by Pamela Doolittle
This is a story about how the heart of a real champion is revealed and recognized at the most prestigious horse show outside of Europe. To say I am an amateur is really an understatement, and it’s important that you understand from the beginning that the champion is really my horse, Coby. I am a wife and mother of three kids, who is trained and works as a Ph.D. chemist for the University of Wisconsin. I am a scientist—not a trainer nor a talented rider. I have two horses of my own that I ride, one of whom is probably the equine partner of my lifetime. I’m honored to share his story with you.
I met Coby as a wild-eyed two year old at the breeding farm of Meg Williams. He floated around Meg’s arena with his tail flagged, snorting at me as I stood in the corner. He focused so much on the fancy two-year old he saw in Meg’s mirrors that he nearly crashed into the end walls. His feet only touched the ground out of respect for gravity. I could predict he would be a challenge to start under saddle. He was. Right from our first meeting, it was clear to me that Coby knew how to make a memorable first impression.
by Pamela Doolittle
Building a Dream
This story begins in 2004. My husband, Dan, and I had worked and saved for years to afford our own 60 acres of paradise nestled in the Baraboo Hills north of Madison, Wisconsin. It was a dream we shared since before we were married. That January, we broke ground on a stable and riding arena. It was a financial stretch for us to build, even after the years of planning and saving. This was on top of the normal financial pressures of owning a horse. We had considered most of these components in our plan for unfolding our dream: We had budgeted to afford all the basics– a truck and trailer, tack, boarding, lessons. Between our full-time jobs, and with the help of our children, we could see our vision for the future take shape in front of our eyes.
January of 2004 is when I moved Coby to a nearby stable to begin his training. Our plan was to bring him home the middle of April, once the indoor riding arena was completed. April 14, 2004, was a sunny and warm spring day. Sunny and warm in April is quite a gift of weather in Wisconsin! I had made many friends the four months we had spent at the stable. Coby had already earned a fan club who admired his floating gaits and more than charming character. He loved the audience, which usually gathered when we worked. A group of us met for a farewell trail ride before I would bring him home in my new trailer. As we hacked out, I remember it was the first time I felt Coby’s passage under saddle. He playfully shook his head and bounced around while we all cantered. I came back to the stable sorry to leave our friends, but happy to have had the chance to meet them.
by Pamela Doolittle
The Dream Becomes a Nighmare
My family met me at the barn to say goodbye and help me pack up to leave. I wrapped Coby’s legs in standing wraps and flannels, put on the extra halter I always use when I haul. We loaded him in the trailer, and I drove slowly out of the parking lot into the residential neighborhood framing the stable. I chatted happily with my son about our new riding arena as we drove away from the farm. My husband followed with our two little girls in our minivan.
He called my cell phone with the news. “You have to get back here right now,” he said. “Coby just fell out of the trailer.”
I didn’t believe him. I told him not to joke like that. I was insulted. But I could hear the emotion in his voice as he tried to convince me that it had really happened. I stopped the truck and ran to the back of the trailer. The door swung unapologetically on bent hinges. There was a bulge right under the rear door window silhouetting Coby’s rear end. A mark of manure stained the door. The trailer tie and a broken halter were all that remained of what we had secured inside the trailer. I returned to the farm where my husband, my two little girls and my friends waited tearfully. Coby stood in the crossties completely stunned. His knees were ripped open to reveal the carpi on both front legs. I could see bone on the fetlock of the right hind. The left hind as well as both stifles were ripped completely to reveal fragile underlying tissue. The veterinarian who responded to the emergency call did not know what to do. She went back to her truck to get advice from a veterinary hospital. We decided right then to take Coby to the Wisconsin Equine Clinic, which was about an hour away from our location.
by Pamela Doolittle
The Long Unpredictable Road to Recovery
Coby’s prognosis was not good. While there was no apparent fatal injury, much of the skin around the wound beds had detached during the fall and pockets of dirt and sand remained hidden. The doctors had done their best to clean out his wounds. In addition, Coby was not happy in the stall. He paced in a worried way as other sick horses entered and left the emergency area. He would not stand quietly and the excessive movement would prevent the underlying tissue from attaching back to the skin. Dr. Doug Langer led the team’s care. His primary concern was infection that would likely develop and cause fatal harm. His secondary concern was that the horse would not remain quiet in the stall and felt strongly that longer-term sedation would be necessary to improve his chances for survival. Coby spent 9 days in emergency care under Dr. Langer’s care. The playful and mischievous horse I had come to know and love now stood with his head in the rear corner of his stall. His lower lip drooped sadly. He was not interested in treats or attention. It broke my heart knowing I could not explain to him that we were trying to save his life.
