Fran and Joe Dotoli Part IV – Making Our Sport Safer, and Better

by Ann Jamieson

Revolutionizing Helmets 

“Back in the mid-90s,” Joe recalls, the sport had a few very bad years with a number of fatalities in the sport—all head injuries. “Five,” says Joe, “if I recall.” A number of times Joe and Fran and others had pushed for the introduction of safety helmets. “They always got shot down,” says Joe. “The excuse was ‘We’ll put in the rulebook strongly recommended.’ And of course, nobody wore them. With the kids of course it was all peer pressure. The result was nothing happened.”

Finally Joe thought, “This is ridiculous. Every other sport has seen the light. We’re still going along with velvet hunt caps that were about as useful as a baseball cap.

Several of us were pushing that they needed to get this done.” The AHSA came up with a “compromise,” putting harnesses on the hunt caps. Joe called it “the stupidest compromise ever because now parents and others thought this must be safer now with harnesses.” All it meant was you might as well have worn a harness on your baseball cap. “It didn’t mean anything.”

Finally, in 2001 they got a committee together to try and really push it. “We had a rule change proposal and we thought we’d go strictly with the juniors because by then people were ready to accept the fact that juniors would have to wear them. We made a rule change proposal that all juniors would have to wear safety helmets. The problem was, at that time, the helmet makers had given up on horse show people. Too many times they thought it was going to happen and then it never did. 

“So they were making helmets for people who wanted them which was 4-H and handicapped riding and Pony Club. And all those groups cared about was that they were cheap and safe. But they were seriously ugly. They were bubble heads.” The ruling was passed with a two-year waiting period. There were just not enough of them to go around for all the people that needed them, and they were just “too ugly” for show people to use them.

At the time, there were six helmet makers. Joe set up a meeting with them at the King of Prussia trade show in the fall. He promised that he would get the rule passed, and asked the helmet makers to promise him that they would come up with some elegant and sporty styles that horse people would wear, not the big clunky ones currently on the market. The manufacturers agreed they would build them if Joe got the rule passed, and “I got it passed. They did a great job, they came out with a lot of really good products, the GPA, and other new ones. They all passed the ASTM and they started to look like real athletic helmets.” 

Back then, “There were judges fighting it, trainers against it, so many people fighting it. It was not good. I had to shut my computer off they were saying such horrible things. It was pretty crazy. But once we got that done it was way easier the following year when we added adults to the list to get that done too. A couple of years after that we got everyone on the show grounds who was mounted. They had to have equal to or better than the ASTM standard.

“They passed the standard, but are they moving forward? Are they trying to make them safer? I don’t think so. They’re making them prettier, sleeker looking, sparklier but they’re probably not going to make them better.”

Two years ago, the announcer Kenn Marash’s wife had a traumatic brain injury from a fall, and Kenn sent Joe an article about all the great work being done at Virginia Tech on football, bicycle, and hockey helmets. Joe spoke to Kenn and after hanging up the call, found an 800 number for Virginia Tech, and rang them. He asked to talk to the doctor conducting the studies. Twenty minutes later Dr. Duma called him back. Joe asked if he would have any interest in conducting a study on equestrian helmets. Dr. Duma was immediately interested; he felt the sport really needed a study.

Joe asked, “How much and how long?”

The answer? “Four hundred and fifty thousand dollars and two years.”

Joe went to work to raise the money. The first group to step up was the USHJA (Joe sits on the board). He explained the situation, and what the five-star study would do. They pledged $100,000 to start it off; USEF came in as well. Then US Eventing joined the group, and the New England Equitation Finals got on board, along with several individuals as well. After getting to $225,000, the MARS Foundation gave them matching funds. In eight months, Joe had reached the monetary goal.

It took the two years the school had figured on to get the study done, although not all helmets have been tested yet as some were difficult to acquire because of supply chain issues. Right now 40 helmets have been tested, and all that passed the ASTM requirements will eventually be tested.

There was some pushback, as some of the helmets didn’t fare as well as expected, and some manufacturers questioned the testing procedures. The whole purpose of the study was to determine how well a helmet protects a rider against concussion, and now there is a system in place for any future helmets to be tested as well. The higher the number of stars, the better the helmet protects against concussion. As Joe says, “It’s a tool to help riders make good decisions in their choice of a helmet.”

Next up, Joe is about to move forward with testing of protective vests. He says “The whole atmosphere has changed. It’s totally opposite. We used to have a very ‘non-productive’ attitude about helmets. Now, people are so anxious to wear helmets, the vests, and know which ones protect the best.

“Judges are happy to see the kids in the vests, happy that the sport is becoming safer. There’s no getting away from it anymore. They automatically call my number,” when it comes to protective gear for the sport. “I’m happy to do it,” says Joe. “If it can make it a safer sport for my grandkids, and everybody else’s kids I’m happy to do it. But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re in a dangerous sport, so let’s make it as safe as we can make it and then go on with the sport. It really was a fight back then, but I’m glad attitudes have changed.”

New England Equitation Championships

“It’s always been a big part of it for us, not just being riders but being horsemen first. I think Peter Wylde set the tone for that. He braided his own horse for the Olympic Games. He always braided his own horses for the Grand Prix and was totally involved in all their care, always. That was one of the reasons I started New England Equitation Championships. I wanted to stem the tide of kids doing less and less and just wanting the reins handed to them. We started the Horsemanship Challenge. I made it up as to how I wanted to do it, and it’s been copied several times since.”

