Prior to starting a family, Adrienne Iorio of Apple Knoll Farm in Millis, Massachusetts used to make periodic trips to Scotland and England to shop for horses for clients. On one of those trips, she happened upon It’s Otto, an Irish Thoroughbred of unknown breeding, in a yard in Great Britain. “I walked into the yard where he lived, they pulled him out, and I loved him immediately,” Iorio recalled. “He’s one of those who’s so handsome, I took one look at him and thought, ‘I hope he moves well!’”
“He was just lovely,” she continued. “He had a great brain, a good work ethic, and I enjoyed bringing him over and getting him started. What sold him to me originally was how lovely he was to ride – even green he was just so willing and so nice to sit on. He had a cheekiness about him to take care of himself but he had a very kind eye, and so it didn’t take horribly long for a young rider to meet him and fall in love.”
That young rider was Megan Hamilton. At the time, Hamilton was taking lessons from eventer Lisa Anderson while boarding at a farm run by India Anderson and Steve Schaefer. India and Schaefer stabled next to Iorio at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida in the winter of 2001 and that was how Hamilton found out about Otto. “We started our horse search because I wanted to move up the levels of eventing, but my parents were only willing to let me do that if we found a horse that was athletic enough to help keep me safe as I continued to hone my skills,” Hamilton explained. “We weren’t looking for anything pricey or fancy, just safe.”
So, Hamilton flew down from Chicago to give Otto a try. “Interestingly (and probably contrary to my parents' desire that we find a “safe” option) Otto tried to buck me off for the first of many times during that first ride at WEF,” Hamilton recalled. “I tried some other older campaigners with more upper level experience, but there was something about Otto’s spunk and flashy white markings that really resonated with me. I rode him a second time the next day and knew he was the one.”
“Otto is one of the biggest horse characters I have ever known,” Hamilton shared. “Often surly and at times nearly impossible to catch in the field, he is also extremely loving and giving and genuinely appreciates being showered with treats and affection. He mellowed out as he got older, but as a young horse he had an almost pony-like ability to take advantage of rider weaknesses and could be extremely stubborn. Although Otto had done one season of Preliminary and completed a CCI* [now CCI2*-L] before I bought him, in our first show we were eliminated trying to jump into a Novice level water element. At our second show, he spooked at fresh gravel on the take-off of a Training level up bank and had a run out. Because I am equally stubborn (and somewhat crazy, like all event riders), in our third show we moved up to Preliminary, had a fault-free round, and went on to compete in our first CCI* full format three-day together that fall. Otto is always looking out for number one (himself!) but once you gain his trust, he is unstoppable and will try his heart out for you.”
Shortly after the pair’s first attempt at the Intermediate level, Hamilton discovered that Otto had fractured his right front coffin bone. “We weren’t sure if he would ever compete again and spent a year going to vet appointments and giving him time off before slowly, painstakingly bringing him back from nothing,” Hamilton said. “It took another five years and lots of lameness and performance ups and downs but we finally completed the Florida Three-Day CCI2* [now CCI3*-L] in the spring of 2007.”
“Although I have lots of wonderful memories of our many accomplishments together, I think successfully working together to finally complete that two-star after so many years and so much adversity is my proudest accomplishment,” Hamilton reflected. “He taught me so much, and I’m so thankful that we were able to work hard, not give up, and help him go from what could have been a career-ending injury to being able to finish that event and then continue dominating the sport he loves for so many years.”
At the end of the 2007 season, Hamilton leased Otto to Jennifer Bazan Rodgers, who eventually purchased him from her. “That horse provided me something I had never had in all my years of riding multiple horses through the levels,” Rodgers said. “Absolute confidence that I would reach the finish flags safely and successfully.”
Together, Rodgers and Otto competed at the Preliminary and one-star (now two-star) level, frequently placing in the top five. Twice they attended the USEA American Eventing Championships, placing sixth in the Preliminary Horse division in 2009 and then 10th in the Intermediate division in 2010. They also won the CIC2* (now CCI3*-S) at Otter Creek in the spring of 2010.
Rodgers had her eyes on the CCI2* (now CCI3*-L) at Fair Hill that fall, but as Otto was 16 that year, she instead made the difficult decision to sell Otto on to a lower level rider. Rodgers then lost track of Otto for a time, and when she found out he had been purchased by Lisa Fletcher, she reached out. “The email I received from Lisa made me sit down and cry like a baby,” she recalled.
