Hard Work Is Jennifer Wooten-DaFoe's Secret Strategy

Apr 16, 2009 - 10:00 PM

This talented young professional plans to make this Rolex Kentucky her best four-star yet.

When Jennifer Wooten-DaFoe was 18, she knew what she wanted from life. Her thoughts, dreams and plans all centered on horses, but she struggled with doubt over whether she should go to college and pursue a more traditional career.

“I was really torn and didn’t have a plan,” said Wooten-DaFoe. “My grandparents pulled me aside and said, ‘Follow your dreams. You know what you want to do. So many people don’t know what they want to do when they’re your age. You need to pursue it and see how far you can go. Even if you feel like you fail, you’ll never be a failure in our eyes. We’ll always support your decisions.’ ”

By giving Wooten-DaFoe their blessing, her grandparents, Marvin and Rosella Olsen, provided her with the push she needed to jump into horses with both feet, and she’s never looked back. The 31-year-old eventer from Ramona, Calif., is headed to the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** for a second time with The Good Witch, a 13-year-old Irish Sport Horse mare, after a seventh-placed finish last year in their first attempt.

She’s determined to prove that result wasn’t luck. Wooten-DaFoe narrowly missed being selected to the 2008 Olympic Games team, and that left her hungrier than ever for a team experience.

“I’m feeling good. I’m feeling confident but relaxed about it. I’m trying to take one event at a time. The mare’s looking very sound and fit. Everything so far is falling into place,” she said.

A Passion From Day 1

Wooten-DaFoe’s interest in horses started early. Her mother, Nancy Robinson, worked on different horse farms in the Santa Ynez Valley in California, and she introduced her daughter to riding.

She moved on to Pony Club by age 9, which opened her eyes to eventing. “I went to the national championships in Kentucky and the regional championships in Utah. That got me hooked and motivated me to pursue the sport and keep moving up the levels,” she recalled.

As a teenager, Wooten-DaFoe was already working professionally, taking on racetrack rejects and retraining them as event horses.

“I remember seeing her ride as a teenager. She was athletic, brave and tenacious,” said Virginia “Ginnie” Bryant, Wooten-DaFoe’s trainer and mentor. “As a trainer out there, I’m pretty busy, but I noticed her. She has red hair, so she’s distinctive. She’s very athletic and seemed very brave. I would say there definitely wasn’t a lot of finesse going on.”

Wooten-DaFoe made up for her lack of experience with hard work and talent. She produced her first horse to the two-star level by age 23. She won the High Prairie CIC** (Colo.) with Tuco Territory in 2001 before selling him to Tiffani Loudon-Meetze.

“That’s really when I started to feel like I had what it takes to ride as a professional,” said Wooten-DaFoe. “I went through the process of producing this horse that nobody wanted. He was off the track and had horrible manners. I was holding my own against professionals in California, and then I won the CIC** in Colorado. I knew I had holes in my education, and I needed to fill those gaps, but that’s when I started to feel like I had the key elements of what it takes to be a professional in the game.”

Her desire to continue her equestrian education led her to Bryant. Before that, Wooten-DaFoe had gotten some dressage help from California trainer Lita Dove, and she’d been introduced to Sandy Pflueger, who later married U.S. Eventing Chef d’Equipe Capt. Mark Phillips.

About Jennifer Wooten-DaFoe

Age: 31

Business: Trinity Eventing, based at Copper Meadows Equestrian Center in Ramona, Calif.

How she met her husband:
Robert DaFoe was a professional snow-boarder for nine years. He met Jennifer when he was volunteering at a therapeutic riding center where she was working. Now he is a video-grapher and home wine maker.

What People Don’t Know About Her:
“She’s not super gregarious and outgoing. I think people take that as her not being approachable,” said Charlene Eurick. “If you come up and talk to her she’s very friendly.”

About The Good Witch

Age: 13

Breed: Irish Sport Horse

Nicknames: Witchy Pooh, Pooh

Routine Before Dressage: “In the morning, before dressage, she doesn’t like to be hurried. I have to get her out in enough time,” said Charlene Eurick. “If you hurry her, she starts to get tense. She gets a longe, and sometimes Jen will ride her before dressage. We try to keep her calm and happy. I groom her exactly the same way with the same tools in the same order every time because she knows what to expect. Now she’s pretty good when Jen gets on her. It used to be that Jen couldn’t even get on her, because she’d be running backwards.”

“Even though I wasn’t a very established rider at that point, Sandy was kind of a bug in our ear to keep sending us in the right direction,” said Wooten-Dafoe.