We brought him home to his stall, piled thickly with shavings and straw. The course of antibiotics would continue for months. The skin and hair around his rear end and tail dock area became irritated by the diarrhea caused by the antibiotics. I changed his bandages daily. Dr. Langer recommended we not even hand walk him, since any excessive activity would irritate the process of allowing the skin bed to attach down and granulate. His former student, Dr. Jennifer Thompson, visited our farm weekly to check on his wounds and to provide encouragement. The weeks turned into months, and Coby’s wounds and temperament slowly recovered. My children did their homework in the barn while I changed bandages and brushed and entertained my horse. My husband cared for our other horses while I combed Coby’s stall for manure and wet shavings. Coby’s care had cost us over $10,000 by this time and countless hours of care. We could no longer afford the completion of the stable we had dreamed about. Everything we had in both time and money was now focused on Coby’s comeback.
By June of 2004, I began hand-walking Coby briefly outside and a full x-ray evaluation of his joints provided us promising news regarding his potential soundness. By July, he was well enough to be turned out in a small paddock. I visited Dr. Langer the end of July to assess his soundness for riding. He had me lunge him in the clinic indoor. Coby spent the first five minutes at an airy trot with his tail flagged and his nostrils flaired. I swear he was looking for mirrors to check on himself. He eyed the hospital staff that gathered to watch him with amusement. I remember Dr. Langer smiling as he commented what a beautiful horse Coby still was. He noted, “He’s not really an arrogant horse. He just knows he’s special.” We had worked for months for this moment—Dr. Langer said it was time to put him back to work.
by Pamela Doolittle
The Comeback Begins
As excited as I was finally to have the green light to ride, I was equally terrified at the prospect of discovering a permanent limitation. Coby had suffered so much from the accident. His body was scarred. The burns on both hind fetlocks remained open, and the right hind tendon had developed a large mass of scar tissue. His tone and muscle had diminished from the stall rest. I did not know if he had suffered an injury to his back that would cause him pain. We met Alex Gerding in August of 2004. Alex earned his professional rank, the Pferdewirtschaftsmeister degree, in 2001 and had recently moved to the U.S. to develop his training and clinic business. He earned the degree with honors, being decorated also with the coveted silver stensbeck medaille. Alex came to teach on a regular basis near Madison, Wisconsin., which was close and affordable.
Our first meeting was a cool August morning. His normal routine for new students in his program is to feel the senses of the horse in order to teach better from the ground. He explained that clearly to me before we started. After lunging Coby, I offered Alex the reins. With a smile, he suggested I ride first to “get the bucks out”— I gladly complied. Coby paraded around the arena, gazing with wide eyes at his reflection in the mirror and looking brightly at the audience in the corner. I was so glad to feel that my horse was interested and happy to be working. By the end of the weekend, I was comfortable with the training plan Alex suggested for us and went home eager to get to work on it.
Our winter training was interrupted by complications with the healing process of the hind fetlocks, which remained open and weeping. Between August and December we varied the stall rest and activity to try to promote granulation of the fetlock wounds. By December,Dr. Thompson began exploring options to promote their healing. We decided in January to surgically remove the poorly granulating tissue as a way to promote the closing of the fetlock wounds behind. Then she installed a graph of material that would promote the healthy growth of new epithelial cells, Coby required additional stall rest and time off while he healed, and my evenings were spent once again bandaging and entertaining my horse. By February 2005, Coby was back to work once again. The fetlock burns finally closed the end of March.
by Pamela Doolittle
A New Goal - A New Beginning
We continued our development with regular clinic sessions under Alex’s tutelage and by summer of 2005, I set the goal of trying a show. I worked on the tests at home with the focus on precision in executing the movements. During a June clinic in 2005, we practiced the tests with Alex. My horse was tense and behind the leg and I felt at a loss as to what to do about it. Alex knew it. At the end of the last day, Alex found me in the stall caring for Coby after a pretty tough session. He told me then, “I just want you to know you are losing your sparkle.” He explained that the best part of my partnership with Coby was how much fun we had in our working relationship. “Don’t worry about the show.” He encouraged me, instead, try to regain the “sparkle.” It was advice that changed the way I approached my riding. That was the day I became Alex Gerding’s student.
