By Carrie Wirth
Growing up, Michael Dowling longed to be at his cousin’s farm. Tucker Ericson, his cousin, introduced him to a whole new world – the horse world. Like Tucker, Michael became obsessed with the equestrian life. Years later, the course of these two men’s lives never veered far from their love of horses or from working together.
Today, Michael is a professor of equine studies at Centenary University, the coach of their Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association team and trainer at his busy show stable, Windham Hill. Tucker is senior vice president at ARI Insurance, keeps a busy calendar as a US Equestrian “R” judge and is a co-manager of Country Heir I and II in Kentucky. In 2016, the cousins purchased the Monmouth County Horse Show, moved it to the USET Foundation Gladstone headquarters and renamed it Monmouth at the Team.
Michael’s family lived in Newton, New Jersey, and beyond owning a dog, his family had no interest in animals, horses and the farm life. On the other hand, Tucker’s mother rode at Southern Seminary and his family had a dairy farm, converted into a horse facility in Branchville, New Jersey.
“I was the city mouse and he was the country mouse,” Michael said. “I was actually born in New York City, and my family moved out to what we called the country, which Tucker called ‘town.’”
Michael would spend the summers and most weekends at the farm and he started riding with Tucker. “I was a couple of years older but Tucker was much more horse-savvy,” he said. “I got hooked because of him.”
Michael and Tucker were active in 4-H and started taking lessons from Kim Ford (now Uniss). The cousins were in the right place at the right time and spent their formative years working for Robin and James Fairclough. Robin, an accomplished rider and a highly-respected trainer, won the AHSA Medal Finals (now the USEF Medal Finals) in 1974. James Fairclough represented the U.S. for decades in driving. They couldn’t have found a better environment to learn horsemanship from the ground up.
“We helped Robin and Jimmy, both on the hunter/jumper circuit and with the four-in-hand driving team,” Tucker said. “Michael and I both rode and groomed. We went to shows, from the local fairs to the big A-rated shows. If my grades were good, my parents would let me go work during the winter circuit in Florida. At the same time, we had our own horses at home, taking lessons and training our horses and playing cowboys and Indians in the fields of Sussex County.”
Tucker attended Gettysburg College, and Michael went to Fairfield University and worked at the Fairfield County Hunt Club for Emerson Burr. He went to graduate school on a Rotary scholarship at the University of Lancaster. During college, Michael said they scrimped and saved, using prom and book money to buy and sell horses.
“We started our business before I was even out of college,” Tucker said. “I’d come home every other weekend. Michael and I would split up. We’d take half of our customers to A-rated shows, the other half to the C-rated shows and sometimes we’d all go together.”
Their Own Farm
When the cousins were in their early 20s, they scraped together every penny that they had, and along with another partner, Susan Brong Scherer, they bought a farm with an indoor arena in northwestern New Jersey. “We had about 30 clients,” Tucker said. “I was still in college and Michael was just out of college. There was such a demand in Sussex County that our business took off. We were young and we had a lot of energy.”
“It was very hands-on and we were ambitious and worked really hard,” Michael added. “Now, my partner and I have an incredible support staff of students and employees. We are very appreciative of their hard work because we’ve done it. I look back now and think how crazy it was!”
After they graduated, they lived on the farm and did all the work. Tucker, Michael and Susan would get up in the morning and feed the horses and clean the stalls. Tucker made the to-do lists and he’d head off to his corporate full-time job.
“I was in charge of the bills and the books and the behind-the-scenes operations while Michael taught the lessons,” Tucker said.
While managing the farm without grooms, Michael worked as a substitute teacher, then took a job with his family food service business. “When I worked for my father, he always caught me reading the Chronicle of the Horse,” Michael said. “I hid it under my desk. He caught me on the phone scheduling lessons or trying to sell a horse. I always got caught. He really wanted me to take over the family business, but I had no desire. Right back to the barn I went.”
After a successful eight years with their hunter-jumper enterprise, Michael moved on to train for a private client and Tucker became involved in breeding, investing and judging along with his corporate career. The cousins stayed connected when they sold the farm. Tucker had several equestrian properties in New Jersey, then purchased a farm in Florida.
Michael had given a few clinics at Centenary University and in 2000 was encouraged to join their equine program. Now he’s a full-time assistant professor of Equine Studies and coaches the team alongside Heather Clark. He has led the IHSA team to three national championships (2009, 2011 and 2014) and three reserve championships (2010, 2015, 2017), and coached four coveted Cacchione Cup winners: Lindsay Clark in 2009, Melissa Cohen in 2011, Cori Reich in 2013 and Katherine Steiner in 2017. Michael also runs his show stable, Windham Hill in Long Valley, New Jersey, with Michael Myers.
In addition to a position in senior management at an insurance company, Tucker targeted becoming an “R” judge. He immersed himself in the hunter world. “I figured that the best way was to do some competing,” he said. “I hadn’t competed since I was a child. Tim and Kelly Goguen helped me. I got to really understand everything from several different perspectives.”
“Then, one thing led to another and we ran a horse show together,” Michael said. “We wanted to raise the bar and provide a more intimate customer experience. Because Tucker is a judge and I’m a trainer, we have unique perspectives.”
Tucker and Michael joined forces to produce a one-day show in honor of their longtime friend Edd Lookingbill in 2013. Held at Hamilton Farm, it had a traditional feel and gave exhibitors an opportunity to enjoy the historic venue that once served as the training grounds for the U.S. teams. The event was successful, but the cousins considered it a one-off. “It was just too much for us at the time with our jobs and our schedules,” Michael said.
Monmouth at the Team
When the opportunity to purchase the Monmouth County Horse Show came to their attention, Tucker and Michael jumped at the chance. Despite their busy work lives, the idea of pairing the longest continuously-run horse show in the U.S. with the country’s most beloved equestrian venue was too great to let slip by. They bought the dates and dubbed the show Monmouth at the Team. They brought Leslie Sullivan on board, a friend and former vice president of broadcast and new media at Major League Baseball, whose daughter had ridden with Michael. Friends and family gave their time to help with the show, including their former partner, Susan Scherer, who will make the trip from Atlanta to help out again this year.
“The same year that we were considering Monmouth at the Team, Frankie [Stark] approached me about managing horse shows,” Tucker said. “She knew I was interested in getting more involved. I had judged for a decade at her Country Heir horse shows.”
The cousins’ foray into show management was hugely successful. Tucker added high-end hospitality, attention to detail and customer excellence to the Country Heir Kentucky show. Tucker and Michael’s new Monmouth at the Team was named 2016 New Jersey Horse Show Association’s Horse Show of the Year. Both shows are sellouts.
“It was just so gratifying,” Michael said. “We just want it to be a great event. We’re very passionate about it.”
Though Michael and Tucker’s personalities and are quite different, each admits that as time passes, their convictions become more and more aligned. Though they have distinct personalities, they’re on the same page.
“He does corporate America, judges and manages horse shows, runs an insurance company, buys horses in Europe — it’s really just kind of a crazy thing,” said Michael of Tucker. “It works because he’s so organized. It’s very gratifying to have a family member — a friend that you can do business with. We respect each other.”
“Michael is very high-energy,” said Tucker. “It’s hard to put Michael in a bad mood. He’s all about finding the solution. His energy level and positive attitude are really a testament to who he is. You know, through the years, we grew up closer together instead of further apart. In every aspect of our personal or business lives, we keep growing more similar. It’s been a lot of fun.”