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Dick Boettcher: Fulfilling the Saddle Horse Dream

by Ann Bullard

Horatio Alger stories exist for a reason. The prolific 19th century American author heralded fictional boys who led exemplary lives to succeed in the face of adversity and poverty, good and evil. Even Alger might have had trouble imagining the life and times of Saddlebred Hall of Fame trainer Dick Boettcher. Boettcher’s road from being James Dale Griggs and living with his grandmother, into the horse world, much less the success he has enjoyed, is a much better story than any ‘dime novel.’

Boettcher and photographer Avis Girdler have been good friends since he moved to the Northwest. This picture of the two "shows Dick with hair," Girdler said. "It was my hair; I bought and paid for it," Boettcher quipped.

Born in Columbia, Mo., Boettcher’s parents divorced shortly after his birth. His grandmother, with whom he lived until he was eight years old, wanted his parents to name their son Richard. She called him Dick or Dickie.

As with many youngsters, he was drawn to horses. He was eight when he slipped across the road to watch the Farmer’s Fair Horse Show at the University of Missouri.

"I fell in love with a spotted (Saddlebred) pony named General Ike," he said, recalling the day that changed his life-course. "He belonged to the Palmer family; Fern [Palmer Bittner] happened to be the one showing him at the time."

Bittner recalled that day. "Dickie attached himself to my grandfather, watching what he was doing."

"He and I got to talking," Boettcher added. "He got hold of my parents and I went home with him."

The Palmers’ prominence on the Missouri horse scene attracted Boettcher. Tony Palmer had bred, raised and stood the Stonewall King son, Murray Cason. There were lots of horses.

"The Palmers lived on a farm-farm, not just a horse farm," Boettcher said, recalling those early days. "I milked a cow, drove the team, cultivated and harrowed fields and helped put up hay."

They also went to horse shows. Boettcher and Betty Jane Palmer (Bittner’s younger sister) showed in one of the early fancy turnout classes.

"Sweetheart Stonewall was broke to the fine harness buggy. We had decorated it with crepe paper. I was scared we were going to win … if you won, you had to kiss the girl," he said with a smile in his voice.

The younger Palmer and Boettcher often rode double aboard the pony, Smokey, to the one-room, eighth grade Gillespie school. When it came time for high school, Boettcher chose to return to his grandmother’s from where he could continue his education.

Dick Boettcher and his father, the late Bob Boettcher, enjoyed horses together. The senior Boettcher remained active in the breeding business until in his mid-70s.

Again, his life took a dramatic turn. Bob and Anne Boettcher had moved to Columbia, Mo., with the new KOMO television station. They established their stable at the Boone County Fairgrounds, across the road from Boettcher’s grandmother. It didn’t take long for the young man to begin working for the family who would become his adoptive parents.

Bob Boettcher’s father’s death brought the family back to Minnesota to settle the estate. Dick Boettcher spent two years in a pre-law curriculum at Gustavis Adolphus College, in nearby St. Peter, Minn. He soon realized that he wanted to be on his own, and in the horse business.

He certainly had history upon which to build. Bob Boettcher owned the Broodmare Hall of Fame mare, Marie Bosace. Her sons, Stonewall’s Beau Peavine, by Stonewall’s Golden Dream, and Stonewall’s Crescendo, by Stonewall Supreme, left a lasting impression on both the show ring and the breed as a whole. She also was the dam of two great mares: Sweet Deception and Lifetime Affair, dam of Valley Venture and Lifetime Memory. Not only did the younger Boettcher have the opportunity to work with these and other family horses, he spent one summer ‘paying off’ a colt by working for the late Chat Nichols.

Three years with the late Fritz Jordan at Hayfield Farm in Kentucky helped Boettcher hone his skills. Meanwhile, the family relocated from Minnesota to Bellefontaine, Ohio where Boettcher decided to open his first public training stable.

"I was on my own and starving to death," he said. "I found out I didn’t know as much about the most important part of the horse business: dealing with customers."

It was a lesson well-learned and never forgotten.

Boettcher rode Silver Lining Stables' CH Chalton's Half Angel to three consecutive County Fair titles at the World's Championship Horse Show. In 1976, they won the Five-Gaited Kentucky County Fair title, following it with a win in the Three-Gaited Championship in 1977. They topped it off in 1978 by taking the Fine Harness Championship.

While working for the late Ellis Waggoner at Brownview Farm in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Boettcher received a call from Lee Miller. He and his wife, the late Betty Kern Miller, had their Silver Lining Stables in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. They were looking for an assistant trainer.