We did well showing during the summer of 2005 at First Level. Our average was in the high 60s. Coby lacked the strength and endurance for the 5-Year-Old tests. The counter canter was particularly difficult for him. But the showing experience was very positive for both of us—it was pretty clear to me that Coby was a natural performer! By summer’s end, Alex confirmed that the goal of showing the 6-Year-Old classes was a reasonable one. Over winter, we worked on the changes and on improving the collection at the trot and the canter. Every clinic, Alex began our sessions by asking, “So how are we doing on the cadence?” It was a great feeling of accomplishment by spring of 2006 when Alex pointed out several times during our weekend that we were finally demonstrating cadence. When he used “brilliant” to describe our work on several occasions, I smiled hearing the confirmation that our training was progressing in a positive direction.
by Pamela Doolittle
The Young Horse Program a Possible Reality
The young horse classes have the honorable and important philosophy of emphasizing the value of correct training and development of the talented dressage prospect. It was a new and productive experience to ride these tests, which allowed me to hear personal comments from the judges on our performance. Comments from judges seeing our 6-Year-Old test performance consistently emphasized that our training path was positive and that Coby had good potential for the future. Constructive criticisms pointed out he lacked the strength necessary to maintain collection– especially the uphill balance necessary for the canter work. I continued to work on the hills in our hayfield at home to improve his strength and endurance. Alex encouraged us to attend the Markel Young Horse Championships as well as Dressage at Devon.
From my perspective as an amateur competitor riding a horse that was recuperating from serious injury, it seemed surreal that I could be competitive in these venues. But I believed in Alex’s perspective and I looked forward to gaining the attention and commentary regarding my horse from world class judges. I knew my horse would live for the attention. Alex promised to coach us if we went. My best friend, Veronica, promised to lend support grooming, driving, handing me tissues—whatever I needed to get through the week. It seemed that fate had aligned all the elements for us to try this level of competition. I sent in the entries.
by Pamela Doolittle
The Markel Young Horse Championships
The Markel Young Horse Championships were held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Dressagedaily.com reported that the competition included 14 Olympic riders with horses representing 21 states. I have never even competed in a regional championship, so one can imagine the competition was quite daunting. Alex arrived on Wednesday and we set to work to get through the initial tension that I struggle with in a show environment. With his help, Coby’s gaits grew to spectacular levels that resulted in dancing half-passes and spectacular lead changes. Alex and Veronica agreed they had never seen Coby perform in that way. But the brilliant work left Coby’s back sore the next day–a problem I struggled with for the rest of the week. I could feel the tension in his back during every warmup before my class. In the end, he worked through it and did his best to perform. For my rides both Friday and Sunday, Coby paraded proudly around the outside of the ring while the announcer introduced us. I swear he looked all the spectators in the eye as he went around. He would have shaken each of their hands if he could have.
We entered and halted at X. In typical “Coby fashion,” he raised his head above the bit after an obedient halt to take in everything. It simply warms my heart that he is so interested in the attention. My whole ride, Alex’s coaching was with me: In turning from C–maintain cadence and show the judge he is light. Medium trot—don’t push with the seat—sharp instead with the legs. Shoulder-in–the horse’s body should follow the turning curves of the drag in the sand. Half-pass—dance. Transition to walk—ELBOW forward. Every movement flowed. The changes were obedient and expressive. I had watched the riders in my class school all week with horses that were healthy, strong, and expressive. To have placed third in such a talented pool of horses and riders was beyond anything I could have possibly imagined. I was hoping not to be last!! As I stood in line for the ribbon celebration, I continued to pet Coby thanking him for carrying me and hoping he understood how much I loved him.
by Pamela Doolittle
Dressage at Devon - A New Star is Born
Three weeks later, we arrived in Devon, Pennsylvania. It was a bittersweet arrival, since my family remained at home. They were so excited for their team! However, our pocketbook remained strained from the investment we had made towards Coby’s recovery. Our kids had started school and Dan remained committed to finishing the work in the barn himself. It broke my heart to leave our biggest fans at home.
The program brands Dressage at Devon as “the most prestigious horse show outside of Europe.” My experience at the Markel championships did not ease my nerves regarding our performance at Devon. Three weeks was just enough time for Coby’s back to recuperate. Dressagedaily.com had published a short article about Coby’s journey to the Markel Young Horse Championships, and while I was grateful to have the opportunity to tell our story, it became clear shortly after our arrival in Devon that people were waiting to meet us. At the Markel Championships, I had the luxury of no one really paying attention to us. Now people with the best of intentions approached me expressing how much they enjoyed learning about our story and wishing us every success at Devon. Scott Hassler, Chef de Equipe of the young horse program, now knew who we were! He knew me well enough to introduce me to his lovely wife, Susanne. Other well-known riders and trainers approached me with congratulations and well wishes. I was no longer “Pam Who?-little, from Wisconsin.” I felt pressure to do well to preserve my horse’s deserving reputation!
