A woman and her horse… 9 decades of passion

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The little community of Canyon Lake is full of extraordinary people. One of them is nonagenarian Dorothy Domanski. Dorothy has been riding horses since before 99.7 percent of Canyon Lakers were even born (according to 2014/15 population demographics).

At age 5, she rode her faithful horse, “Old John,” three miles each day to a one-room schoolhouse. Old John waited patiently in the small barn until the end of the school day so he could get little Dorothy home safely.

Dorothy and Cruiser competed at many national horse shows and won more often than they lost. In this photo, Dorothy is in her upper 80s, Cruiser in his mid 20s. Photo provided by Dorothy Domanski

Dorothy and Cruiser competed at many national horse shows and won more often than they lost. In this photo, Dorothy is in her upper 80s, Cruiser in his mid 20s. Photo provided by Dorothy Domanski

Today, at age 91, Dorothy still rides. Only now she rides her faithful Cruiser every week. Among horses, Cruiser also is a senior at almost 29 years old.

Dorothy was born on June 21, 1923, the youngest of six children who grew up on a family ranch in North Dakota. The family was far from poor, but ranch life in the 1920s was simple. Built in 1906, their home had no running water or modern amenities. The family even mined their own coal for the furnace. They had no tractor, and the one and only family vehicle was a Model T Ford. Life’s work, transportation and play were provided by horses. To little Dorothy, life was wonderful!

With 91 years of stories, she could fill a book with her life’s anecdotes. She talks of her father bragging about fixing the Model T with barbed wire from the side of the road, of lunch turning to “hash” during the trot to school, and even of attacking the “mean boys” when they tried to kick down the little school’s barn. She smiles mischievously with the memories of childhood and horse stories.

During her high school years, Dorothy had to board a room in town to be near school. She made sure to be home every weekend – but it wasn’t to see friends or family or a cute boy. Typical of a teenage horse lover she laughs and says, “I had to go home to see my horses!”

For the next few decades, her life path was pretty normal. She moved to Oregon to be with her sister and start her career with Portland General Electric. She was working there when World War I began.

She then received a call from her brother, who said, “You have to come to California. I have a boyfriend for you.” The boyfriend Don became her husband Don, and the couple happily married and had two sons, Jeff and Greg. Dorothy and Don would eventually retire to Canyon Lake in 1992. Sadly, Don passed in 1998.

Over the many years, Dorothy continued to ride. The men in her life respected her love of horses. They even rode – a little. For Dorothy, however, horses were in her blood. They were a part of her.
As with any sport, there are dangers. Sometime around age 35, she had a bad accident while riding a friend’s horse. The horse reared and fell over on top of her, requiring a total hip replacement (the first of three) and stay in a hospital. “The doctors told me not to ever get back on a horse,” she says with a smile, “So naturally I got right back on.” Nothing keeps you from your life’s passion.
Dorothy reminisces happily about several horses: Polly, Ebony, Mae (“I liked her a lot,” she says), Scamp, Maggie – there were a few. “I can hardly think of a time not having a horse,” she notes. At one point, she happened to ride a special breed of horse, a Tennessee Walking Horse. “It was so smooth,” she says, “when I got the opportunity to buy it (the horse), I did!”

That was the beginning of a brand new love, Tennessee Walking Horses, which led to another new love, competing in specialty horse shows for Tennessee Walkers.

Dorothy is a natural rider with a naturally good seat. She quickly became a top amateur competitor and won many ribbons. She even rode and competed on other horses for their owners.
For those unfamiliar with riding, and contrary to popular myth, the horse does not do all the work! Riding (correct riding, that is) is real work – cardio, balance and strength requiring concentration and communication (through legs, hands, seat and body) with an animal that doesn’t speak and has a mind of its own. Not to mention that an average horse weighs upward of 1,300 pounds. Practicing for competitions takes diligence and many, many hours each week both on and off the horses.

A couple of years after losing Don, Dorothy met a new man. David Domanski had lost his wife the same year that Dorothy had lost her husband. The two were introduced at a party. Both saw something special in the other, but it was outgoing Dorothy who asked Dave for his number.

“She said wanted my recipe from India,” Dave says with a sparkle in his eyes. The two were married soon after on August 5, 2000, and “have been having fun ever since,” he adds. They began their life together with a three-week honeymoon in Europe that included a stop in Tennessee for the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, the world’s largest and most prestigious show for Tennessee Walkers.

It was there that Dave became entranced with these special horses, saying, “How do they do that!” (referring to the striking gait with which these horses are born).
One of Dave’s favorite stories is the one about the red coat – a horse show coat that Dorothy had sold years earlier to a friend. Dave insisted that his wife buy the coat back after the friend’s daughter outgrew it. He then told her, “You have a show coat, but no show horse.”

He says he “had” to buy his beautiful wife a new horse. “Bad News Tradition” became her new horse; until, that is, she laid eyes on “Coin’s Cruiser,” or Cruiser as he is called. The Domanskis first saw Cruiser at the famous Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration in 2004, and Dorothy immediately fell for the beautiful and talented, 18-year-old, liver chestnut gelding. It was love at first ride.
Cruiser was so careful with her, so intelligent and gentlemanly, she could not resist him. His trainer was retiring Cruiser and was delighted to sell him to Dorothy instead. She was 80, Cruiser was 18 (a horse is considered elderly at 16).

The equestrian duo began showing and winning right away at some of the biggest Walking Horse shows around: Scottsdale, Indio, Reno, Pomona. For the next 10 years – at an age when many senior citizens are at the doctor’s office more often than not – Dorothy and Cruiser competed and won together: Championships, Reserve Championships, 1st place, 2nd place, always placing in the ribbons.

At every show Dave was there. He would groom and help in every way, and he cheered them on. It was easy for him to become their biggest fan and admirer. Cruiser is no ordinary horse, and Dorothy is no ordinary woman.

Dorothy, now 91 years old, and Cruiser, almost 29, retired from horse shows in 2014.

These days Dave drives Dorothy to the Canyon Lake Equestrian Center almost every day to see her beloved Cruiser, and she rides at least one day a week. She says, “I can be upset, but riding makes me happy.”

Dave enjoys taking care of both of them. Others at the barn have noticed that, each time before Dorothy mounts, they bow their heads to ask God for a safe ride for horse and rider. Then Dave watches watching over his beautiful and feisty Dorothy as she rides.

Dorothy, Dave and Cruiser are known, loved and admired by everyone at the Equestrian Center. “I think she is an excellent rider,” says Dave. When considering how much longer she should ride, he says, “As long as she’s on a horse and feeling good, she should ride!”

There are heroes among us. Not all of them are famous or in the public eye, and not all of them are human. Dorothy and Cruiser are two of these heroes.

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Donna Kupke