Fletcher had purchased Otto in the fall of 2011 to be a lower level competition horse for herself, but when she injured her back, the ride went to her son Jacob Fletcher’s good friend and groom, Elizabeth Crowder. “I ended up not having a horse to ride as we were planning Jacob's winter 2013 Florida/Georgia season and the Fletchers very kindly let me ride Otto,” she said. “Otto was known for being super steady and reliable, particularly because he would never launch you for a long spot but would always be quick with his feet to pat the ground and add the tiniest stride if necessary so that he didn't have to launch you a long way over the fence.”
Little did Crowder know that she would have a completely different horse underneath her when she got to the show. “We always joked that he trotted like a pony at home but I remember getting on him to school the first day at Pine Top and coming back to the barn telling the Fletchers that he actually had a big trot I had felt for the first time ever!” Crowder said.
Crowder and Otto scored a 25 in the dressage – putting them in the lead. “He dragged me around the show jumping where he was normally was lazy and adding strides everywhere when you jumped him at home,” she said. “We warmed up pretty normal for cross-country and then I started getting close to the start box about a minute before my time and he literally starting passaging around the field. Ms. Lisa and I still laugh because my eyes were so big and I had never felt so much horse underneath me! I remember leaving the start box in my loose ring snaffle with basically no control over the situation because Otto was on cross-country on autopilot and I was just trying to hang on . . . we easily made time and ended up winning. It was so exciting but especially because his attitude and love for the cross-country was something we had no clue about!”
Rodgers happened to be wintering in Aiken that year and when she heard that Crowder and Otto were at Pine Top to compete, she went to see them. “I recall apologizing to Lisa and Elizabeth as I balled my eyes out hugging him in the stall,” Rodgers said. “At that moment Lisa promised me he would always come back to me if they decided to part with him.”
After a spring spent on the eventing circuit and a summer dabbling in USDF recognized competition with Crowder, Otto was leased to McKenzie Ford, who competed in hunter, jumper, and equitation classes with him over the next couple of years. Rodgers recalled that, “I would regularly receive pictures of LOTS of blue ribbons and videos of perfect flying changes and distances.”
True to her word, when Otto was ready to take a step down at age 22, Lisa called Rodgers to tell her that Otto was “ready to hang up his hunter shoes and return to a quieter life.”
Back at Rodgers’ farm, Otto became a babysitter for youngsters learning to post for the first time and adult amateurs still learning to canter on the lunge line. “I had refused to let him go above Starter until I realized he was glaring at me with disdain having to jump these ridiculous 2-foot logs,” Rodgers said. “I swear I will not allow him to go above Beginner Novice!”
Cortney Coxon came to Rodgers not having ridden a horse for 16 years. “Within two weeks [of starting to ride Otto] I was jumping and within several months I was showing him,” Coxon said. “This horse gave me my brave back . . . Our first show, I froze – not a wonderful place to be. Otto, being the horse he is, literally figured out where he needed to go. Essentially, I was along for the ride. To this day, I love how excited he is to still run cross-country. He has jumped bigger in his younger years, but he is so excited to still be jumping. He still piaffes in the start box and no one can count out loud.”
“To this day we absolutely CANNOT catch him,” Rodgers laughed. “All his rides get planned around feeding time. He runs around his 10-acre pasture giving us his version of the horse finger!” Crowder recalled similar antics from Otto, saying, “One time he was in the field and Jacob was going to help me jump him but he had gotten turned out without his turnout halter on and we spent over an hour trying to corner him in the field to catch him. I remember falling down in the mud trying to catch him. I don't know that we ever got our ride done that day!”
“As a career firefighter as well as a professional rider, I can say he is one of the biggest heroes I have been lucky enough to have in my life,” Rodgers concluded. Hamilton agreed, saying, “I am so, so happy that he has been able to continue doing what he loves and educating rider after rider. He is the true definition of a horse hero and I am so lucky I got to be a part of his story.”
The USEA Horse Heroes series celebrates equine athletes who have contributed to the sport again and again, competing with multiple riders at the upper levels of the sport. Do you know of a horse hero who deserves recognition? Email your tips to [email protected].
With the goal of creating a pathway for young horses in the U.S. and participants of the USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) Program, earlier this year the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and USEA joined forces to launch the USEF/USEA Developing Horse Eventing National Championships for 6- and 7-year-olds.
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