Alex worked with us Tuesday and Wednesday to prepare for our Thursday and Friday classes. We had worked together long enough that I knew in my head what he wanted me to produce with my horse. I could feel that my dance partner was ready to do it. But it was hard for ME to focus—I had a hard time taking the lead. People I had read about and admired for so long were riding alongside me in the ring. It was worse than having my horse watching the crowd around me! Alex recognized my distraction and set to work at bringing me back to earth. He encouraged me to stop “simply cruising around” and pointed out I had no reason to be nervous.
by Pamela Doolittle
Riding Under the Lights in the Dixon Oval
Our Thursday class was scheduled during the evening in the Gold Arena. We would be riding under the lights, which would be a new experience for both of us. We warmed up in the gloomy darkness of the Devon warmup area. Severe weather was brewing west of the grounds and was expected to arrive shortly. The announcer firmly stated that if the show was called due to bad weather, the rider was expected to stop the performance and everyone should immediately seek cover. Tornadoes and hail were being reported. Coby carried me into the ring in bright fashion. I was tense and distracted, but managed to get through the trot tour with no mistakes. The walk extension came easily and I began to relax.
After he gave me the first flying change, I began to breathe. But during my canter extension, the announcer called the show. He directed everyone to immediately seek cover. I half-halted to prepare for a walk, but caught the announcer directing me to finish my test. I did. I halted at X and looked up to see the judges standing to leave the arena. Over dinner we mulled over the test. Alex thought we did not demonstrate cadence. The walk was too fast. Our changes were obedient but the canter too much on the forehand. He was so worked up not knowing our score that I’m sure he slept very little. I arrived Friday early to feed Coby and immediately after sought out news regarding the test at the secretary’s office.
I gathered my test, a second place ribbon, and a check!! The office had decided to cancel the rest of the class since they would not be able to reproduce the conditions for the rest of the competitors. I called Alex with the news that heaven had awarded us a second place ribbon at Devon!
by Pamela Doolittle
First To Go - Setting the Standard
I went to task to prepare for our final performance in the 6-Year-Old FEI division. I had the unlucky fortune of being the first to go in our afternoon class. I had become acquainted with several of the competitors competing in my class, who teased me during the morning hours about my tough spot. Inside, my stomach turned nervously at the thought, but on the outside I just smiled and joked, “I’m setting the standard, baby!” I took my time grooming and braiding, reminding my self with every breath to relax and enjoy this day. It is my normal routine to cover Coby’s scars with shoe polish. But as I bent down to do it that afternoon, I realized we really had nothing to hide. I was so proud of my horse. He was not embarrassed about his scars. Today I would not cover them. Coby was still not sore in his back and seemed anxious to do something other than stand in his stall. The weather was bright and brisk and he was ready to work. I walked to the warm-up ring noting once again the incredible activity and talent that surrounded me. Robert Dover chatted in the corner with a beautiful rider wearing tails and a tophat. Ulf Moller sat in a chair in one corner of the ring watching the riders. Scott Hassler coached one of his students competing in the 6-Year-Old class from yet another corner of the ring. I felt my nerves once again swell in my stomach and wished I had not had so much coffee! I did my best to navigate through the crazy activity going on in the warm-up arena. Alex did his best to help me work through my nerves. Through it all, my horse continued to work the crowd. He knew he was a star.
We entered the Dixon Oval the first time ever that afternoon. We trotted around the arena waiting for the bell. As I waited, I thanked heaven for that moment and hoped somehow that my guardian angel, my mother, was with me to enjoy it. We entered and halted at X and as expected, Coby raised his head above the bit to take in everything. It’s his personal version of a salute! Our test was not perfect, but there were no major mistakes. The judges liked very much the training to the bit and pointed out the lack of strength in the collection. I smiled at the comment and thought to myself, “Sir, he may lack the strength behind, but he more than makes up for it in his character.” I gave Coby a big hug and exited the ring. He pranced out of the Dixon Oval, spooking a little at the crowd that clapped as we left.
by Pamela Doolittle
The Victory Lap of a Lifetime
The next hour played out like a drama I may never again experience in my life. I did not expect to win. Again, I had watched some of the other riders—all with strong, healthy, beautiful horses—all professionals. But for Coby, I hoped we could at least place in the top four. I stood next to Alex as the other riders completed their performance and we learned their scores. He teased me with light conversation each time our lead was preserved, but when the last rider entered the ring we both stopped breathing. The horse was very powerful and the performance had little error. What would the judges think? The first score we learn was for the trot: it is higher. But the walk score was much lower and before I could even get my head around it, Alex smiled, “We won, Pam!” What a moment it was!! I could hardly stand. My friend Veronica came running down from the grandstand jumping and yelling for joy. I called my family immediately to tell them the news. Dan didn’t quite understand what I was saying but figured he should probably be happy about it.
