An Unlikely Partnership

Eventer Maya Black and her feisty, quirky 15.2-hand partner, Doesn’t Play Fair, take the eventing world by storm.
Maya Black and Doesn’t Play Fair have made a name for themselves after a solid spring season peppered with top placings, including an impressive third-place finish at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. | © Shannon Brinkman

A little warmblood bred to be a dressage horse seems an unlikely candidate to excel at the highest levels of eventing. Add in that quirky Doesn’t Play Fair, affectionately known by monikers such as “Munchkin Monster,” has been known to refuse at simple crossrails when he doesn’t like the look of a jump, and it’s all the more implausible.

But Maya Black, 28, never gave up on this pint-sized gelding with a larger-than-life personality, and her gumption and sympathetic understanding of his idiosyncrasies combined with the horse’s sheer athleticism and love of the game continue to carry this unlikely duo to new heights.

Maya, a tall rider at 6-foot, and “Cody,” a smaller horse at 15.2 hands, stamped their names on the U.S. eventing map with a third-place finish at the 2016 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. But no one ever imagined capricious Cody would make it that far in the beginning. 

Maya and Doesn’t Play Fair earned a 45.5 in the dressage phase at Rolex Kentucky this year, which was good enough to put them in 12th heading into cross country. | © Horse Bug Photos by Stephanie Laird

By Camiros out of a Coriander mare, Cody was born in 2005 at Half Trak Farm in Stanwood, Washington. Early on, he had an inauspicious start when he jumped out of the horse trailer window on the way to his Holsteiner inspection, landing face first on the pavement below. 

“He actually has some of the ugliest front teeth you can find because of that, but they are mangled enough that it doesn’t really hurt when he bites you,” Maya explains matter-of-factly. Years spent embracing a cantankerous horse’s personality will give one that type of perspective.

The ill-fated inspection thankfully didn’t lead to any further damage to Cody’s “adorably expressive face,” which is a big reason why his owners Dawn and Jon Dofelmier fell in love with him.

The couple had met Cody soon after he was born at Half Trak, one of the many farms they service as farriers in the state. “He was difficult to shoe from a young age, but they loved his quirky personality from the very beginning,” Maya says. 

When the farm opted to sell Cody as a 6-year-old in 2011, Dawn jumped at the chance to bring him home as a lower-level eventing prospect for herself. She placed him in training with Maya, who had just returned to her hometown of Whidbey Island, an idyllic hamlet north of Seattle, after working in England for international event riders Mark and Tanya Kyle.

A graduate “A” member of the Whidbey Island Pony Club, Maya had already produced two horses to the two-star level and won the Jersey Fresh CCI** as a 20-year-old rising star in 2008 with
Kejsarinna. Unfortunately, injuries kept both horses from ever reaching the highest level of the sport.

Without a top horse to ride, Maya continued developing her eventing education through other avenues, working for different professional riders in her quest to one day compete at the Advanced level. She worked for River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho, many times during her career, where her cousin Adrienne Lyle and Debbie McDonald, both U.S. Olympians, helped Maya develop a strong background in dressage.

When she began training Cody, Maya never imagined the opportunity to go Advanced would come packaged with the diminutive pocket rocket. As it turned out, Cody had all the talent in the world to make it that far, but he was going to get there on his own terms.

“Cody isn’t one to hold back his opinions or feelings,” Maya says. “It’s all about compromise with him. If he doesn’t want to do something, I can’t make him.”

Cody’s Quirks

Farriers Dawn Dofelmier and her husband, Jon, fell in love with Doesn’t Play Fair partly because of his “adorably expressive face,” which belies his cantankerous personality. | © Horse Bug Photos by Stephanie Laird

Maya had soon compiled a laundry list of things Cody disliked, from getting too close to other horses—he prefers to live alone—to walking through narrow spaces—she learned to back him in instead. He also had a particular disdain for the sound the arena’s sand footing made when it touched a jump.

“Early on in our partnership he was always trickier in the arena, especially around show jumps and barrels. He’s really sensitive and he doesn’t always think before he reacts. He’s very impulsive in his actions, which made for interesting rides at different points along the way,” Maya says. “If I would move a jump or set a new course at home, I could hardly get him in the ring, much less jump the course.” 

