Jumping for Joy

Jumping has always scared me. Maybe it’s due to early riding lessons with Mrs. Booth, who had little patience with young, unseasoned riders. She made me pop over jumps on her equally cranky pony. I hated flying upward, then landing with a jolt, my riding helmet toppling over my eyes. My reward was Mrs. Booth haranguing me for lack of form and focus.

Now, watching jumping is another story. That’s just plain exhilarating.

James Cooler and his high-spirited Arab-quarter horse Indigo are awesome jumping partners. I think even Mrs. Booth would be impressed.

They’ve been jumping together for a couple of years, ever since James noticed Indigo’s joy at sailing over jumps during freedom groundplay. “I put a jump in his path, and he kept going higher and higher. He took a four-foot jump without a blink; that’s when I decided I’d like to try this jumping thing.”

James and Indigo, jumper extraordinaire

For James, “this jumping thing” was brand-new territory. As a Montana cowboy, he’d mostly done cow work and trail riding.

James in typical cowboy mode

Whereas western riding is loose and lanky, jumping requires riders to collect and consolidate their power. Sitting in a little English jumping saddle, his long legs folded into short stirrups, James had to learn a new way of riding.

At first he took lessons with local riding teacher Beth Peters; he also read and reread Show Jumping for Fun or Glory and studied jumping videos on YouTube. These days Kate serves as James’ jumping coach. “She can see when I’m getting too focused on fences and jumps,” says James. “She’s got a good eye and natural talent.”

With typical patience, James moved slowly and deliberately into jumping. “I didn’t rush Indigo—I made sure he was well-balanced,” he recalls. “The worst thing I could do is set the fence too high, too fast, because Indigo would lose confidence.”

Currently they’re jumping up to 3’7”, with a goal of 4’ by the end of 2012. Indigo, at 15.2 hands, is small as jumping horses go—and James, who tops six feet, is not exactly a light load. “The fact that Indigo is packing me around while clearing these fences is testament to his athleticism,” says James. “Indigo is so talented: my challenge is to be up to snuff. He’s never missed a jump.”

Clearing a big jump

The rear view

James follows a training schedule of four days a week. Two are dedicated to smaller jumps, with a focus on timing, rhythm, and balance. The other two are spent jumping higher fences, working on height and power. The rest of the week goes to playing at freedom, riding bareback and bridleless, and generally reminding Indigo that he has other fun stuff to do.

Following up a jumping session with a bareback, brideless ride

There may be jumping competitions in the future for Indigo and James, but for now he’s concentrating on that 4’ goal. “I’d be tickled to show that off for a demo,” James says. “If you want to turn heads, you’ve got to have a showpiece.”

For those of us who are afraid to jump, and for those who appreciate a beautiful jumping partnership, James and Indigo already are a showpiece.

To watch a video of James and Indigo jumping, go to the Cooler Horsemanship Facebook page and scroll down to the timeline box May 4, 2012.


The Writing Life

In early June I traveled to Southern Pines, North Carolina, to be a writer in residence at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities. This handsome estate was built around 1900 by steel and railroad magnate James Boyd. His grandson, also named James, updated the house in the 1920s; there he and his wife entertained literary friends such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Sherwood Anderson.

Weymouth, circa 1924, with the Boyds and their horses and hounds

Offered a choice of bedrooms, I settled in the large, sunny Thomas Wolfe Room. I set my laptop on the writing desk by the window, with a framed photo of Wolfe watching over me. I silently apologized to him for never managing to wade through any of his ginormous books (his first draft of Look Homeward Angel filled a trunk).

My desk in the Wolfe Room; the glass holds juice not alcohol (Wolfe’s preferred beverage)

I met the other writer in residence, Maggie, a warm, easy-smiling woman who was working on a fantasy novel. She’d filled the fridge in the communal kitchen with healthy stuff like hummus and fresh spinach. I’d also brought my food supply: a party-size bag of peanut m&m’s.

A view through a hallway window in the writers’ quarters

The second-floor verandah, where I ate breakfast every morning

As I explored the grounds, I discovered a stable a short walk away. Alex, the caretaker for Weymouth, explained that it originally housed the Boyds’ horses. Now it belongs to a fellow who trains driving horses. The stable’s residents include three Friesians, a palomino Saddlebred, a German sport pony, two Morgans, and a Fjord.