The next few hours are really a blur. Alex directed me to get on and walk my horse around to make sure he was loose for the victory gallop. As I walked around, friends and new acquaintances congratulated us. Coby wasn’t convinced he wanted the blue ribbon fixed to his bridle. We entered the Dixon Oval once more, this time behind the ring steward. Mary Phelps stood in the corner beaming a smile I will never forget. She instructed me on where to smile the biggest and look up so she could take a great picture.
The smiling part would not be a problem—I simply couldn’t stop doing it. Right before I took off to canter, the ring steward pleaded, “Miss, just go slow. I don’t want to have to pluck you out of a pot of flowers!”
I must have looked intoxicated with happiness. Then we did our tour. I heard my friend, Veronica, yell from the side, “Come on, Pam, GOOO!” I know Mary Phelps and her friend Kumi Smedley watched with both wiping tears from their eyes, as this champion made his way proudly around the ring. My one regret is I didn’t actually gallop. A little too much wine, and I know this horse kicks his heels up when he’s happy. And I knew he was happy.
That is the story of our journey to Devon. My goal all along was simply to do well enough that people would be interested to know the story. I turned Coby out in his pasture Tuesday morning after our return from Pennsylvania. As I stood at the gate, he galloped several times around the pasture. As he returned each time to my standing spot, he reared and bucked playfully before charging off for another round. I would like to think I was getting a lesson from my horse on how a victory gallop is supposed to look. I sure hope we get the chance to practice it again.
Sidebar by Journalist Lyndee Kemmett
On April 14, 2004, Pam Doolittle experienced one of the greatest horrors imaginable to any horse owner when a serious accident nearly took the life of her dream dressage horse. It occurred when her horse, Cobra, fell out of the back of the trailer as she drove down a suburban street bringing him home to his new barn on the family’s property. In the ensuing months, Doolittle spent thousands of dollars and just as many hours on the battle to save the life of her equine friend. Her victory in that battle was evident this fall when she and Cobra won the FEI 6-Year-Old class at Dressage at Devon. In the article below, Doolittle tells of the journey that she, Cobra and their family and friends endured on the road that led to Devon.
Just how Cobra ended up on the road is a matter being decided in the courts because Doolittle is seeking financial compensation from Kiefer Built for Cobra’s many veterinary bills and the cost of repairing the trailer. Doolittle insists she properly latched the rear doors of her Kiefer Built trailer and bases her legal case on the grounds that the trailer doors were defective and gave way when Cobra fell against the rear doors. Joyce Mattson, COO of Kiefer Built, admitted that some trailer models from previous years did have defective rear door but said not the model owned by Doolittle. She added that the defect that did exist is not one that would cause doors to pop open.
The quality of rear doors on some Kiefer trailers has been a topic of discussion on equestrian web blogs and it even drew the attention of a newspaper columnist. In an Aug. 11 Orlando Sentinel column, Greg Dawson, a business columnist with the newspaper, addressed the Kiefer issue after receiving queries by readers. His column also noted that Kiefer did acknowledge that some doors were defective. But in her interview with dressagedaily.com, Mattson said all the defective doors have been dealt with by Kiefer. A claim with which Doolittle disagrees.
Kiefer officials believe Doolittle’s trailer door gave way because the horse kicked the door, but Doolittle argues otherwise. She said the damage to the door indicates Cobra fell back against the door with his rear and the door buckled and gave way. Mattson also said Doolittle’s model of trailer was sold with a butt strap, which Doolittle claims is not so.
The legal case between Doolittle and Kiefer is still working its way through the courts and the final outcome will most likely not come until next year.
But one outcome that is certain is that Cobra has become the dressage champion that Doolittle always believed he was. There is no doubt that Cobra is one special horse, well worth the battle it took to nurse him back to health. He’s also one lucky horse to have an owner willing to do and spend what it took to bring him from near-death to dressage champion.