The Ride of Your Life

Trainer Joe Do­toli’s pas­sion for safety and horse­man­ship helped him win the 2017 USEF Life­time Achieve­ment Award.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Tri­cia Con­a­han

PH

How did you first get in­volved with horses?

JD

Un­til high school, I had no con­tact with horses. My fam­ily was in the restau­rant busi­ness in Bos­ton. My sis­ter’s best friend, Maryanne, had gone to Europe for grad school and got in­volved in horses. She was in our kitchen one morn­ing lament­ing the fact she now had a horse in Mas­sachusetts and no one to ride with. She was pretty and I was not too busy, so I said, “Of course, I will go with you.”

I can still vividly re­mem­ber go­ing into that barn; the smell and the feel of it. I thought, Wow, how did I miss this? This is a place I want to be. I never re­ally stopped from that mo­ment.

PH

What do you think is most im­por­tant to know about a horse?

JD

Horses, for the most part, are pretty smart, but there is a huge range in the in­tel­li­gence of horses. Some are re­ally slow, some are a lit­tle too smart. When you are deal­ing with a horse, you have to fig­ure that out. Some­times with the slow thinkers, they just need more time to process. If you take a slow thinker and take your time with it, some­times you will end up with a bet­ter horse.

PH

What else do you be­lieve about horses?

JD

I re­ally be­lieve that horses, un­like most an­i­mals, have a com­pet­i­tive side to them. They are like hu­mans. The re­ally good ones know it is a com­pe­ti­tion. They may not know what the time al­lowed is, but they want to get in there and do their job.

PH

How did your in­stincts for horses de­velop?

JD Well, I re­ally didn’t have very good ones in the be­gin­ning. When you start out with real ba­bies and ones that are not so tal­ented and co­op­er­a­tive, you have to fig­ure them out a lit­tle bit.

I used to say, “Great horses make great riders.” But my friend, jockey Chris McCar­ron, would al­ways say, “Bad horses make great riders.” When you ar­gue with a Hall of Fame jockey, you bet­ter be right! But Chris’ thought was that you learn from your mis­takes. And that when you do get it right, if the horse gives you a re­ward, you be­come a bet­ter rider for that.

PH

How have horse shows changed over the course of your ca­reer?

JD

I think it is get­ting very hard to be in show-man­age­ment now. The num­ber of peo­ple do­ing our sport is not in­creas­ing right now. [It hasn’t] since the be­gin­ning of the re­ces­sion. Mem­ber­ship num­bers are stag­nant. We have got to make some more progress to make it more ac­ces­si­ble to more peo­ple; it seems to be go­ing in the other di­rec­tion in terms of who can af­ford to do it.

Back when we were do­ing shows in the 1970s, a lot of it was vol­un­teer. Al­most all the horse shows had some sort of char­ity con­nected to them. But you are not go­ing to put a rope around a field to­day and call it a horse show. Now, ev­ery po­si­tion is paid—in-gate, jump crew, an­nouncer. The num­ber of peo­ple it takes to put on a mod­ern horse show makes it very, very ex­pen­sive. Add to that the ex­pec­ta­tions of

the ex­hibitors in terms of foot­ing and the equip­ment to care for that foot­ing prop­erly—it costs mil­lions of dol­lars. The re­al­ity is some­body has got to pay for that.

PH

How did you be­gin train­ing Olympian Peter Wylde? JD As a young­ster, Peter took care of his own pony at home—he trained with Clem Rus­sell. The luck­i­est thing that ever hap­pened to [my wife] Fran and me was when Clem de­cided to go back to col­lege to get his de­gree. Peter was 12 then and ev­ery­one knew he was a great young rider, but he had pre­vi­ously had a pony with a stop­ping is­sue. His par­ents wanted him to come to us, so he sad­dled up his new pony, Devil’s River, and rode down the dirt road to our barn. He had some con­fi­dence is­sues to re­pair, but once we got him go­ing, there was no stop­ping him. Every­thing he rode, he was ter­rific.

