The Wildest Card of All

Don Cooler, James’ late father, enjoyed playing a good old-fashioned game of poker. When his three sons were growing up, Don started a weekly family poker game. For the boys, it was a treasured chance to spend time with their dad, who worked long hours as an ER doctor and devoted much of his spare time to working with horses.

Don Cooler

Don Cooler

“Dad liked to play the wild card,” James recalls of those lively poker games. “And I’ve spent the last year working with a horse named Joker. It strikes me as quite a coincidence.”

James and Joker

James and Joker

It turns out, you see, that James just sat down at a metaphoric poker table and pulled out the winningest hand possible. He’s been chosen as a Wild Card contestant for Road to the Horse, an internationally acclaimed colt-starting event whose past winners include Richard Winters, Chris Cox, and Stacy Westfall.

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The Wild Card contest is a brand-new twist to Road to the Horse. Producer Tootie Bland wanted to give up-and-coming horsemen and horsewomen a chance to showcase their skills to the world. She created an open Wild Card application; trainers from around the world completed the rigorous application process. After reviewing the candidates, Road to the Horse’s five judges settled on eight trainers from the US and Canada.

Tootie Bland herself called James to share the good news that he’d been chosen.

As a Wild Card competitor, he’s leapfrogged into the big leagues of natural horsemanship. How big? To put it into perspective, the legendary Pat Parelli competed in the 2011 Road to the Horse and didn’t win.

“It’s just so much to take in,” says James. “On a personal level, I’m incredibly excited. On a professional level, this validates all the work Kate and I have done to get to this point. And, of course, this connects back to my dad, who started Cooler Horsemanship.”

James and Kate Cooler

James and Kate Cooler

Being chosen as a Wild Card contestant means all kinds of things: national and international media coverage, the opportunity to network with rising and well-established natural horsemanship trainers, and the chance to grab at the ultimate brass ring—a spot as a contestant in the 2014 Road to the Horse.

Here’s how it works: As a Wild Card contestant, James will head to the 2013 Road to the Horse in Lexington, Kentucky, on March 15-17, where he and the other Wild Card competitors will receive VIP treatment and be featured throughout the event. He’ll watch the goings-on at ground level, learning the ropes for next year’s competition.

As a trainer, his first step toward the 2014 Road to the Horse will be selecting an unstarted colt from the AQHA Remuda from the 6666 Ranch. On March 18 James and his colt will head back to North Carolina for twelve months of training.

James will head home from Kentucky with one of these colts from the 6666 Ranch

James will head home from Kentucky with one of these colts from the 6666 Ranch

In March 2014, James and his quarter horse will head back to Road to the Horse to compete with the other Wild Cards. They’ll be judged according to the horse’s health and condition, a freestyle demo, an obstacle course performance, and pattern work. The winner will immediately step into the final round pen and compete for the coveted 2014 Road to the Horse World Championship of Colt Starting title.

Those of us who know James are thrilled that he’s pulled this wild card. This was no random deal: It took years of hard work, humility, devotion to learning, and accumulated horse knowledge. I like to think that somewhere, somehow, his dad is smiling and saying, “Yup, I always believed in the wild card.”

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James has started a Road to the Horse Video Journal, which you can find on the Cooler Horsemanship Facebook page. Click here to view the videos James submitted for his Wild Card application.

A Good Cowboy Is Hard To Find

Couldn’t resist posting this Valentine’s Day card that arrived in the mail yesterday from my dearest friend, Janet, who knows me better than I know myself.

Picture 2

Picture 3

If any of you know of any eligible cowboys, let me know. Meanwhile I’ll save my kisses for a handsome, dark-eyed, silver-haired gentleman who sometimes appears mysteriously at the door.

Mystic edit

Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

Forming a New Alliance

Goldstar Alliance—Lance for short—arrived at Flintrock Farm on a gray Monday in late January. The liver chestnut Morgan was tightly wound, as you might expect of a two-year-old colt in a brand-new, mare-filled environment.  His owners, Lynda Shackelford and Betty Thacker of Goldstar Morgans, had entrusted him to James for a short colt-starting session.

Kate served as camerawoman, filming the session for the Cooler Horsemanship Online Library and as a possible video submission for the Road to the Horse Wild Card application.

Camerawoman Kate

Camerawoman Kate

Lance sprinted around the small arena, fueled by nervous energy, barely acknowledging the cowboy-hatted figure attached to him by a rope. James calmly observed him, pointing out his tendency to be “right brain,” or reactive. His quickness, high-headedness, and tension indicated a fear-based personality.

A bundle of nervous energy

A bundle of nervous energy

James gradually made himself more present to Lance, using herd-based body language to move him forward and change his direction. He rewarded Lance with “comfort” by shifting his body language to neutral, welcoming the colt into his space, and rubbing his face and neck. The message: Fear and running will get you nowhere. Relaxation and thinking will bring you comfort.

Here is where the comfort lies

Here is where the comfort lies

Lance started to crowd James once he recognized him as a leader. “I’ll escape my fears by sticking close to this dude,” Lance seemed to be thinking.  “I call that space invading,” said James. “If I had him in training for a month, that’s the first thing I’d work on.” He nipped this dependency in the bud by pushing Lance out of his space.

A wiggle of the rope teaches backing up and not space invading

A wiggle of the rope teaches backing up and deters space invading

Slowly, almost infinitesimally, Lance let go of his wild-eyed ways. He still had plenty of inattentive moments, fueled by nearby mares and distant whinnies. Never impatient or punitive, James simply brought the colt’s attention back to the task at hand. A bond began to form between them, and Lance showed fledgling signs of trust and respect toward this two-legged herd boss. Head dropped, body relaxed, Lance followed James around. “It’s amazing how powerful leading a horse can be,” said James, “because they want something to follow.”

Following implies trust and respect

Following implies trust and respect

Lance’s increasing trust allowed James to lightly fling the lead rope across the colt’s back, around his legs, on his neck and rump, getting him used to unexpected body contact. James also jumped around and waved his hands in front of Lance’s face, teaching him to work through his fear instead of bolting.

Playing with the feel of the lead line

Playing with the feel of the lead line

Scary!

Densensitizing Lance to movement around his head

When James took out the progress stick and string, Lance reverted briefly to his early rip-snorting ways. His fear settled down faster, however, and he bravely stood still as James rubbed the stick under his chin and flicked the string across his back. The colt was thinking his way through it, not blowing up and freaking out.

Handling the stick and string

Handling the stick and string

“If I can convince him I’m as intelligent as he is, he’ll go a long way with me,” was James’ appraisal.

Next he asked Lance to flex his neck from side to side, move his hindquarters, yield his front shoulders, back up, and lower his head. Both flexing and head lowering promote relaxation—key in all horses, but especially in a braced colt.

Working on head lowering

Working on head lowering

Finally came the mounting block and acclimating Lance to pressure and weight on his back and sides. The colt was understandably edgy about this new turn of events. He circled around the mounting block while James performed a cheerleader-worthy split, laying one leg across Lance’s back and pivoting on his grounded leg. Once Lance settled down enough to stay put, James declared an end to this initial training session.

Don't try this at home!

Don’t try this at home!

“I don’t want to overload him,” James said of the little colt, who was softer in his demeanor—and a lot sweatier—than an hour and a half before.  “I’ve given him a lot to process.”

Despite the intensity of the session, James looked as fresh as when he started. Shouldn’t he be exhausted? “You get to the point where these kinds of sessions energize you,” he said. “I feel good about what we accomplished.”

Bonded

Bonded