Waking Dreams

Sometimes a big moment swoops in so quickly that you can’t quite register it. You’re too in the moment to feel how huge, how overwhelmingly wonderful the experience is.

That’s what happened Sunday night, when I decided to ride Mystic after several days of draping myself over him like a human saddle bag and lying horizontally on his back, one leg cocked for a rapid dismount in case he decided he’d had enough.

I’d been keeping track of his reactions, which were tense at first—rigid neck, ears swiveled backward, back muscles tight as a spring rod—but softened incrementally with each day. Whereas at first he’d shifted his body away from the mounting block every time I tried to park myself on his back, he began standing still beside the block. I interpreted this as a good-faith offer, a generous gesture I didn’t take lightly.

I don’t know exactly how or why I knew it was time to ride him on Sunday. It just felt right—and he’d tacitly given me the green light with his body language. Frankly, I think we both were ready to move on from this potato-sack-on-his-back stuff.

I’d like to say it felt magical to settle on Mystic’s bare back and let my legs dangle on either side of his curving belly. Actually, it felt weird. I’d spent two months playing on the ground with him, getting to know him at eye level. We’d walked and run alongside each other like two kids at recess. And now I was on top of him. It reminded me of the first time my father hoisted me on his shoulders: How exhilarating but also strange to perch atop this 6’5” man whom I’d known at knee height. I experienced a whole new perspective of the world and of my dad, whose prickly balding head was rather startling up close.

The world looked different from atop Mystic too. Despite my anxiety—was I unintentionally gripping him with my legs? what were his emotions? was I flexing his neck often enough?—I gradually began to feel his movements beneath me. My nervous rigor mortis subsided, and my hips began to sway slightly with his stride. Hey, we were riding together! We walked over some poles, did some smallish turns, and moseyed along the rail.

No one witnessed our inaugural ride. The arena was quiet, James was playing golf, and Kate was inside their house. That whole first ride could have been a flight of my imagination. But it happened—Mystic and I have that shared memory. Call it our private moment.

Our public moment—and second ride—happened today. Several Fiore Farms boarders watched, cheering Mystic and me forward, beaming with the knowledge of how hard we’d worked to get to this point. This time Kate documented us on camera while reminding me, “Breathe!” I would have forgotten to inhale-exhale without her kindly prompts. I held my breath out of nervousness (I so wanted to do everything right for Mystic’s sake) but also out of shock that this was really happening. I was riding the white horse I dreamed of as a little girl.

And, just as dreams open doors to a future we unconsciously already know, this ride on a real-life white horse opened doors to undreamed-of possibilities for Mystic and me.


Riding a white horse in 1965 during a family camping trip out west; re-examining this photo recently, I noticed the white horse in the background for the first time. Foreshadowing?


Mystic the Movie Star

Mystic, who two months ago was a fearful pasture ornament, is now a budding movie star. James is featuring him in a number of instructional videos for the Cooler Horsemanship Online Library.

As Mystic’s manager, publicity agent, and personal assistant, I’ve got my hands full. He’s not a demanding star, but he does like a good roll in the dirt—which means I spend an hour washing him before each video appearance. He looks ravishing afterward, but I look like a sopping mess. Then again, I’m merely his assistant.

Mystic has starred in four videos in the past week: “Objects and Obstacles,” “Asking the Question,” “Creative Conversations,” and “Starting Under Saddle.” These videos are in production (I’ll post links when footage is available), but I can provide an eyewitness description of the latest, in which James used colt-starting techniques to put a saddle on Mystic. (Yes, he’s been ridden before, but his history of bucking and rearing requires a slow, let’s-start-over-the-right-way approach.)

I watched from the viewing stand, glowing with motherly pride, while Kate worked the video camera. James began with warm-up exercises to make sure Mystic was attentive and relaxed. Then he offered a stick with a puffy plastic bag tied to the end, checking Mystic’s tolerance for this strange new object. After some initial hesitation, he grew increasingly comfortable with the plastic bag, which James carefully and patiently rubbed over every inch of Mystic’s body and waved over his head. When he deflated the bag and put it on the horse pedestal, Mystic lifted a foot onto the pedestal and pawed at the bag.

“Horses sniff first, to get an idea of what something is. If they feel safe enough, they’ll do some approaching and retreating. If the object doesn’t move, they’ll paw it to show their dominance over it,” James explained.