As recalcitrant as Cody could be while training at home, Maya discovered that he became all business at competitions, where his workmanlike attitude overpowered his eccentricities, if only for a brief period of time.

Cody competed in his first Beginner Novice event several months after starting his training and won on an 18.0, the lowest score Maya has ever received. The original arrangement with the Dofelmiers—for Maya to prepare Cody to be Dawn’s lower-level mount—soon evolved.

“Dawn was enjoying riding my former two-star horse Kejsarinna at the time. Since she and Jon are farriers, that takes up a lot of their time and means their riding schedules are always in flux,” Maya says. “Cody flourished more in a consistent program, so we decided I would keep him for awhile longer.”

Cody easily cruised through the Novice, Training and Preliminary levels, always finishing near the top of his divisions thanks to his flashy movement in dressage, bold nature on cross country and careful scope in show jumping. But his quirks were still there, always brewing under the surface despite the sweetly innocent look on his face.

“We were preparing to compete in Preliminary at Rebecca Farm in Montana in 2012 when I set a new jump course at home out in a big field that normally just has cows and some little cross-country jumps in it. I went out to have a jump lesson and I couldn’t get Cody within 100 feet of the jumps,” Maya says.

“Eventually we got him to go over an 18-inch crossrail in the field, but he was bolting over it, spooking and running sideways. I was still at the point where I was trying to change his ways then and, to this day, I doubt I could jump him out in that field. He knew what the field looked like without jumps, and then we put jumps in it and changed it, and he was not going to have it.”

In typical Cody form, he went on to Rebecca Farm and won his Preliminary division anyway. That became the running theme of Maya and Cody’s partnership: as baffling as he could be at home, he channeled that same intensity into competing, which culminated in a surplus of blue ribbons.

A New Plan

At 6 feet tall, Maya is head and shoulders above Doesn’t Play Fair, who measures just 15.2 hands. | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

The original idea of Cody becoming a lower-level mount for Dawn moved to the back burner indefinitely and a new plan began to take shape to see just how far Cody could go. After a stellar Intermediate debut at Twin Rivers in Paso Robles, California, in April 2013, Maya began to think the tiny dynamo might be the right horse to finally take her to the Advanced level.

“He surprised a lot of people at that first Intermediate. They were saying, ‘Whoa, Maya, this horse is really enjoying this and seems like he has an aptitude for it.’ Up until then I thought he had potential, but being a small horse, there was no expectation for him to be an Advanced horse.”

Maya and Cody finished second at Cody’s first CCI** at Galway Downs in Temecula, California, that fall, which earned them an invitation to train with U.S. Eventing Coach David O’Connor at the USEF Eventing High Performance Training Sessions in the winter of 2013.

Hoping to maximize their chances of a successful Advanced debut, Maya moved to the East Cost to train with U.S. Pan American Games medalist Jan Byyny. Ever devoted to Cody, the Dofelmiers started flying east from Washington every month to continue shoeing him—a commitment they still keep years later to ensure his feet remain in top condition.

Maya and Cody successfully completed their first Advanced event in February 2014 at Pine Top Horse Trials in Thomson, Georgia, and then earned their qualifying score to compete at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event with a fifth-place finish in their first CCI*** at Bromont in Quebec.

“He went from Beginner Novice to Advanced in three years, but it never felt like we were rushing him,” Maya says. “He’s the type of horse who wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the upper levels if he didn’t love this job.”

Maya and Cody went on to win the prestigious CIC*** at Plantation Field in Unionville, Pennsylvania, and finish third in the CCI*** at Galway Downs that fall before going on to Rolex in the spring of 2015 to finish their first four-star in 22nd place. 

“My motto with him is ‘I’m never sure until we do it,’ but he proved he had what it takes to be a four-star horse.” 

Meeting in the Middle

Maya enlisted U.S. Olympian Karen O’Connor last January to help with Doesn’t Play Fair’s rideability in all three phases and also put the final touches on their preparation for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. | © Horse Bug Photos by Stephanie Laird

Once Maya knew Cody could hold his own at the highest level of the sport, their partnership became more about polishing their performance. “That first season at Advanced we were both green at the level. It might not have shown as much because our results were good, but I knew it could all be better,” Maya says. “When you’re trying to fix that last 10 percent or 5 percent or even 2 percent, that’s so hard, but we needed to take a step back to make the whole picture even better.”

