August 26, 2013
This American Quarter Horse took horseback riding to a whole new level in the 1984 Olympic Games.
The story of the rise of a fiery little mare named Dialadream from reject racehorse to Olympic competitor is worthy of a novel. It opens on the very first day of 1975 in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, where the petite 2-year-old filly steps onto the track at Blue Ribbon Downs for her very first official race, a trial for the Blue Ribbon Futurity.
Dialadream is bred for speed. Her sire, Johnny Dial, was racing’s 1952 world champion runner and was the sire of champion Anna Dial. Dialadream’s dam, Dreamy Bar, was by leading race sire and 1952 champion 3-year-old colt Tonto Bars Gill and out of a stakes-winning mare.
Led into the gates, Dialadream broke with the field, ran a lackluster 44 speed index and provided doubtful race-goers a glimpse of her destiny when she jumped the track rail and ran off.
Eleven months passed, and Dialadream had a new owner, a new country of residence and the same pugnacious attitude. The mare was now a Canadian resident owned by Alex Picov’s Picov Cattle Co.
Alex, a Russian immigrant, built his fortune in real estate and horse trading, and with his son, Norm, opened Picov Downs near Ajax, Ontario. The track, now Ajax Downs, is still owned by the family.
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Seventeen-year-old Kelly Plitz showed up at the Picov sale barn looking to buy an American Quarter Horse so that she could join her friends showing on the Quarter Horse circuit. The dark brown filly peeking out of one of the stalls caught Kelly’s eye. First it was the horse’s color that attracted Kelly’s attention, then when “Dreamy” was turned loose in the arena – the sale-barn cowboy refused to ride the bronc – it was her floating trot that sealed the deal.
Kelly, who trained the mare herself, learned to accommodate the mare’s quirky behavior on the ground. Dreamy was spooky and difficult to handle, fussing while going in and out of doors, and falling down in the trailer stall if she deemed it too narrow.
“It was always a scene with her,” Kelly says. “She was very difficult, and I wouldn’t deal with a horse like that now, but at 17, you’re an expert. I was stubborn and determined. Everyone told me I couldn’t: ‘Don’t bother; she’s going to kill you.’ The more they told me that, the more I wanted to prove them wrong.”
The two showed on the Quarter Horse circuit for several years, earning a performance Register of Merit and competing successfully in hunter under saddle and working hunter at Quarterama and Western World, two of the largest Quarter Horse shows in Ontario.
While helping a friend horse-shop, Kelly attended a three-day event competition and took an immediate interest in the sport. Three-day eventing is an arduous sport, an equine triathlon demanding skill and obedience in three different events, combined with great strength and endurance. A three-day event requires a horse on Day 1 to perform a dressage test, showing its obedience; on Day 2, a cross-country jumping course over natural obstacles, showing endurance and skill; and on Day 3, a show-jumping course to test willingness and soundness.
In 1978, Kelly and Dreamy did their first horse trial (a mini-version of a three-day event) and won. Kelly was hooked.
Dreamy’s attitude and determination were a perfect fit for the rugged demands of the cross-country course.
“She was funny to do anything with, but she was an amazing jumper,” Kelly says. “When you were on her back, when you were galloping and jumping, you felt like you could jump anything. It was payback for the grief she gave you when you were on the ground.”
Far smaller than most eventing horses, Dreamy was a slight-built horse who stood a mere 15.3 hands but contained an outsized ability to clear an obstacle.
“I could just aim her at anything,” Kelly says.
She recalls attending a clinic at the start of her eventing career and the warning the clinician gave her.
“He said, ‘The one thing you have to be careful of with this horse is you don’t point her at something you don’t want her to jump, because she’ll jump it.’ ”
Reaching the Big Time
Kelly and Dreamy began their climb to the very top of the eventing ranks, with Dreamy taking a quick break between seasons to foal a 1980 colt by Zahroo (TB).
By 1981, the self-trained pair were long-listed for the Canadian Eventing Team. By 1982, they were on the short list.