Now that Mystic was emperor of the Kingdom of Plastic Bags, James began preparing him for saddling. James leaned on him, played “drunken sailor” (falling against his body, flailing his limbs, staggering into him), gradually increasing his weight on Mystic while offering plenty of breaks and head rubs. He eventually slung himself over Mystic’s back, lay horizontally, and slid off. Mystic did some heavy-duty mouth movements, displaying emotional baggage from previous riding experiences. James, noting his distress, massaged a knot in Mystic’s shoulder and waited for his lick and chew. After several long minutes, Mystic licked, chewed, and visibly relaxed, beginning to let go of old, negative memories.

James decided to put a saddle on Mystic’s back, a decision based on his acceptance and comfort level. If Mystic had seemed locked up, anxious, or unwilling, the saddle would have stayed on the fence.

As James approached with his giant western saddle (he always starts western so horses can get used to the biggest version of a saddle, complete with two cinches, heavy clanking stirrups, and various dangling leather strips), Mystic looked unruffled. James let him sniff and nibble the saddle, then lightly dragged it over his body. Mystic remained calm, occasionally bending back his Gumby neck to see what the heck was going on.

“Okay, he’s looking comfortable with all this,” James said. “I’m going to put the saddle on his back.”

I held my breath as he softly put the big brown saddle on the little white horse.

I’m okay with this, Mystic communicated, his ears alert but not pinned back, his body at attention but not braced or rigid.

James took off the saddle and repeated the movement several times. Mystic remained unfazed.

“He seems to be doing fine,” James offered. “Now, Mary, I’m going to let you decide: do you want to take it a step further and have me add a cinch?”

I looked at Kate, hoping she’d steer me to the right answer. I felt like Mystic when he turns his gaze to me, looking for direction—Do you want me to go over this jump? Are you telling me to stop? What’s this pedestal about?

She looked back at me, and her eyes said, I have confidence in your choice. This is what’s it’s all about: finding what’s right for you and your horse.

She was right: I knew the answer. “Let’s stop now, in this really good place. He’s done so well today, and I don’t want to push him.”

James nodded in approval. “That would have been my choice.”

He slid the saddle off Mystic, who looked astonished. You mean you’re not going to ride me? You’re done?

I swore I saw happiness and relief. This was a new paradigm for him: people taking the time to check his comfort level, to bring him along gently, to proceed according to his readiness and not their own heedless timetable.

James handed me the lead line and I felt the thrill of being reunited with this remarkable, sensitive, fiercely intelligent horse who came so unexpectedly into my life. I took him back to the barn, brushed him, gave him an apple, then returned him to his dry lot where he could roll in the dirt to his heart’s content.

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

Playing with Mystic in the arena

Last night I went to the pasture to catch Mystic for a play session in the arena. The air was cool and breathy, the grass June-sweet. The horses had trotted into the pasture at six pm after spending all day in their dry lots. Since they’re on a night-grazing schedule during our heat-battering North Carolina summers, they were enjoying the equine equivalent of an all-nighter at the Golden Corral.

I sidled toward Mystic, rope halter in hand, trying to look casual. He glanced up.

Uh oh, I thought. He’s going to walk away, like almost every horse I’ve ever tried to catch. (At best, they stand still while I approach, like a prisoner waiting to be handcuffed.) Actually, a lot of them have run away, with conviction. I’ll admit: It hurts my feelings every time, even though my head tells me it’s not personal. If I were a horse with the choice of eating grass or working with a human, I’d go for the grass every time.

Mystic studied me with his white-lashed, deep-brown eyes, which, in girlish fashion, I’ve totally fallen in love with.

To my surprise, he stepped forward. Toward me.

He’s going to turn away in a second, I told myself. After all, why would he give up an orgy of grass-eating in favor of me?

But he kept on coming. He walked right up to me, as if to say, Hey, good to see you.

Then, to my utter astonishment, he stood next to me without running away or even putting his head down to eat. I stroked his neck, ruffled his mane, rubbed the sweet spot in the center of his forehead. To all appearances, I looked calm, but inside I sounded like Sally Field during her notorious 1985 Academy Award speech: “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”

You see, I grew up reading the Black Stallion books, in which Alec Ramsay and his wild black stallion form a lifelong bond. No one else could ride the Black, as he was called, and he always came running to Alec. That’s how I pictured myself with my imaginary, someday horse. Except it never happened. My pony needed a heaping handful of grain to even come near me, and then she’d wiggle out of my grasp with the speed of a sidewinder before I could halter her.

