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


2 thoughts on “Live Like You Were Dying

  1. Really enjoyed reading this – brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful life path James and Kate have – following in his Father’s footsteps. Don would be very proud! Such honor & purpose!

    Thank you for sharing, wonderfully written, Mary.
    Sorry I wasn’t there.

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