Peter and Nora

“Joe,” says Fran, is the idea man but “I always tried to help with the implementation. The New England Equitation Championships has been a labor of love for us, and for so many people. But I think that event has really been put on the map by some great ideas: the horsemanship, the Challenge of the States, the Celebration of the Juniors. It’s given a lot of kids a fairly local event that they can achieve and feel good about and have a nice event to come to. The fact that that event has been copied in many ways, such as the USHJA Championships (a 3’3″ event) at Capitol Challenge, which originated from the NEEC. Numerous classes have copied that 3’3” event so it’s really been an important piece of the riding world in this country. And they have a unique system of judging, a six panel of judges with numerical scores that are posted up on the boards. Nowadays people are used to hearing the numerical scores but 30 years ago they weren’t. That was another innovative move. 

“The way we do it is we have roughly 200 show in the Finals. We do the Horsemanship Challenge. They come on Friday and do a written exam of 100 questions on horsemanship, tack, horse care, current events, and everything having to do with the horses. This past year 120 took the test. Only the top 12 scores move forward.”

Some examples of test questions include: The result of not properly drying a horse’s legs might be a. Laminitis b. Scratches c. Encephalitis d. Hives; As grey horses get older they may get lumps on their body, especially in sensitive areas such as the dock, mouth, and sheath. This is caused by: a. Lymphangitis b. Strangles c. Lyme Disease d. Melanoma; and When a horse lies down and is unable to get up: a. Heaves b. Croup c. Strangles d. Cast.

On Friday night the event hosts a big junior party, which celebrates the lives of the kids who are moving out of the juniors. The kids are also given a gift.

Joe felt that nobody paid attention to the lives of the kids who were moving forward. Instead, they were just like “O.K. you’re done who’s next?” He changed all that. The 12 who move forward are recognized with a green armband and move into Phase Two which is held as a practicum. 

When Joe was in college lab tests were called practicums, meaning they were hands-on. He carried that forward into the Challenge. A veterinarian, a horse show judge, and a former winner of the Challenge all serve as judges. The kids show up at the barn with a grooming box and are tested on their hands-on abilities with the horses for 40 minutes. That score gets added to their written test.

The third phase is the score from the first round of the medal. Between the first and second round of the medal, the top eight horsemen of the year are pinned. The event has become a very big deal, something New England riders strive to qualify for. Those who don’t have the means or the horse to pursue qualifying for the Medal/Maclay/Talent Search finals have their own goal to shoot for, and to be honored at.

This past year (2022) the Dotoli’s granddaughter Nora won it at only 13 years old, on the 25th anniversary of the Horsemanship Challenge. There could not be a better way for the Dotolis to mark the 25th anniversary!

Organizers work hard to make sure horsemanship is a vital part of the show. “To the really great ones, the horses aren’t strangers. They know their horses like they know themselves,” says Joe. The Dotolis’ barn has always been run that way. Horsemanship is a vital part of the curriculum, and their riders are all hands-on. 

2017 USEF Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo © Adam Brennan

USEF Lifetime Achievement Award

Joe got a call one night from Murray Kessler, the President of the USEF. It was eight o’clock at night. Joe’s first thought? “Oh geez, I’ve been suspended.” He couldn’t imagine why else the President of the USEF would call him at home, at night, and wondered “What did I do wrong?”

Instead, he was honored with the USEF’s 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award, a richly deserved honor, at the USEF Annual Meeting. Many of the people instrumental in Joe’s career were there to celebrate the achievement. Joe reminisced about all the great people and the great horses who have graced his life. 

Sally Wheeler Award

Joe won the Sally Wheeler Award for his work getting the helmet rule passed. “It means you’ve done some positive things for the sport in your life. Fran and I always felt, ‘You either make it better or shut up.’ People complain, but if you say did you ever sign up for a committee or something and they say I haven’t got time for that. Then shut up! It’s a great feeling when the sport you’ve spent your life in chooses to recognize you like that.”

The Dotolis recently celebrated their 54th anniversary. “We cover for one another,” says Joe. “We’ve been doing it together all along. When I got the Lifetime Achievement Award it should’ve been both of us because what we’ve done we’ve done together; it wasn’t just me.”

Judging Panel for the 2022 USHJA Derby Finals,Julie Winkle,Scott Hoffsteder, Rachel Kennedy, Chris Wynn, Fran and Rob Biefield.

USHJA Awards

Fran, too, won two prestigious awards from the United States Hunter Jumper Association, earning the Volunteer of the Year award in 2020, and the President’s Distinguished Service Award in 2021. She is rightly proud of these awards acknowledging her amazing contributions to our sport.

Joe defines what the success that he and Fran have shared through horses means to them. “I believe the true success Fran and I have had in the sport lies in the number of young riders that came through our barn and are still involved with horses on some level. We instilled in our riders a love of horses and a connection to them. We were able to keep the stress of competition from detracting from the experience of riding by focusing on the horses and not simply winning a ribbon. I like to win as much as anyone, but if you don’t enjoy your horses along the way you miss out on the best part.”

The horse world is a better place thanks to the work, love, and dedication of Joe and Fran Dotoli.

Click here for part I

Click here for part II

Click here for part III

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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