An all-around HorsewomanBy Mary Jane Howell
She and her husband Fran Doto settled in Aiken three years ago, relocating from Virginia. Their Catalyst Driving Center is located on 10 acres in Windsor, just down the road from Katydid, where there is a major Combined Driving Event every fall.
A lifelong horsewoman, Shelly has been working with horses for nearly four decades. She hunted in the Brandywine region of Pennsylvania as a teenager and later competed in eventing. In 1996 Shelly attended the Fair Hill International Combined Driving Event with friends, and she was hooked.
"I realized that there was more to carriage driving than I had imagined – the thrill of seeing those horses flying through the water hazard and then galloping up and down the hills – it really caught my attention," she laughs.
Shelly didn't waste time, and within a year she was competing.
"I was fortunate to have Lisa Singer as my teacher and I was definitely on the fast track – our motto was 'just go out and do it,'" and that's just what I did," says Shelly.
Shelly made her first trip to Aiken in 1998 for a United States Equestrian Team training session, held the week after the Spring Steeplechase.
"Aiken was just amazing, it felt like we were rock stars! We did lots of driving around town and I remember that the Show in the Woods was on. Seeing those perfectly turned out horses and riders heading into Hitchcock Woods was just breathtaking and I fell in love with the whole place."
Shelly says that she was attracted to combined driving because "it's hard to be good at all three parts, so you're always learning and there's always a new challenge."
"I am especially attracted to the dressage aspect of combined driving – it's all about precision. I also ride and compete in dressage, so you can tell I like that particular discipline.
"Another part of this sport that I am attracted to is how much camaraderie there is. Yes, we compete against each other, but there is a feeling of helpfulness and appreciation as well."
Shelly's "big" horse is actually a pony – a wonderful Morgan named Cooper (officially his name is LR Ami B-Line). Cooper is 15 now and has had a stellar career as a driving pony. Shelly and Cooper were a members of the Bronze Medal-winning team at the World Pony Driving Championships in Denmark in 2007 and they were second in Dressage at those same Championships.
Cooper has won the USEF National Pony Championship for three years (2006, 2010 and 2011) and was the USEF Horse of the Year combined driving single pony in 2007. Not only can this pony dazzle in driving events, but he and Shelly are working towards Third Level in ridden dressage.
Shelly also has another Morgan she is bringing along, a young mare named Sparkle.
"She is a blank slate right now and I am just getting her started," says Shelly.
Although she might have four or five horses in training at any given time, Shelly needs to save time for her other students, the human ones. "I love to be in the carriage with a student, sharing my love of driving with someone who is obviously interested."
Shelly's lessons in carriage driving are not only for people who have a keen interest in combined driving: she also teaches those who are only interested in pleasure showing or recreational driving. She can train clients' horses, or find horses for them. Carriages and harness – no problem! Show attire – she can help with that as well.
"I love to help people through the journey," Shelly says.
Although "Catalyst" in Catalyst Driving Center comes from the name of a friend's horse, the definition of the word suites Shelly's goal in life – "a person or thing that precipitates an event or change." She is certainly changing the lives of her students by opening up the door to the world of driving.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.