One of the stable’s occupants

Setting off on a driving lesson

The horse theme recurred when I poked around the mansion (one perk of being a writer in residence is the privilege of wandering freely through the house). I found a room devoted to the history of local hunt riding, a pastime that endures to this day in horsey Southern Pines. Some photos showed impossible-seeming feats.

Jumping a 7′-plus wall

Jumping without saddle or bridle at 7′

I spent a couple of afternoons walking around downtown Southern Pines, a collection of charming stores that sell nonessentials like retro chintz aprons and hand-painted watering cans. Downtown does boast a large tack shop, which has a distinctly high-end, hunt-focused flavor. I didn’t see any of the accoutrements for natural horsemanship there.

Southern Pines’ downtown tack shop

Oh, yes, I did some writing as well. My output was anything but Wolfeian—you could put what I wrote in a large manila envelope. No trunks needed. Still, I made good progress on a first-person piece I’m writing . Here’s a small sample:

My true muse at Weymouth was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose name graces a study in the second-floor writers’ quarters.

His life may have been a disaster, but oh, boy, he could write. I can only aspire to the kind of prose poetry that Fitzgerald pulled off.

After four contrapuntal days of relaxing and writing, I headed home to Greensboro feeling more like a real-life writer. Maybe it was the sign posted in the stairwell at Weymouth that made me feel genuine. Maybe I need a sign like that next to the dining room table where I write at home.

Shangrila Therapy

In graduate school I learned about various therapies: Gestalt, Solution-Focused, Cognitive Behavioral, and many more. All of them offer paths to mental and emotional healing, but I personally subscribe to Shangrila Therapy.

According to this counseling theory, the client achieves tranquility by visiting Shangrila Guest Ranch in southern Virginia. Trail riding, happy kids, home-cooked meals, kind-hearted hosts, porch-front conversations, and nightly bonfires are all part of the therapeutic regimen.

After a tough spring semester, I drove to Cluster Springs, Virginia, for some weekend Shangrila Therapy. Gary and Julie Holmes, who started the business ten years ago, welcomed me warmly while their son Dillon said in his charmingly direct way,  “I was wondering if you brought me a present.” I always bring something four-wheeled for him, and he always thanks me profusely.

Dillon and Gary in their beloved Gator

I met Casey, the new 23-year-old ranch hand, who grew up in New York City and graduated from DePaul University. She’s a certified EAGALA equine specialist, a former western dude ranch employee, and Gary’s fellow business planner. She arrived at Shangrila in March and has already acquired a lanky country suitor. By the next time I visit, I expect she’ll be chewing tobacco and driving her own pickup truck.

Casey and her horse Mickey

Casey has taken on an unschooled paint gelding, Mickey, who has some fears about leading. I foolishly thought I might be able to help; I sat out a few of his emphatic bucks before I bailed. “I think he needs pretty intensive training to get over his fears,” I said, wishing I could pull James and Kate out of my back pocket. We’re working on the next best thing: a Cooler Horsemanship clinic to be held at Shangrila in August.

Gary proudly showed me the house he built singlehandedly from the ruins of an old cabin. Casey will move into the new place as soon it’s done: she calls it her “Barbie dream house.” It has a sleeping loft with antique pine boards and windows that open onto horse stalls. You won’t find that in New York City.

Casey’s dream house

The weekend marked a significant occasion: Melody, Gary and Julie’s one-year-old daughter, took her first trail ride. She and Julie rode Bess, an easygoing, sure-footed mule. Every time I looked back, Melody was smiling, her curls bouncing in time to Bess’s steps.

Melody and Julie on Bess

Setting off on a trail ride with Gary and Dillon in front; Thunder (in the pasture) wants to come along

I stayed in the Old Home Place, a farmstead built in 1801. Here are some views from it:

And here’s a glimpse of the fishing pond, which lies just beyond the barns:

I rode Bandit, a super-sensitive spotted walking horse, with a rope halter and reins after teaching him how to laterally flex his neck and disengage his hindquarters. He caught on quickly and seemed relaxed without a bit.


Here is Gary’s horse, Timber, who came to the fence and posed regally for photos. I half expected him to offer his autograph.


Leaving Shangrila is always hard, but the therapy I’ve received makes the transition easier. I’ll be back for the Cooler Horsemanship clinic in August, this time with Mystic in tow.

Yes, Dillon, I’ll bring you a present.

Cluster Springs hayfield glimpsed on the way home