d bought in Vermont on Lake Champlain, figuring it would be their “retirement” home. With both of them judging and Joe managing horse shows, they figured they were all set. 

Back to the Family

Their daughter Annie had been the professional rider at Ox Ridge, and they’d done a lot of business with a sales barn in Belgium, Stephex. The owner of Stephex (one of the largest sales barns in Europe) called to see if it would be okay with the Dotolis if they asked Annie to work for them.”She’s a big girl now,” they replied, “it’s her decision.”

Although Annie didn’t want to do it, Fran and Joe suggested she go over and see what it was all about, and see if she liked it. She did, and stayed for eight years. She met her husband, Aster Pieters, there in Belgium. After having a baby, Nora, they decided they wanted to raise their kids in the United States. 

Meanwhile, Fran was feeling bored semi-retired in Vermont. “I painted every inch in the house that would stand still and I planted every inch of ground. I was so bored! And I missed teaching.”

Annie and Aster moved back to the United States and rented a barn. Then they decided “Why don’t we work together and we can all have a farm together?” Together they bought the farm they are now in, Tibri (a combination of Aster’s parents names which is a continuation of their stable name in Europe) in Chepachet, Rhode Island. Their breeding stock and their horses are known by the Tibri prefix such as Tibri Rain King.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property, 180 acres, and now they built the barn and our granddaughter Nora has become very successful in her part of it, so we have three generations working on the farm. The focus is on sales so horses come and go a lot faster than they used to,” notes Joe. “It’s a different business model.”

Nora won the USHJA East Coast finals this year and was second in the Hamel Cup at Kentucky at 13. Fran teaches some of the young women who work for Annie and her husband, their assistants, helping them develop a system for their job, such as how to get a horse ready for a client. I think of it as “grandmotherly kinds of things,” she laughs. 

“We’ve had a lot of success, we’ve had really good riders, really good horses, it’s been a life with horses. Now we have our third generation working on it.”

The Dotoli Grandchildren

Former clients show up all the time. Martha Lynch (Kopanon), who showed Baryshnikov, came up the driveway recently with her daughter. “My daughter wants to ride,” she said, “and if she’s going to ride, she’s going to ride with you.” She now rides with Annie.

Beth McCombs (Westvold) was the first rider they took to Madison Square Garden, and Andrea Moore (Ice) won the 1986 New England Finals with Catch of the Day (Tuna), the only horse to ever win the New England Finals twice. Leigh Gallagher (Tricher) was another top rider who started with them at 12 at Ox Ridge. At their huge holiday parties at the end of the year, former riders and offspring are always present to celebrate and reminisce with.

Click here for part I

Click here for part II

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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