"Bob Lewis coaxed me into coming to California and working for them," Boettcher said, calling Lewis "one of the finest gentlemen ever in the horse business. No one ever treated me as well as Bob. I went there and stayed for four years.

"Mrs. [William P.] Roth offered me the opportunity to step up and be head trainer at Why Worry Farm," Boettcher said, calling the late Mrs. Roth the most gracious person he’d ever met. After a brief stay at Menlo Circus Club, home of Brigadoon Stables, Boettcher returned to Kentucky to work with the late Bob and Judy Whitney for several years.

He spoke of the Whitney days. "Bob was the kind of person that could make you love and hate, love and hate – all in the space of five minutes. He was a unique individual and very Napoleonic. Judy was the kind of person who kept things on an even keel, kept them going forward. I adored Judy Whitney; without her, he would have been in serious trouble."

The late Paul Priebe brought him back to Minnesota for what he calls ‘an experience with a man who treated me well.’ When working in weather so cold that horses’ saliva stuck to the bits, he moved ‘south’ to Iowa and Dr. Alan R. Raun’s Reedannland.

Meanwhile, Betty and Lee Miller had bought a place in Danville, Ky., and moved Silver Lining Stables to the Bluegrass State. "They had some problems and asked me to come back to work for them."

Raun encouraged the young trainer. He accepted the job, initially as broodmare manager when Dave Becker was head trainer. When Becker moved on, Boettcher assumed both roles, spending 12 years at the farm called one of the greatest old-time showplaces.

"We did OK with the horses. My main job was the care of Betty after she and Lee divorced," he said, explaining he became her companion on many trips.

California trainer Michael Craghead worked with Boettcher when the Californian "was a mere child. Dick’s very picky about turning a horse out. I learned that [and much more] from him."

Craghead recalled riding with Boettcher to a show. "He got tired and wanted me to drive the van. I said OK. I drove and finally woke him up saying I couldn’t go any farther. He claims I had only driven 30 minutes. That probably was the truth," Craghead said smiling at the memory.

"At Kansas City last year, we all were stabled on the same aisleway. We had so much fun… he’s so much fun, period. Dick can tell you to go to hell and doesn’t even know he’s done it. He’s just an all-round good guy."

Boettcher brought along many young horsemen. Among these is Bob Funkhouser.

"As a teenager, I was working for Bill Wise in Danville (Ky.)," Funkhouser recalled, calling Wise a "taskmaster". During the mid-1970s, he moved to Silver Lining.

"Dick’s a much more laid-back person; it was just as much work, but a different atmosphere," Funkhouser said. "I never met a kinder, better human being than Dick Boettcher – and he was a hell of a horseman. During that time, Silver Lining probably won more titles and classes than with the rest of its trainers combined. Silver Lining’s impressive roster at that time included Half Angel, Sportin’ Life, Dutchman’s Gold, Dutch Uncle, Very Good Eddie, The Odalisque, High Ideal, Dancing Time, Tanbark Spirit, May Melody and Red Rebel. And they had an outstanding breeding operation standing such horses as Magic Souvenir, Supreme Fortune, Starheart Peavine and Dutch Commander.

"Dick’s way with tough horses was just uncanny. He was as stubborn as they were. And he was great with young horses," Funkhouser said. "He was [and is] so willing to teach you everything. I got to ride literally every horse in the barn and got to show a lot. He taught me how to finish, present and show a horse."

Boettcher recalled the young Funkhouser. "Bobby was a good, good worker. We were talking one day and I told him, ‘You need to get your education; you can always train horses.’"

Funkhouser followed the advice, getting a degree in journalism and channeling much of his horse interests into working with Dabora’s Saddle Horse Report. He trains his family’s horses at their Massachusetts home.

Not only did Boettcher have ‘nice horses’ at Silver Lining, he made lasting Kentucky friends. Hoppy Bennett, who was commuting between Los Angeles and Kentucky when he and Boettcher first became acquainted, is one of these.

"Dick calls or visits about once a month," Bennett said. "He is a man of his word. He has character and integrity. And he has a very good eye for a horse. Some people can pick a horse, some can’t… Dick Boettcher has a good eye. When he tells you something, that’s the way it is. When he sells one, he tells you all the details and it’s important to him to follow up and see that you do well. We need more like him in this business."

"Hoppy’s the reason I’m in the Northwest," Boettcher said. "Darleen Miller had been his customer and wanted to have her own barn out here. She was looking for a trainer and Hoppy talked me into interviewing for the job."