Enter The Witch

Bryant, who has coached eventers and show jumpers in their respective World Cup Finals, couldn’t count the number of times a student has come to her with dreams of going to the Olympic Games. So when Wooten-DaFoe approached Bryant for help, the experienced trainer adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude.

“You don’t know who is going to do the work and have what it takes when it comes down to it,” said Bryant.

Wooten-DaFoe quickly exceeded Bryant’s expectations when it came to her willingness to work hard, however.

“She’s one of those people who sets a goal. She doesn’t have a lot of money. She just works and works and makes it work,” said her friend and groom Charlene Eurick. “She used to work full time at this therapeutic riding academy, which was 60 miles from her house. She had a two-hour commute, a full work day teaching therapeutic students, tacking and untacking, and then she’d come home at night, she’d turn on the lights and start riding at 7 at night. She’d ride eight to 10 horses and ride until midnight. She’s just an incredibly hard worker.”

Bryant agreed, “She has all the pieces. She’s athletic enough, talented enough and brave enough, but you have to be a really hard worker. She has a tremendous work ethic. Initially, she moved to San Juan Capistrano, which is where my training business is, and she rode with me full time. She did some teaching and this and that. She doesn’t have a whole lot of funds ever, but she made it work.”

As Wooten-DaFoe proved herself to Bryant, it became clear that lack of horseflesh was holding her back. “She had plenty of talent, but the horses she had to ride were really not good at all,” said Bryant.

So Bryant and Wooten-DaFoe headed to Ireland in 2003 on a mission to find the horse that would take her to the next level. Daisy and Donn Tognazzini, longtime family friends and supporters, agreed to purchase the horse if the right one came along.

Bryant’s friend Don Micklem suggested a small, brown mare that might do, and “The Witch” sparked Wooten-DaFoe’s interest.

“She wasn’t much to look at when we tried her,” she said. “But she just had this spunk and this fire about her. She thought so highly of herself, and that really appealed to me. I knew there would be work ahead with her dressage. I couldn’t even get her on the bit when I tried her. Her canter was always really good, but her trot was a bit like a sewing machine. Her jump was the key reason why she appealed to us.”

Wooten-DaFoe rechristened her “The Good Witch,” although she affectionately refers to her as “Pooh,” and began the partnership that would take her to her first four-star.

“When she first got her, she was just a plain, little, brown mare. She’s got big ears. She didn’t want to be touched. She didn’t want to have anything to do with people. She’s bitten everybody but me. She’s kicked at practically everybody,” remembered Eurick. “She was not rideable at all. She didn’t want anyone telling her what to do.”

But watching Pooh jump at a preliminary horse trials convinced Eurick to forgo every vacation day for the next six years so she could groom for the impressive mare.

“She’s just such an awesome cross-country horse and an awesome jumper,” said Eurick. “I knew that mare was going to go somewhere. It’s been really fun seeing her grow. She and Jennifer have spent so much time together, and she’s ridden her for so long. Pooh trusts her so much. I don’t think there’s any fence in the world she wouldn’t jump if Jen pointed her at it. They’re both little and sassy. Their personalities go together really well.”

A Turning Point

Wooten-DaFoe quickly climbed the levels with Pooh. They contested their first advanced horse trials together in 2005, and the following year she qualified for the FEI World Cup Final in Malmö, Sweden.

“I wanted to go and do the World Cup,” said Wooten-DaFoe. “The Tognazzinis were very excited, and they were going to support the trip. It turned out that the [Blenheim CCI*** (England)] was three weeks prior. So we decided to go ahead and do that too.”

It might seem like a lot to do in one trip, but Wooten-DaFoe and Bryant talked it over with Mark and Sandy Phillips and determined the plan made sense.

“For her to have a chance to be successful at Malmö, she needed something to get her on track. Blenheim is a very nice three-star with good footing, a beautifully built cross-country, good course designers and good show jumping. It seemed like an obvious choice,” said Bryant.

Although Wooten-DaFoe had a run out and a fall on course, Blenheim turned out to be a pivotal event in her career.

“Everything was max height and max width. Every combination you can imagine was on that course. It was the biggest course I’d seen in my whole eventing career,” said Wooten-DaFoe. “I looked at Char, and we were both thinking, ‘My horse is so small, and these fences are so big!’ Those 11 minutes were the longest 11 minutes of my life. I made a few mistakes, but I definitely learned from them. It gave me the feeling of, ‘I can do this, and so can my horse.’ It was a good experience.”

