The mother of Ashley Doolittle, the rising Colorado rodeo star who was allegedly murdered last year by her ex-boyfriend, says she is remaining positive by focusing on her daughter’s memory — not her death.
Ashley “had a big smile, she was just friends with everyone,” Ann Marie Doolittle tells PEOPLE. “She just made everyone feel like her friend.”
Authorities allege that Ashley, 18, was fatally shot by her 19-year-old ex-boyfriend, Tanner Flores, in June, after the pair went for a drive. Last week, he appeared before a Larimer County judge in Colorado and pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and kidnapping.
He remains behind bars at the Larimer County Jail with no bond, according to records. His defense attorney, who could not be reached for comment, has filed a motion for a mental health evaluation.
But that isn’t what her mom wants to talk about.
From a young age, she says, Ashley loved to ride. Growing up, Ashley watched her grandfather race and train horses at a local track in Denver.
When she was a toddler, her grandfather named one of his horses Okey Dokey Ashley — after her — and when she was 5, Ashley got her first pony.
“She was a natural,” Ann Marie says, adding that her daughter rode both English- and Western-style.
Dreams of a ‘New Life’
Before she died, Ashley had been accepted to Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Studies, her mom says. She was hoping to continue riding and to carry out her duties as rodeo queen, as well as study agricultural business.
She planned on living at home next year and commuting to the school 30 minutes away.
“She always dreamed of going to CSU,” Ann Marie says. “She was really excited to be a part of that.”
When her family reported her missing on June 9, they told investigators that Ashley and Flores had recently broken up, leaving him hurt and upset. Ann Marie says her daughter broke up with him because she wanted to “start a new life” at school.
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
When she wasn’t seeing friends or studying, Ashley was riding. According to her mother, the family’s home has an arena where she could take a horse out for a ride anytime.
“When she would get stressed with school, she liked to come home and ride,” Ann Marie tells PEOPLE. “She has a special bond with her horses.”
Keeping Her Memory Alive
Last winter, after she was killed, Ashley was named the Boulder County Fair and Rodeo Queen, following a year of serving as a lady-in-waiting.
Ashley’s mom says she got into rodeo two years ago, after growing up competing in the local riding scene. She was drawn to the rodeo for its Western-style of riding and the outreach work with children.
“She had a love for the younger children and wanting them to learn about the Western way of life and agriculture, so that was her goal [of becoming queen],” Ann Marie says.
• Pick up PEOPLE’s special edition True Crime Stories: Cases That Shocked America, on sale now, for the latest on Casey Anthony, JonBenét Ramsey and more.
While serving as a lady-in-waiting, a position only eligible for teenagers, Ashley created the Ashley Doolittle Princess Program, which helps young girls prepare for the future and their duties as a lady-in-waiting and queen.
“She wanted to create an opportunity for the younger girls to see what being a queen was like,” Ann Marie says. “Through donations [made by] the community, we were able to bring her dream to reality this year.”
Ashley’s princess program will continue. And this year, instead of naming a new county rodeo queen, a plush toy “Ashley Bear” made with some of Ashley’s clothing was crowned.
“We have a crown, a sash, a miniature buckle,” Ann Marie says. “We take the bear to all these events.”