Miller brought several good horses including the popular world’s champion five-gaited Yankee Robinson with her. During this time she owned such horses as CH Northern Event and several of his full siblings.

That was the beginning of Boettcher’s West Coast success. "I had fallen in love with the Northwest and decided this is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life," he said in an earlier interview. "I took a gamble and went into public training in the Seattle area. My first barn was in Kirkland."

Martha Keck and Full Spectrum presented a beautiful picture in the show ring and in an 'at home' photo by Avis.

Martha Keck joined his equine family in 1988.

"I had ridden with Ellis Waggoner in Indiana," Keck said. "A friend had died and left me her Saddlebred. As I was moving to Seattle, I asked Ellis who I should go to. He told me, ‘Dickie Boettcher who used to work for me.’"

Keck had two small children and asked Boettcher if she could keep her horse at his barn. "Although he had mostly a show barn, he said yes. He taught my kids to ride.

"We tried to show our horse in country pleasure," she said, alluding to near disastrous results. "Dick told me, ‘You’re going to scare your kids if you keep doing this to them.’"

She listened, and began buying such nice horses as Sultan’s Sultina for her children to show until they entered college.

Keck revels in showing with Boettcher. "I love going in the warm-up ring. I’ll get all ready; Dick warms up my horse and I’ll climb on. Just standing there waiting for the gate to open…" she paused. "And his demeanor on the rail is great."

In 1994, Keck and Boettcher selected a three-year-old gray gelding from Singing Hills Stables. The Blacklaws called him Summer Discovery.

"We thought he had great potential and I bought him as an investment," she said, adding, "They usually never work. The idea was that Dick would work and market him. ‘Stanley’ never really liked to canter but liked harness so we decided just to drive him."

Boettcher showed the gelding as a three-year-old. Keck made two shows the following spring, winning both amateur classes at Monterrey Springfest. Rob Tanner saw the horse and called Rich Robertson. He brought the late Susan Phillips to Boettcher’s and she liked what she saw.

Dick Boettcher and Absolutely Fabulous

Phillips changed the gelding’s name to Absolutely Fabulous. From June 1995 through the 2002 American Royal, the pair lit up show rings and collected rooms full of blue and tricolor silks.

Keck and Boettcher continue to have success in the show world. But their personal relationship, the man Boettcher is, remains most important to her. As successful as they have been in selecting horses, they all don’t work out.

"He’s honest enough to say, ‘This won’t work out, it’s not what I expected.’ He’s not afraid to tell you if he does make a mistake. Dick’s honesty resonates," she said.

"The thing about Dick is how much fun he is. He’s not just about showing horses," Keck said. "He loves the history of the breed and knows tons of historical data. He’s always talking breeding, telling stores and tales of the [more] glamorous days. He truly is my best pal. He’s very bright – don’t ever play Trivial Pursuit with him, he’ll kill you. Since he has been limited in mobility, he doesn’t go hiking to mountains but watches every nature show on TV. He knows history, the world and is his clients’ friend as much as their horse trainer. Spouses love him; he can talk football and science with anybody and tells the best dirty jokes of anyone I know.

"He fancies himself as not being a kid’s trainer, but he is so great with them," Keck said. "He teaches them to work with an animal as a team, to go into the ring with a goal; that’s not always a blue. He’s a great sport and that carries over to the adults in the barn. He’s in this to let people reach their own goals and is incredibly successful. Dick is very demanding but in a good way."

Boettcher’s sense of humor can get him or his traveling companion, if not in trouble, certainly looked at suspiciously. Keck explained. "Dick and I had flown through Chicago to see Ellis Waggoner and look for a horse. There were horrible storms and we had to spend the night. We went to Louisville, found the horse and coming back connected in Chicago to the same flight crew. The flight attendant welcomed us back on the plane, hugged us and brought a bottle of champagne.

"I proceeded to fall asleep," she continued, laughing at the memory. "Dick likes to bead costumes while he watches television. He was working on something similar to a bathing suit top. A lady leaned over and asked what he was doing. He responded, ‘I’m beading an outfit for an entertainer.’ When she asked if I were an entertainer, he said, ‘She’s a stripper.’ She was staring at me when I woke up. I asked Dick if I’d done something embarrassing. He said, ‘I told her you were a stripper.’"

Gayle Lampe and Boettcher became acquainted when she brought a group of William Woods students to visit Silver Lining Stables. They watched him work horses, went to nearby barns and had a big dinner party at the house.