At the start of one event, the mare’s nerves got the best of her, causing her to rear up and fall over, crushing Kelly’s leg and leaving the horsewoman lame on the leg for six months.
It was the day after the accident that the standoffish mare showed another side of herself.
“I was leaning over her stall guard,” Kelly remembers. “She came over and put her head and neck over my back and kind of brought me into her. She just hugged me with her head and neck. She’d never done that before or since. It was almost, ‘I’m sorry I did that.’
“I know it’s stupid, and I’m not that way with my horses,” she says. “I don’t try to personify my horses. But it was such a weird thing she did.”
Later that year, only four years after the young woman and her mare first began competing in the sport – they were representing Canada at the World Championships in Luhmuhlen, West Germany, and in the spring of 1983 were ninth at Rolex in Kentucky. That fall, they were again in the top 10 at the international Almaden Chesterland three-day event and were the top-placed Canadian team.
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The spring of 1984 brought Olympic trials and a scary fall at an international competition in Maryland. A miscalculation in the approach caused them to go down at a fence. Neither was seriously injured, and they continued and finished the event, but Kelly’s confidence was shaken.
There is never a good time for a fall, but the timing on this was particularly bad: The next stop for Kelly and her mare was the Olympics.
The 1984 Olympic Games were in Los Angeles.
The cross-country test at the ’84 Olympics first required horse and rider to ride a sandwiched four-mile road-and-track; followed by a nine-fence steeplechase performed at full gallop; then another seven-mile road-and-track. The team got 10 minutes to recover (and pass a vet check) before being sent off on a five-mile, 34-obstacle cross-country course.
Rules at the time required a horse to carry 165 pounds, and lightweight Kelly had to pack 55 pounds of lead on her saddle. Riders had to weigh in immediately before saddling, which meant tacking up a wired equine athlete in the middle of an open field. Jazzed and ready, Dreamy’s bad habits again got the best of her. When the girth was tightened, Dreamy reared, broke free and tore off into the Southern California desert, leaving a mangled saddle and tack in her wake.
“I just sat down in a chair,” Kelly says. “I mean, what can you do? I’m about to start in the Olympics, and now my horse is running out in the desert.
“She just ran and ran and ran,” Kelly remembers. “Then she decided there was no place to run to. She stopped, turned around and ran back. We caught her, borrowed some tack, and off we went.”
The course was extremely slippery, causing several horses to fall, and Kelly, with her previous fall fresh on her mind, chose to ride conservatively. Dreamy jumped clean but got several time penalties. Out of 80 horses that started, Kelly and Dreamy finished 25th and were the top-placed Canadian team.
“I was disappointed,” Kelly admits. “But when I look back on it, it is an overwhelming experience riding in front of so many people. When I was there, I felt a part of it and in my element. Competing there was fantastic … it is so personal and hard to put into words.”
The pair continued to compete successfully, including a second-place finish at the Chesterland International in October of that year. In 1986, Kelly sold Dreamy, who returned to the state of the ’84 Olympics. Dreamy was retired shortly thereafter to become a broodmare and produced two additional foals, including the mare Practical Dream, who in 1999 was the Best of America’s Horse United States Dressage Federation Horse of the Year at First Level.
Dreamy died in 2001 and, in 2009, she became the first horse inducted into the Canadian Eventing Hall of Fame. Kelly’s Ontario farm, Dreamcrest Equestrian, is named in the mare’s honor. Kelly and her husband, Ian Roberts, who is also an Olympic three-day eventer, are active trainers and competitors. Their 50-stall farm trains horses and riders, and hosts several horse trials during the year. The couple has two sons, Waylon, 24, and Wyatt, 11. Waylon is an international eventing rider as well.
“Dreamy was my Cinderella horse,” Kelly says. “She opened up a lot of things for me. She was only a part of my life for 11 years, but she influenced my whole life. I do not live a day without thinking about her. Most riders will never experience what I had with this mare.
“I was so lucky to be a part of her life.”