The Black Stallion always came to Alec

This sense of communion with Mystic was a whole new ballgame. I remembered a phrase James uses often to describe the relationship between horse and human in natural horsemanship: “willing cooperation.”  Suddenly I got it. I didn’t “catch” Mystic, who’s not a fish, after all. We willingly, cooperatively met each other in the middle, which is starting to look a lot like friendship.

As I walked Mystic up the crunchy path toward the barn, Kate rode up on her fairy-tale Arab-Friesian mare, Kleo; the two of them personify beauty and partnership. Kate, the most attuned person I’ve ever met, said, “I saw your special moment with Mystic.” She’d been riding in a field hundreds of yards away, yet still managed to catch the moment when Mystic walked up to me. Kate’s face glowed: she’s the one who instantly spotted the bond between Mystic and me during our first training session together, and she’s the one cheerleading me through this unfolding love affair with a horse.

She rode her black horse alongside me as I walked my white horse to the arena. We just smiled at each other; no words were necessary.

I know Mystic won’t always walk up to me in the pasture. Maybe it’ll be a long time before he does it again. But I have that memory, and Kate saw it too. I wasn’t dreaming.

Never Spank Your Horse

This summer I’m taking a course in human development, a requirement for completing my M.S. in counseling. It’s fascinating to take this class while studying natural horsemanship: the parallels are plentiful.

Authoritarian techniques tend to backfire when it comes to horses

Yesterday while reading my textbook, Development Through the Lifespan, I studied a chapter on emotional and social development in early childhood. The chapter described three parenting styles:

  • Authoritarian parents act cold and rejecting; to exert control they yell, command, criticize, and threaten; “Do it because I said so” is the prevailing attitude; they make decisions for their child and expect him or her to accept their word without question; they force and punish the child when she or he resists.
  • Permissive parents either overindulge their child or don’t pay attention, thus showing little control; instead of gradually granting autonomy, they let their child make decisions before he or she is capable; children of permissive parents can eat meals and go to bed and watch TV whenever they want.
  • Authoritative parents insist on mature behavior, give reasons for their expectations, and use disciplinary encounters as teachable moments to promote their child’s self-regulation; they engage in gradual, appropriate autonomy granting, letting the child make decisions when she or he is developmentally ready; they are warm, attentive, and sensitive to their child’s needs and establish an emotionally fulfilling parent-child relationship that draws the child into close connection–yet at the same time, they exercise firm, reasonable control.

Hmmm, can you guess which is the recommended parenting style? And can you see any similarities between authoritative parenting and natural horsemanship, based on the description  below?

Natural horsemanship is the philosophy of working with horses by appealing to their instincts as prey animals, understanding their psychology, and communicating through equine-based body language. The goal of natural horsemanship is to build a trusting partnership between horse and human. “Firm but fair” is a motto of natural horsemanship; practitioners agree that teaching through pain and fear does not result in a beneficial relationship between horse and handler. The object is for the horse to be calm and feel safe throughout the training process, allowing it to bond with its handler.

The obvious connections between child-rearing styles and horse-training philosophies got me thinking about different ways to be with horses.

What kind of parenting technique are trainers using when they use twitches, crops, and hobbles? What about when they let a horse run himself to the point of exhaustion, then throw a saddle on him?

What about folks who treat their horses like half-ton pets, plying them with treats to earn affection and anthropomorphizing them beyond recognition? Is it a good idea or a bad one to let your horse rub his head against you whenever he feels like it?

What might parenting experts think of horse handlers who let a young horse gain confidence in transitioning from a walk to a trot before they bring him up to a canter? How would they feel about a handler putting light pressure on a horse’s side to make him step away, then releasing that pressure as soon as he responds?

Not recommended for child-rearing or horse training

Not surprisingly, I’m all for the authoritative approach when it comes to horses and children. I can say from personal experience that permissive parenting has major drawbacks. I don’t think my son, now 21, would take kindly to a round pen and a lunge line, but I wish I’d understood the child-rearing equivalent of natural horsemanship when he was young. We both would have learned important lessons in boundary-setting, attentiveness, responsibility, and cooperation—and we might even have avoided a certain unpleasant visit to juvenile court.

My textbook has some sobering facts about the effects of different child-rearing styles. Here’s how it shakes out:

  • Children of authoritarian parents are anxious, unhappy, and have low self-esteem and self-reliance; they tend to react with defiance, anger, and force when frustrated.
  • Children of permissive parents are impulsive, rebellious, and disobedient; they may also be overly demanding, dependent on adults, and less persistent with tasks.
  • Children raised in an authoritative household have an upbeat mood, self-control, task persistence, cooperativeness, high self-esteem, and favorable performance.

Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the most effective parenting or horse training style. My guess is that natural horsemanship folks and authoritative parents would have a lot to share with each other—and we could all benefit from listening.

Live Like You Were Dying

James's father, Dr. Don Cooler, on Moonshine in 1994

June 4, 2011, was a warm, brilliant-skied day—just the kind of day Don Cooler might have gone for a gallop on his roan quarter horse, Moonshine.

But Don wasn’t there to enjoy the soft North Carolina breeze; instead his son, James, sat bareback on Moonshine and talked to a small group of us at Fiore Farms about his father’s life and legacy. It was an impromptu tribute to mark the seventh anniversary of his death.

Don, an emergency room doctor with a passion for training horses, opened the door to natural horsemanship for James. Father and son spent countless hours studying horse training materials, attending clinics, working with ranchers’ horses, and eventually conducting natural horsemanship clinics in their home state of Montana as well as Wyoming and North Dakota.

Together Don and his family raised Moonshine from a newborn foal.

“In one of the last coherent conversations we had, my dad said he thought I had the talent to work with horses,” James recalled. “He said, ‘If you ever decide to pick up where we left off, I want you to have Moonshine.’”

Don was only 45 when he died of a brain tumor, but he’d led a life big enough for a half dozen men. Descended from a long line of steelworkers, he grew up in a difficult household and left when he was 11. He got married at 17 and joined the Air Force at 18. By his late 20s he’d finished medical school, become a doctor, and had three sons.

“He overcame every obstacle put in front of him,” said James. “The most important things he taught me were to find your talents and passions and put a purpose to them. His purpose was simply to help people: that’s why he became a doctor, and it’s what led him to start Cooler Horsemanship.”

Thinking he’d become a doctor like his father, James stopped playing with horses and enrolled at the University of Montana. Since chemistry and physics classes gave him panic attacks, he switched his major to business management and set his sights on becoming a stockbroker. Then in 2003 came the news that his father had brain cancer. The Coolers immediately moved from Montana to South Carolina to be near family, and the next year and a half was a blur.

Don, despite his fierce will, gradually lost the ability to speak. But James hung on to the memory of a conversation he’d had with his dad shortly after his diagnosis. They were playing golf, avoiding the big topic for the first three holes, until James couldn’t stand it anymore. “Dad, how can you not be mad and frustrated?”

His father said he had been mad at first, but then he realized something: “I overcame my circumstances, I raised a family, I moved to a part of the country that I loved, I learned how to sail boats, and I learned how to ride and train horses. The most important thing is that I don’t have any regrets about what I’ve done or who I am. I get to hang my hat and take my boots off being proud of what I’ve done.”

Don’s tenacity made him hang on to life longer than anyone thought possible. The last two weeks in hospice were tough on everyone. “It’s a strange thing, but you want death to come,” James remembered, “because you want that person to stop suffering.”

On June 4, 2004, James went to Hilton Head Island to apply for a job as a trail guide; he rode a horse for the first time in three years. Later that day he learned his father had passed away. It was as if he’d waited for James to get back on a horse before letting go of the last threads of his life.

A year and a half after his father’s death, James met Kate–now his wife and partner in Cooler Horsemanship–who loved horses with the same intensity as he. She helped him realize the obvious: his passion and purpose lay with horses.

This summer James is returning to Montana to conduct five horsemanship clinics. Many of his clients will be old friends of his father.

“Everything we do and teach at Cooler Horsemanship is what my father was all about: embracing challenges and overcoming them. If you can do that, you can get to the point where you won’t have any regrets—whether it’s what you’ve done with your horse or with your life,” James explained during his tribute.

When he finished speaking, he rode Moonshine—the horse he and his father trained together—bareback and bridleless. They cantered smoothly, in perfect sync with each other, while \”Live Like You Were Dying\” by Tim McGraw played poignantly on the sound system. Running alongside them was another roan, Indigo, whom James trained himself. The two horses were nearly identical in their movements and looks—they could have been father and son.

When the music ended, James flashed his boyish, life-affirming grin at all of us who’d gathered to watch and listen. “Thank you for coming out—not for me, not for Kate, but for my dad. I know he’s upstairs smiling right now.”

Watch the tribute, which includes James riding Moonshine with Indigo (starting at the 7:00 mark).

James on Moonshine with Indigo