PH

What is it like to teach some­one with that level of tal­ent? JD Peter is a lot of fun. He loves horses and he will al­ways do right by them. He doesn’t take short­cuts. He does it the right way. He still claims that we taught him how to ride. I claim only that we didn’t screw him up. When you have some­one with that type of tal­ent and en­thu­si­asm, the only thing you can do is keep good horses un­der them and en­cour­age them. Don’t get them too tech­ni­cal, just let them go and ride.

PH

What do you think is next for hel­met safety? JD We are strug­gling like other sports. Any sport that has con­tact at all is ad­dress­ing the is­sue of con­cus­sions and brain trauma. Hockey is in huge trou­ble and the NFL is late in try­ing to ad­dress th­ese types of in­juries. All that tech­nol­ogy is sim­i­lar across all sports. The ASTM (Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Test­ing and Ma­te­ri­als) is con­stantly test­ing new tech­nol­ogy, and I think the money will come from the NFL and NHL to make im­prove­ments.

But no hel­met will pro­tect you from every­thing; you have to pro­tect your­self as best you can by wear­ing a cer­ti­fied hel­met. And get on with what you love.

PH

What would you change about the sport to­day? JD We are pro­duc­ing a lot of re­ally great riders. I wish we were pro­duc­ing more horse­men. There are a lot of kids who fin­ish their Ju­nior years with min­i­mal con­tact with their horses. Feed­ing them mints is not con­tact. Not many would know how to take care of a horse af­ter it has been worked. PH What do kids learn from be­ing with horses? JD Done cor­rectly, there are very few things that teach life lessons bet­ter or more of­ten than rid­ing horses. Team­work. De­pend on your part­ner. Plan. Or­ga­nize your time. Stay on task. Stay on goal. It takes a lot to be­come a rider. All those things don’t end when you stop rid­ing. There is a good rea­son that most of the kids who ride are also ex­cel­lent stu­dents in school. PH Is there any­thing you re­gret in your ca­reer? JD I would have had big re­grets if I had wanted to do this and in­stead was in a cu­bi­cle some­where. The horse busi­ness is not al­ways easy; there are things that are hard. But we wake up ev­ery day, we do what we love, we are out in the air. When I am judg­ing, I am in a beau­ti­ful place watch­ing beau­ti­ful riders ride beau­ti­ful horses. I re­ally can’t say there is any­thing else I wanted to do.

PH

What one quote speaks to you? JD Many years ago, we worked with Maj. Mike An­toniewicz. He was a Pol­ish cav­alry of­fi­cer and cap­tain of a Pol­ish team back in the 1930s. He had three Olympic medals in his pocket. He was a great men­tor about how to train horses, how not to take short­cuts.

His rule for train­ing a young horse was: “Be pa­tient. Be kind. Be pa­tient. Be firm. Be pa­tient.” I be­lieve in that. PH In ad­di­tion to writ­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of Peter Wylde, you wrote a non-horse-re­lated book, A Piece of Chalk, in 2016 about the 1970s bus­ing crisis in Bos­ton, when forced bus­ing was cham­pi­oned as a so­lu­tion to seg­re­ga­tion. What in­spired you to write it? JD I de­cided to write A Piece of Chalk be­cause I was a young sci­ence teacher at Bos­ton English High School dur­ing that time. In re­cent years, it seemed like the en­tire de­seg­re­ga­tion/ bus­ing era had been for­got­ten, es­pe­cially by the young peo­ple I spoke to about it.

PH

What was it like to win the USEF Life­time Achieve­ment Award? JD The call I got from the USEF, it came out of the blue. My first in­stinct was, “Oh God, what have I done?” This award is a great thing, a thrill. But it hasn’t re­ally changed any­thing, it can’t make my life any bet­ter. I am do­ing what I love.

Joe Do­toli speaks af­ter re­ceiv­ing the 2017 U.S. Eques­trian Fed­er­a­tion Life­time Achieve­ment Award, a recog­ni­tion for nearly 50 years of his lead­er­ship in the equine-sports in­dus­try as a pro­fes­sional rider, trainer, judge, au­thor and horse-show man­ager.

Joe was in­stru­men­tal in form­ing the New Eng­land Eq­ui­tation Cham­pi­onships in 1976 and was also a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to the adop­tion of manda­tory safety hel­mets and ASTM test­ing.

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