"He’s just the most wonderful person I know. He loves the horse business and people in the horse business more than anyone else I’ve ever known," Lampe said. "He is very well read with knowledge that goes way beyond this business. Dick’s very interested in everything. He’s the most loyal friend you can have.

"He made the decision years ago to be a big fish in a little pond. He’s still holding his own and winning at Louisville," she continued. "Thank goodness we have someone of his talent outside of Kentucky."

Or, as Boettcher put it, "Life is a lot simpler to be a big fish in a little pond than to be a minnow in a lake."

Avis Girdler met Boettcher when "I stole his ducks that Gayle [Lampe] had brought him in Dale Pugh’s truck. I had my stepson with me; he wanted a duck so I took one. Dale and Gayle said Dick was going to kill me. When he asked about it, I told him my stepson wanted a duck and Dick let him have it."

That 1970s incident led to a close friendship. "He’s a great man – a great person, that’s for sure," Girdler said. "A lot of younger people don’t remember what a famous trainer he was while in Kentucky, what a great job he did. I had seen him show many nice horses and knew what a great horseman and super showman he is. I think the best thing that happened to the Northwest was him moving there."

She describes the trainer as "honest, caring and too generous, with the number one sense of humor. He loves dogs beyond love. I had never been around Jack Russells until I went to visit Dick. He had a herd of them. Every one had the best manners I’d ever seen in a dog. He had four or five lined up, paying attention, not running around like crazy. I thought Jack Russells were very easy going. His forté really may be that he’s the best Jack Russell trainer of all time."

Mary McLellan Williams joined the Boettcher family in the early 1980s. She made the move shortly after the late Chat Nichols won the Five-Gaited World’s Grand Championship aboard her Mountain Highland Encore.

"I had a practice horse in the Northwest. Carl Fischer recommended that I take horses to Dick," she said.

Williams reminisced about one of the early horse-buying trips she and her husband, Vern, made with Boettcher. "We were looking for a walk-trot horse for me. We’d been everywhere for about four days and had about two hours before we were due at the airport in Lexington. Tom Galbreath was at Castle Hills; we thought we should stop and see what he had.

"Oh By George already had been looked at [and ridden] by two other people that day. I got on him and he was just a pile of fun. I told Dick, ‘This is the one!’ Tom wouldn’t sell him before the sale so Dick went back and bought him for me. We brought him out here and I had the most fun with him!"

Boettcher and his clients have as much a personal and professional relationship. He is pictured with his first West Coast client, Mischa Leendertsen, and Grace Arnold.

Williams showed him successfully before turning the gelding over to her daughter, Grace Arnold. One of her favorite Boettcher stories concerns a win at Burbank, Calif.

"I was showing Oh By George," she said, explaining that he was a difficult horse to mount. "I stepped off for conformation judging. When I went to get back on, I wasn’t paying close enough attention. Dick threw me over the horse and I nicked the tail brace. He went straight up; I slid off. Nelson [Green] and the other judges came rushing to help me back on.

"The brace still wasn’t seated right. When I won, I asked Dick if he wanted me to make a victory pass. His response, ‘Oh my God, no. Just get out of here while you’re still alive,’" she said, adding her grandchildren love to watch the video, particularly when it’s run backward.

Oh By George was only one of many champions Williams has had with Boettcher. He teamed her with such horses as CH Courageous Flower, CH Button Bright [dam of Boutonniere] and CH Rejoice.

Mary Williams showed the many-times world's champion CH Rejoice to several three-gaited titles on the West Coast.

"I bought Rejoice sight unseen as a two-year-old from Dr. Simon Fredericks," Williams said, pointing out her trust in Boettcher and Carter Cox. "She won at Louisville [with Cox in the buggy] the next year."

Williams brought the mare back to Boettcher. "I showed her as a four-year-old," she said, adding that the mare was perfectly balanced and could park trot. They were defeated only once.

"Dick is a perfectly fabulous horseman who can put a mouth on a horse. He can follow Carter Cox, where not many people can," she said.

"He has the most wonderful sense of humor and has teased me ever since we’ve first known each other. He always makes me laugh and remembers every malaprop I’ve ever uttered," Williams said with a laugh.

Boettcher helped open up a different facet of the business to Williams. "When I had [Courageous] Flower and Button [Bright] and purchased Rejoice, Dick told me the two mares were getting older. Perhaps I didn’t want to sell as they would be nice broodmares. I’d never had a breeding operation. He suggested I send them to Carter [Cox.] I did and it opened up a whole other area for me. We’ve raised two world’s champions.

