Start polishing your boots and shopping for a crowd-worthy cowboy hat—on November 12 James Cooler will test his mettle in a Virginia colt-starting challenge. He’ll be competing against two other natural horsemanship trainers: Pam Tanner of Stokesdale, North Carolina, and Randy Abernathy of McKenney, Virginia.
Of course, everybody wins because the audience gets to watch top trainers put green horses under saddle in a day, the trainers get to do what they love best, and the colts get an AP course in compassionate horsemanship.
The challenge, modeled after the famed Road to the Horse, will take place in the Mars Riding Arena at Chatham Hall (trivia: Georgia O’Keeffe is a graduate) in Chatham, Virginia, from 8 am to 4 pm. Tickets are $15. The event is sponsored by the Southeastern Farriers & Horseowners Association (SEFHA).
The competition, whose working title is the SEFHA Colt Starting Invitational, is rife with threes: three trainers, three colts, three one-hour sessions (with a one-hour break between each), three side-by-side round pens. After completing all three sessions, the trainers will guide or ride their horses through an obstacle course. A five-judge panel will take the day’s work into consideration, looking for the most effective training techniques and greatest range of accomplishment. In the end, all those threes will narrow down to one horse-whispering winner.
I had the good fortune to meet the creators of this challenge, SEFHA founders Lisa Tuite and David Tuggle, when they came to Fiore Farms in mid-June to interview James and watch him play with his ten-year-old roan gelding, Indigo. At that point they’d narrowed the field to five competitors who fit the requirements: full-time, professional natural horsemanship trainers living within a two-hour driving radius of Chatham.
Lisa, a horse owner and enthusiast (and former aide to late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd), has a wide-open smile and infectious gusto for the upcoming colt challenge. She and David, her long-time farrier, came up with the idea of a regional colt-starting challenge two years ago while he was trimming her horses’ feet. It’s been a long time germinating, but they now have an airtight game plan for the invitational, down to the emcee: Tom Seay, host of RFD-TV’s Best of America by Horseback.
“It will be a really good group of strong competitors—ones we’d be happy to see people send their horses to for training,” Lisa explained. “We want to encourage people to practice natural horsemanship because it’s in the best interests of horses.”
On June 24 James received the call that he’d been chosen as a competitor. When he told me the news in a modest, understated way, I couldn’t help squealing (I’m not a squealer by nature) and giving him a congratulatory hug. That’s when he cracked the big smile, revealing the boyish enthusiasm that lies just beneath the surface of his grown-upness.
“Yeah, I’m really excited,” he said, his eyes twinkling.
Me too. Me too.