By Sheryl Kursar
You could hear a pin drop when 15-year-old Nicole Doolittle rode her horse, Tops, into the show jumping ring this past summer at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC). She was in first place after a great cross-country ride the day before, but she needed to put in a clear round or Area 3 would lose the team gold.
Her parents, Tom and Suzanne, and older sister, Jamie, were there cheering as she cleared the last jump to secure team and individual gold medals. In a year filled with loss and heartache, it was a triumphant moment for the Doolittle family. Nicole’s medals were redemption for the previous year’s NAJYRC when her horse was injured and she had to withdraw. Jamie, Nicole’s 18-year-old sister, was named to the team just two weeks earlier and received team bronze in junior dressage.
The Early Years
The Doolittle sister’s success is marked by determination, hard work and family. After a move brought them to Charlotte, North Carolina, their father Tom came across a house for sale where they could have a horse. He and Suzanne looked at it on a whim and, even though they hadn’t owned a horse in 20 years, by midnight they had an accepted offer on the property. Dream Catcher Equestrian was born.
Jamie learned to ride at five-years-old. She started riding on what she described as the “cutest, prettiest, demon pony,” aptly named Princess. They added a small pony, Brownie, and several others to the mix. Nicole was content to spend hours with Brownie, mostly wanting to play with him and pick his feet. They quickly outgrew their property and bought more acreage only a mile away.
Dream Catcher Equestrian grew into a successful hunter and jumper facility, offering lessons with 17 school horses. One day, they met an eventer and Suzanne, Jamie and Nicole became infatuated with the sport and over the next year they sold most of their lesson horses in order to focus more on eventing.
An Introduction to Eventing
Jamie’s first event horse, Maggie, who she named A Dream Come True, changed everything for her – but it wasn’t a smooth start. Jamie’s first ride scared her to death and it took a lot of convincing to give Maggie another shot. But when Jamie jumped Maggie out on the cross-country field, “It was an amazing feeling. Nothing fazed her. She was fast and honest.”
Months later, Suzanne enrolled the girls in a summer camp run by Olympic eventing superstars David and Karen O’Connor. “We were so new to the sport,” said Suzanne. “We knew who the O’Connors were, but not really how accomplished they were.”
Jamie was 12, but Nicole was only nine and too young for the camp. “I called Karen and begged her to let me bring Nicole,” Suzanne said. “It took some convincing, but Nicole was allowed to come with her pony, Dilly Dally.”
During one exercise, Nicole was excluded from jumping a combination and started to cry. “It wasn’t because she couldn’t do it,” Suzanne said. “She cried because she knew she could and wanted to.”
“I was a very competitive child,” Nicole added. “I was very shy, but I wanted to do well.”
On the last day of camp, David told Suzanne, “I’d love to be their coach.” Throughout the next four years, they attended every summer and winter camp.
A Great Support System
In between events and camp sessions with David, Jamie and Nicole learned to lean on each other and their mom for training and support.
“Nicole and I have been on our own so much that we’ve learned to take what we learn in those four weeks at camp to carry us through,” said Jamie.
“If you face a problem, you have to figure it out,” Nicole said. “It’s always been just the three of us.”
“If something didn’t work, we’d try new things,” Jamie added. “Every ride, it was always the three of us in the arena working things out. It wasn’t always easy listening to mom as a coach, but it’s gotten easier as we’ve gotten older.”
Suzanne explained that for her and the girls, riding is everything. “It’s not a hobby,” she said. “It’s a lifestyle and it’s our family.”
That solid support system has enabled the Doolittles to adapt to change.
An Unexpected Opportunity for Nicole
When Nicole’s injured mare Lexi needed time off from her injury sustained at the 2012 NAJYRC, they decided it was a great opportunity to breed her. Nicole’s other mare, Rosie, had moved up to training level, but wouldn’t be ready to qualify for NAJYRC in 2013. It was a big surprise when a phone call opened the door to bigger opportunities, including a horse named Tops.
“We’ve known Dani (Danielle Dichting) a long time,” Nicole said. “We used to joke with her about buying Tops. One day she called.” In her first big event, Nicole and Tops earned second place at the Ocala Horse Trials in the 1* (preliminary) division. Throughout the season, they did well and qualified easily for the 2013 NAJYRC.
Nicole and Tops were in second place after dressage at the NAJYRC and moved up to first after cross-country. “It was just incredible,” Nicole said. “I was so happy after cross-country. Even in the morning, I was oddly calm. I walked the course and I don’t even really remember it. It rode so well.”
A Course Change for Jamie
“Maggie taught me to be humble,” Jamie said. “Dressage was always an issue. I learned to appreciate the little improvements and to be a good horse person. I never gave up. I’d get to the ring at a show and she’d lose it. I’m a competitive person and I learned to stay calm and get her through it.”
They had successfully moved up to intermediate and had competed at the NAJYRC twice before. Everything was going well – until November of 2012. Jamie rushed home from school to learn Maggie had suffered a critical injury during turnout. Her family and vet were there to support her while Maggie was humanely euthanized.
“I was devastated,” Jamie said. “David called that night and I really couldn’t believe the support from the eventing community. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was in limbo.”
“When I was ready to get back on, I didn’t have an event horse,” Jamie said. “I went to Florida for the winter, like always, and it was the best thing. I talked to David and Lauren Kieffer a lot and they helped me cope with Maggie’s death.”
Working through the loss of her partner and friend allowed Jamie to focus her goals. At Christmas, she shared her idea with David. “I was really nervous,” she said. “I was going to have to step away from eventing for a while to focus on dressage. He thought it was a great idea.”
Jamie wanted to qualify her Thoroughbred and former event horse, Wild Tiger (Tigger), in dressage. “It was an opportunity I had to take if I wanted to keep riding,” she said.
She would have to qualify in six shows to make the NAJYRC team. She asked dressage trainer Diane Ritz from Monroe, North Carolina to teach her everything she could in the short time frame.
Just two weeks before the championships, Jamie received the call to say she’d made the team. She had succeeded and earned a team bronze medal. “I was so proud of him,” she said. “It was his first time at that level as a dressage horse.”
Nicole plans to continue working hard to move up to intermediate and qualify for the NAJYRC 2* next year. She’s also going to begin riding Lexi in dressage. “Lexi is half-sister to Carl Hester’s Utopia,” she said. “She’s a beautiful horse. I’ve been really intrigued by Jamie’s experience and all she’s learned in dressage. This is my opportunity with Lexi. I had high hopes for her – and still do.”
Jamie is in her freshman year at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, and continues to ride. She’ll show Tigger at dressage regionals and will take the spring semester off from school to train from the family’s farm near Ocala, Florida. She has two event horses she’ll be showing and is adamant, “I am not done with dressage. I’ve enjoyed it and I want to do a true freestyle.”
About the writer: Sheryl Kursar is a communications, public relations and nonprofit consultant living in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has ridden most of her life and enjoys the company of her two Thoroughbreds, Aurora and Jackson. She is active with local animal rescue groups and serves on the board of the Equestrian Aid Foundation, which assists horse people who are catastrophically injured or ill.