By Marta Zarrella
In 1986 Dottie Pierce and her mother, the late Dee Miller, rode with the Shooting Stars Drill Team at the Poway Valley Riders Association in Poway. It was an opportunity to ride together and enjoy memory making and mother/daughter good times with good friends.
“We can do this,” Pierce recalls her mother saying. “Let’s start a drill group in Ramona.”
And so it began.
The first performance by the group, called the Rainbow Riders, was in 1987 at a rodeo in Gilbert, Ariz. The group became known as the “Blue Angels on Horseback” and received the endorsement of the late rodeo legend Casey Tibbs and Bob Tallman, 18-time National Finals Rodeo announcer.
Ramona’s award-winning equestrian Rainbow Riders Drill Team has developed a reputation for thrilling audiences with heart-stopping, fast-paced and intricate precision drill maneuvers. They have performed at the Del Mar National Horse Show for the Night of the Horse celebration every year since 1993, often showing off their skill and precision during the Hunter/Jumper and Dressage nights as well.
Their photo albums include many memorable rides all over Southern California and Arizona, including regularly wowing crowds in Santa Barbara at the Old Spanish Days Fiesta Horse Show, Rodeo and Parade. From 2002 to 2010 they participated in the Burbank Fiesta of the Spanish Horse after participating in the Burbank Cool August Nights Dressage Competition in 1999.
The Rainbow Riders Mounted Drill Team is a favorite of Pro Rodeo producers, performing regularly at the Ramona, Lakeside and other Southern California and Arizona rodeos.
Asked to share their most memorable moments, Pierce, the team's director, with assistant director Marilyn Arnaiz and other team members shared the following stories. Enjoy a walk down Rainbow Riders memory lane, first person accounts from the Rainbow Riders themselves.
“We were asked to perform in the 1994 movie ‘Horses and Champions.’ The movie was shot in Winchester. It was hot and the day was long. The horses were fantastic, they were tacked up and ready to go, but we had to stand there and wait our turn which didn’t come till late in the day. We got the shot in one take. The director couldn’t believe it! He had us ride one more time just because they never get a shot in one take.”
“We have had performances where bridles got hooked together, one time a bridle broke. Once Marilyn was bucked into the horse’s neck and managed to get herself back over the horn and into the saddle without missing a beat. One time Marie Settle’s horse spun her not only out of the saddle but right out of her boot!”
Dottie Pierce and Marilyn
The Rainbow Riders spend many hours in the saddle practicing together. These women also rack up hours on horseback just because of their love of riding. When unplanned events happen in front of hundreds of people at a rodeo or other horse show, the show does not stop. The team is so connected that they follow their line leaders and keep the performance moving.
Pierce has been known to change a routine during the ride, either because of a situation in the arena, or something happening with a horse or rider. Her line leaders follow her and the riders follow them. No one in the audience would know they had watched anything but a well-rehearsed routine. Now and then a rider has had to pull out, sometimes broken equipment or an injured horse will require a team’s partner to also pull out. In 27 years, that has not happened often.
One of the most memorable performances was in 1995 or '96 in the City of Industry. “There was a three or four hour downpour of rain and the rodeo was not called off,” said Pierce. The horses were fully dressed in their show tack, and the riders in white shirts and black pants got soaked as they waited to perform.
“We did our ride and then had to help each other out of our clothes because they were soaked and stuck to us," said Arnaiz. "We were so cold, it was awful, we didn’t have enough blankets, but the performance was great and everyone loved it.”
Dr. Miska Paget, DVM, said she had the pleasure of being part of the performance team in its last two years.
“There are so many things that have made an impression on me and my life about the Rainbow Rider experience," she said. "There is a sisterhood that transcends beyond just the team. Once you are a Rainbow Rider, you are a member of a lineage of sisters. There are inside jokes and phrases you learn that become a part of your vocabulary, like: ‘Ready Set? — Go out — You’re LONG – Footsteps!’ Dottie’s voice will forever echo in my mind. I have been lifted and carried by those ladies through several life tragedies. I have done some lifting and carrying myself for other gals. As a group of performers, it is safe to say that we are all pretty much perfectionists. We wanted to put on an amazing show with perfect lines, perfect spacing and happy smiles. Sometimes that happened and we were on the top of the world as we galloped out of the arena. Sometimes — well, let’s just say things happen! My most favorite oops happened in Flintridge when one of the lead girls' shirt popped open and she lost her place in the routine as she was trying to button up her blouse. There was a little directive yelling that ensued from those that could see what was happening. We somehow got back on course and buzzed out of the arena at the end. Our frustration melted into giggles as we drove home.”
Pierce kept the Rainbow Riders strong and healthy as a tribute to her mother, Dee Miller, who died in an accident during a drill team performance in Lakeside many years ago.
“After spending more than half my life devoted to the Rainbow Riders Drill Team, the team’s last official appearance will be at the Santa Barbara Horse Show and Rodeo in Santa Barbara, Aug 1-4," said Pierce. "After 27 years, the Rainbow Riders Mounted Drill Team, also known as the Blue Angels on Horseback, will be retired. I love all of the wonderful friends I’ve made along the way. We have spent many a dusty weekend at the rodeos and at practices together. We used to say not only do we spend two nights a week together, but 10 weekends a year, plus numerous trail rides, parties, vacations and even a honeymoon in between. It’s been one heck of a ride, ladies! I thank you all for the memories and friendships I will never forget. See you down the trail.”