Nothing Gold Can Stay

When I came to Fiore Farms more than four years ago, only a few horses were in residence. I leased one of them and rode mostly in solitude. Then James Cooler arrived as equestrian director; he and Kate brought their three horses and vast knowledge of natural horsemanship. Boarders began to arrive to study with James and Kate. The quiet farm became a community of horse lovers, and the tack lounge turned into a gathering place. We shared each other’s triumphs and hopes, and we came to know and love everyone’s horses.

But, as the poet Robert Frost wrote, “Nothing gold can stay.” That beautiful bubble of time has floated on, and our horse community is dispersing to various stables in the Triad. James and Kate will take to the road to teach their ever-devoted students and make Flintrock Farm—just a few miles down the road from Fiore Farms—their base as of November 1. Some of us, including Mystic and me, will move to Flintrock. All of us are blessed with memories of that magical time, when wishing castles appeared, rainbows proliferated, and our horses lived like kings and queens.

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Two Guys, a Gal, and a Filly-Starting Challenge

Galloping Mind old-timers might remember my year-old blog post about the SEFHA Colt Starting Challenge. The short version is that James Cooler competed in the challenge and did an awesome job with a jumpy little colt named William.

Last Saturday the SEFHA colt challenge rolled around again, this time with natural horsemanship trainers Brock Griffith, Charles Pelham, and Morgan Harris as competitors. Each was assigned an unstarted Paso Fino mare; each had three hours—with ample breaks—to help his or her horse progress and gain the confidence to navigate an obstacle course. Four judges watched the goings-on, measuring both trainers’ and horses’ progress.

The scene at the 2012 colt challenge

This year James sat in the audience with Kate and me, all of us admiring the newly completed arena at the Olde Dominion Agricultural Complex.

Kate and James

Master of ceremonies Richard Winters, winner of the 2009 Road to the Horse, nicely summed up the challenge ahead: “There are certain tools these trainers need to have, but it’s really the psychology of horsemanship that’s going to carry the day.”

Richard Winters checks in with Brock Griffith

Charles, a Southern cowboy with a talent for reining and cutting, occupied the far left round pen. He took the creative route with his mare, a paint with a penchant for nonstop running. He rigged up a mini-obstacle course for her, complete with flapping tarp and big plastic ball, and patiently took her through the course again and again, until her confidence began to override her fear. As he commented, “The slower you go, the faster you get to where you want to be.” By the time he saddled and rode her, her initial franticness had turned into something mildly resembling steadiness.

Charles rides his mare over the bridge in the obstacle course

Morgan, who worked in the middle round pen, wore a sparkly belt and good-naturedly held her own against the men. “I’m not a cowboy like you two,” she commented to her competitors. “I’m trying to do it the girly way, I guess.” Her mare, dubbed “Missy,” dealt with her anxiety by refusing to move her feet. Morgan used her stick and string, amplified with a plastic bag attached to the end, to apply pressure. She was careful not to over-push: too much pressure would shut the mare down completely. “I can only take from her as much as she can give,” Morgan explained to the crowd, demonstrating the patience, understanding, and compassion that mark a gifted natural horsewoman. She rode Missy briefly in the final challenge but, mindful of her mare’s comfort zone and progress arc (“This has been a lot for her in one day”), chose to lead her through the obstacle course.

Morgan lets Missy sniff the noodles before stepping over them

Brock and his little bay mare provided a lively show in the righthand round pen. At first the mare was quiet and compliant, but a few defiant high kicks showed her inner sass. Brock, a former bullrider, looked unfazed when she did some bucking under saddle. “That’s to satisfy the fans with the NASCAR mentality,” Richard Winters announced, leaving me a little shame-faced. I’d been hoping for some bucking, it’s true. On the obstacle course, Brock allowed his mare to sniff and explore, turning the experience into a shared adventure. All the while he dispensed nuggets of wisdom to the crowd: “Be as light as possible and as firm as necessary.” “Any time a horse is acting up, I welcome it and think of it as an opportunity to teach him.” He and and his mare took everything in stride, literally, and ended with an American flag-carrying loop around the arena.

Brock and his mare get patriotic

“How’s it feel to be watching instead of competing?” I asked James.

He didn’t even pause to think. “It makes me antsy. I just want to be down there in a round pen working with a horse.”

I wasn’t the only one wondering what James was thinking: Richard Winters suddenly appeared and thrust the microphone into James’ hands. “Folks, this is James Cooler, who competed last year,” he said. “What are your thoughts about today’s contest?” Without batting an eyelash, James gave an enthusiastic, diplomatic answer.

James gives his two cents

Personally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that James will be back in the arena in 2013. I have to admit, however, that I enjoyed being tension-free this year. Watching James last year was exciting but exhausting. This year the chief excitement was watching (and hearing) the trainers crack bullwhips to desensitize their horses to loud noises. They also stood on their horses a lot—a move I’ve never contemplated with Mystic and probably never will.

Apparently riding is not enough for these folks…

Of course, the biggest excitement was hearing who won the challenge. All the trainers had done a fantastic job, honoring their horses’ natural temperament while teaching them to move forward, back up, flex, yield their shoulders and hindquarters, work under saddle, and—most important—respect and trust human leadership. I favored Charles; James and Kate thought Brock had the edge.

The winner?

The long wait for the judges’ final decision

Brock Griffith, champion flag bearer and bucking-mare rider.

Well done, well earned, and a great show all around.