Taking a step back triggered ups and downs. Cody’s strong-willed, opinionated nature began to manifest itself during dressage when he would sometimes anticipate movements and break stride during his tests.

His game attitude to the fences also led to trouble on cross country at events like the 2015 Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI*** in Elkton, Maryland, where he took a Superman leap into a combination and left Maya on the ground.

“He’s always been such a bold, cocky cross-country horse and he’s become more so along the way. His stride is massive for how little he is. He’s going to jump whatever I point him at and he’s not one that ever backs himself off the jump,” Maya says.

“I had never cross-country schooled him very much because he was so game at competitions and also because he was so tricky at home, but what I really needed to practice was galloping—making him come back to me and convincing him to listen.”

Maya sought out help from U.S. Olympian Karen O’Connor this past January, both to help regain the rideability in all three phases that had slipped away as Cody pinged through the levels but also to put that final bit of sparkle in their performance ahead of another run at Rolex.

“Karen wanted him to be in his own balance on cross country and during our gallops. She had me work on being taller with my upper body, opening my chest more and raising my hands, all of which tells him: ‘Something is coming up. Prepare yourself.’ We kept working on it until it meant something to him,” Maya recalls.

“We worked on it consistently through the spring. While I did cross-country school him a couple times, it wasn’t the fences that needed practice so much as working on the balance, rideability and my position during our gallops.”

Maya also worked on show jumping with Silvio Mazzoni, show-jumping coach for the U.S. eventing team. “Silvio showed me the importance of keeping Cody in an independent balance with his head and neck out in front of me a bit more. With his small size, you have to bring his neck and shoulders up so he can jump in good form,” she says.

“Once we got his balance and the rideability sorted out, the other pieces started to fall into place. When Cody’s allowed to have his own say about things, there can be much more harmony between us. We were able to meet in the middle.”

New Heights

Clear show-jumping rounds were rare this year at Rolex Kentucky and a single dropped rail boosted Maya and Doesn’t Play Fair up one position. | © Horse Bug Photos by Stephanie Laird

That compromise paved the way for an unforgettable spring earlier this year. Maya and Cody finished eighth in the Red Hills CIC*** in Tallahassee, Florida; second in the Carolina International CIC*** in Raeford, North Carolina; and won their final preparation event leading up to Rolex at The Fork CIC*** in Norwood, North Carolina.

“Last year I went to Rolex to complete the event. This year I had more pressure on myself to try to be competitive. Since we had more than 20 time penalties on cross country the year before, my goal was also to have him more fit,” Maya says.

“The question is always in your mind: Is he cut out for this or not? He’d been getting so much more rideable and his gallop had improved so much, but you’re never quite sure until you do it.”

Maya and Cody scored 45.5 in dressage at Rolex to sit just outside the top 10 after the first day. No one achieved the optimum time on cross country as heavy rains saturated the course’s footing, but Cody powered through the slop to deliver one of the fastest rounds of the day to add only 4.4 time penalties to their score. 

After a grueling cross-country test, rails came tumbling down in show jumping, and only a handful of horses and riders managed to go clear. With just one rail down in one of their most balanced show-jumping rounds to date, Maya and Cody finished in third place on a final score of 53.9.

“Growing up on Whidbey Island, every once in a while someone I knew would make it to Rolex and it was a very big deal for us,” Maya says. “I’m always thinking about what I could have done better, but I am very proud of what he achieved.” 

Cody has traveled to 40 states and three Canadian provinces on his journey to becoming one of the top horses in U.S. eventing. He has never left North America and now that he’s competed in every major event on the continent, Maya would love to take him overseas to compete in Europe.

“He doesn’t like change, but he loves exploring new places,” Maya says. As much as Cody has lived up to his show name of “Doesn’t Play Fair,” he’s also proven to never count out the little guy.

Doesn’t Play Fair put his notorious quirkiness on hold at Rolex Kentucky this year and performed a business-like show-jumping round in front of a packed stadium. | © Horse Bug Photos by Stephanie Laird

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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