Bryant said that the trip told her a lot about the pair. “I walked away that day after cross-country and thought they both had what it takes. If they could do that, they could do a four-star. On record, her score doesn’t look so great because she had a couple of problems on course, but she made most of the course look easy,” said Bryant.

Wooten-DaFoe went on to finish 18th at the World Cup Final with a single stop on cross-country. She set her sights on a four-star next and decided to return to Europe a year later for the inaugural Pau CCI**** (France).

“I’d groomed at Pau when it was a two-star years ago, and I’d really liked it,” said Wooten-DaFoe. “I knew it was the breaking point of whether I was a four-star rider and sitting on a four-star horse. I wanted to find that out somewhere other than Rolex. Rolex is such a big deal in the U.S. It’s not only a four-star, but it’s such a public event. I’d seen what it did to other West Coast riders who went out there, and I wanted to be a really strong presence from the West Coast when I went to Rolex.”

So she fundraised and headed to France. The pair came through the difficult course with flying colors, finishing as the top-placed U.S. combination in 11th.

“It was one of the most satisfying feelings to get through the finish of that four-star and go clean. I had time penalties, but I made it through the course,” said Wooten-DaFoe. “There’s not a lot of terrain on the course, but all the technical stuff was packed in together. I remember Mark Phillips saying, ‘When you’re riding around a four-star, you never take a breath. You keep going.’ So I was telling myself that all the way around the course, ‘I’ve got to keep going, I’ve got to keep going!’ ”

Rolex And Beyond

With one four-star under her belt, Wooten-DaFoe headed to Rolex Kentucky in 2008.

“When I went to Rolex, I was that much more confident and believed that much more in myself, and in my horse and my team. That way I could enjoy Rolex because it was a childhood dream, and I was living that part of the dream,” she said. “It’s a very small percentage of riders who make it that far and get that opportunity. I had no idea I was actually going to finish in the top 10. That was the icing on the cake.”

Wooten-DaFoe headed home dazed with happiness only to learn the good news wasn’t done yet. In June, she and Pooh were asked to attend the U.S. Equestrian Federation Mandatory Outing at The Fork in Norwood, N.C.

The pair put in one of their best performances to date, showing improved dressage, strong cross-country and a clean show jumping round. They weren’t named to the Olympic team, however.

“When I was put on the short list, I knew the odds of me getting selected for the team were very slim. I was the new kid on the block. I thought it would be a good experience to go out there,” said Wooten-DaFoe.

“We did the best we could do,” she added. “I don’t have any regrets. But it was a tough blow not to be chosen for the Olympics. The biggest frustration was that I never got a reason for why I wasn’t chosen. They pretty much told me, ‘Thanks for coming, we hope you get back to California safely.’ ”

Eurick said that journey to the mandatory outing was the most pressure-filled situation she’s encountered.

“That [trip] was harder than going to Rolex or the World Cup. Everyone is watching you, and even though it’s not an official competition, we felt like it was a competition. Here you are trying to make the Olympic team.

“She really pulled it off and handled the pressure,” Eurick continued. “She performed the best dressage test she’s ever done. She skipped around cross-country, and she went clean show jumping. That was the high—her doing her very best when it counted the most. The low was when she wasn’t chosen. You can’t help but get your hopes up, especially when she did so well.”

But even though a disappointed Wooten-DaFoe headed home to California rather than to Hong Kong, the experience of being on the short list was a big step forward in her career.

“Jennifer doesn’t sell herself hard. She’s a little less known a lot of the time than some people. That’s just not her personality,” said Bryant.

That shyness has made it a bit more difficult for Wooten-DaFoe to get noticed, but her impressive performances at the mandatory outing and Rolex Kentucky spoke louder than words.

“After the mandatory outing I had my cry. Then I wondered, ‘How am I going to get home?’ My husband, who was my fiancé at the time, drove out and picked us up at The Fork. We took our time and drove The Witch home. I was happy to have a little bit of a break. I wasn’t feeling defeated,” she said.

Wooten-DaFoe married Robert DaFoe in November and started planning for 2009. She was named to USEF Winter Training “B” List, so she’s been working hard on continuing to improve her dressage.

“I had such a good time at Rolex last year. This winter I’ve improved on things. I thought having another run around Rolex might earn me a spot to go to [the Burghley CCI**** (England)] at the end of the summer,” she said. “I’m doing all the right things. I’m getting all the right results. I’m hoping that at some point all my hard work will break in with a little luck with the USEF and the selection committee.” 

Sara Lieser

Category: Eventing
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