"That whole part of my life never would have come about if Dick hadn’t suggested it. It’s a whole new facet and I’m just loving it," she said.

Eduardo Castillo and Reymundo Gallegos learned their craft as Boettcher's assistant trainers.

After almost 30 years on the West Coast, Boettcher is slowing down. Fortunately for his clients and the Saddlebred business, he has trained two good assistants who are able to step up for him. Eduardo Castillo and Reymundo Gallegos not only work horses; each has earned numerous top ribbons for Boettcher clients.

"He not only lets them show; he puts them in the ring and gives them credit," Keck said. "He gets as much of a thrill with them in the ring as he does himself."

"I’m not happy being old; I much prefer youth. My 40s and 50s were glory years out here," said Boettcher with his characteristic good humor.

Boettcher has been a valued judge, holding cards at almost every major show other than the world’s championships. He gave up his card this year, citing problems standing in center ring as long as is needed as the reason.

On Jan. 7, he had knee replacement surgery. At home five days later, he awakened and didn’t have the use of his right hand.

"I thought I had a crick in my neck but it was a small problem. They opened up the carotid and cleaned it out," he explained. "I’ve been very fortunate through Martha Keck, my dearest and best friend. Her husband is in the medical field and I had the best doctors you can get.

"It’s been a tough winter," he conceded. "Now I’m back riding, jogging, long-lining and doing all those things. I’m very fortunate that the two young men working for me are good horsemen. They are great workers and take care of me really well. That made the situation this winter a lot easier. I didn’t have to worry about the horses; I knew they would be worked and taken care of."

In mid-April, the Boettcher team will load up and head to their first horse show. "We’re taking eight head, a fairly good show string," he said. "We don’t have as big a string or go to as many shows as people in the Midwest, but we travel farther."

He spoke about the state of the industry he loves. "Unfortunately, our business is too centralized to my way of thinking," he said. "Too much attention is paid to the middle of the country and not enough to outlying areas.

"As far as trainers are concerned – our business is pretty damn well off. We have young men like Todd [Miles] and Smith [Lilly.] They’re well-educated, intelligent people. The biggest improvement from the professional viewpoint is that we have a better-educated group of young people in the business now."

As important as equestrian skills are, Boettcher says they come in second to a trainer’s people skills. It’s a point he proves over and over again with clients and fellow professionals. The loyalty of those who have remained with him for more than 20 years testifies to his ability as a people as well as a horse person.

"When we go back East to show, he can’t go 10-feet down the hall without stopping to talk with someone," Keck said. "The people he’s introduced me to have been life-changing. Between Mary Williams, Avis and Dick, I have a bevy of friends all over the country."

"I adore the Northwest because I made the best friends of my life who also are customers," Boettcher said in an earlier interview. "We enjoy doing things together besides the horses. A lot of trainers, if you have a conversation about something other than horses, they aren’t interested. Jim and Jill Anthony, Mary McLellan and Vern Williams, Martha Keck, Laurel Nelson; I’ve known them since I moved out here. We used to go dancing when we could both dance! I’m fortunate to have as good a group of customers as a person could have."

Boettcher and his partner, Jeff Atkins, have been together 28 years. Keck says the two are as different as night and day.

"Jeff is a fantastic cook; we’ve had many birthday dinners over there," Keck said. "He’s scared of horses, but made the first vests for the walk and trotters academy classes. He’s very supportive of Dick leaving for shows."

"Dick is kind of a lesson to all of us. He’s a great guy and demonstrates how someone who is different is just the same as everyone else. He really is a trainer for amateurs, with clients of various capabilities, needs and talents. And he still has a 72-year-old riding," Williams said with a smile. "He has amateurs who have been good riders all their lives, and new ones. And he trains for each of those amateurs, which is a real art."

In 2006, Boettcher and Alan and Ginger Failor decided to send the Failors’ five-gaited mare, Miss Genevieve, to Kentucky. After winning a reserve world’s championship with Steve Wheeler, the team decided to campaign in five-gaited show pleasure. Chris Nalley stepped into the irons during the 2007 season, winning the Adult Five-Gaited Show Pleasure World’s Championship and Champion of Championships.

As Carl Fischer put it, "Dick has judgment tempered by a lifetime of experience." McClellan says, "He is an extraordinary human being."

Both are true and the Saddlebred industry, in the great Northwest and throughout the country is better for it.

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