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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”