The Road to Kentucky

One Rider’s Grit & Determination to Make It

By Rebecca Carr

The Road to Kentucky Courtney Cooper SmilingEven though Courtney Cooper has broken her neck, back, collarbone, ribs, pelvis, and ankle while training horses, her broken bones haven’t squashed her spirit. She was often back on her mount before being fully healed, determined to reach her goal of competing in the Rolex Kentucky.

Now known as the Land Rover Kentucky, the three-day event is the largest non-racing equestrian event in North America, drawing the world’s top riders to compete in the disciplines of dressage, cross-country jumping, and show jumping.

To reach the 4-star level of competition, the sport’s highest level, both horse and rider endure a grueling pace of training and competitions around the country in hopes of earning enough points to qualify. Of the 12,000 riders competing in North America, less than 2 percent make it to Kentucky in any given year.

Cooper placed 50th in the Kentucky field in 2016 on Who’s a Star, a crossbreed of an Irish Sport Horse and New Zealand Thoroughbred that she bred and foaled in 2003. While Cooper is not listed as a favorite to win Kentucky’s $400,000 purse in 2018, her quest to succeed stands out because she foaled, trained, and campaigned her horse, a rarity in the sport.

“Seldom do you find a horse person who is not only an accomplished rider and trainer, but also a breeder,” said Rob Burke, CEO of the Virginia-based United States Eventing Association. “All three pursuits are time consuming and require skill and education to achieve. It is more common to find riders who also train their equine partners, but seldom do you find all three in one person.”

The road to Kentucky is a rocky one, fraught with year-long competitions to qualify in a sport that is so intense that it originated from training cavalry horses for war. Eventing requires both horse and rider to be in peak physical and mental shape. Winning the Kentucky competition is akin to winning the Kentucky Derby in thoroughbred racing.

The Road to Kentucky Courtney Cooper Standing Still

Kentucky is “certainly the peak of the pyramid in the United States, and the intensity of the competition is so special,” said James C. Wofford, the Olympic rider, trainer, and two-time Rolex Kentucky winner.

Wofford has seen a lot of riders compete, but Cooper stands out in the field, he said, because of her strong work ethic, grit, and determination. “Courtney thinks about it. She reads about it. She learns about it. Those are the hallmarks of riders who go to a four star and are successful,” he said. “She is an excellent horsewoman. Because Courtney works at it, she has shown a slow, steady improvement in her results. That is what makes her stand out.”

The Making of a Top Eventing Horse

Who’s a Star, who goes by the nickname Tag when he is not showing, had a slow start. He was born with one leg back and was very scrawny. “It was a good thing that I didn’t decide whether to go into the breeding business based on Tag because he was one of those gawky 12-year-old boys who are all legs. You think there is a good athlete in there, but you’re not sure all the pieces will come together,” Cooper said.

Cooper put Tag out to pasture in Virginia at the age of 2 to grow. She started training him at 4. He started to win at age 5, securing 13 top-five finishes in the beginning divisions of eventing.

Tag kept rising through the levels of eventing. Cooper commented, “You never know you have a four-star horse until you are through the finish line of your first four-star competition.” However, so much can go wrong—the horse goes lame, the rider gets injured, or the training is not enough.

Getting to the Rolex is one thing. Finishing it is another. The three days are very daunting. Competitors start with dressage, which tests gaits, suppleness, and obedience of the horse through a series of prescribed movements similar to ballet. In the second phase, riders gallop over four miles of challenging terrain at speeds up to 25 mph, steering over obstacles, water hazards, banks, and ditches. The final competition is a jumping round which evaluates a horse’s athletic ability, conditioning, and training as they clear fences 4-foot-3 inches high.

After finishing in 2016, Cooper felt confident and had high hopes that she would do even better in 2017. But, a few months after his Kentucky debut, Tag was eliminated from a major horse trial for not jumping. Cooper sensed something was wrong. At this point, Cooper and Tag were so attuned to each other’s cues, that even the smallest change in his attitude was a sign that something was wrong.

Cooper returned to her farm in Pennsylvania and redoubled her training efforts. But even with innovative changes to his training regime, Tag was still not right. She sought help from her vets, trainers, and friends; all symptoms pointed to a stomach issue. They experimented with drugs and did surgery to take a biopsy of his intestinal tract. The surgery uncovered inflammatory bowel disease. However, he was still having issues with colic and needs to be closely monitored.

The Road to Kentucky Courtney Cooper Jumping

At the Land Rover Kentucky competition (formerly known as Rolex Kentucky),competitors start with dressage, which tests gaits, suppleness, and obedience of the horse through a series of prescribed movements similar to ballet.

The Road to Kentucky Courtney Cooper Jumping

The third phase of the competition is a jumping round in a stadium which evaluates a horse’s athletic ability, conditioning, and training as they clear fences 4-foot-3 inches high.

“Tag is the sun which we all orbit around,” said Cooper, noting that he eats four times a day and has to be bedded on straw because he does not like to urinate on shavings. “It is a lot of sleepless nights. Tears on your pillow. Worry. Concern. Luckily, we have a great team on our farm and wonderful veterinarians who really understand and want to help Tag.”

During one colic episode on her winter farm in Aiken, S.C., Cooper drove in the middle of the night to the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine to get help. There, they diagnosed Tag with allergies, in addition to his inflammatory bowel disease. With a new medicine regime and regular doses of GastroGard, Tag started to make a comeback.


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