Reaching the Century Club
“Horses choose you,” she said. explaining her lifelong fascination. “You don’t choose them.”
As a child, she read all the horse and dog books she could find. When vendors came around with ponies, offering to take children’s pictures sitting on horseback, she talked them into letting her go for a ride instead.
As a teen, the mostly self-taught horsewoman went to a local riding academy whenever she had a chance. As a mother, she taught her five children to ride, drove them to horse shows, rode with them on weekend trail rides and introduced them to the show ring.
Cooke turned 82 on Sunday, but still rides almost every day.
“I always enjoy riding,” she said. “If I didn’t feel good — if I was bummed — I’d go riding. I’d always felt better.
“When I ride, I feel peace. My worries go away.”
In addition to riding for pleasure, Cooke regularly competes in dressage — still. The sport involves a method of training horses designed to develop correct movement in the horse and demonstrate the rider’s command of herself and her mount.
This weekend, she and Tong Shan, an American Paint gelding that turned 18 on Monday, are scheduled to take part in the annual Bears Above the Ground dressage event at the Yamhill County Fairgrounds. Her ride is scheduled mid-day on Saturday, March 1.
Afterward, she and Tong will be inducted into the national Dressage Foundation’s Century Club. It requires a combined age of 100 to qualify, and they just hit it.
She will be the seventh Oregonian in the club, which was formed “to encourage older dressage riders to remain active in the sport,” according to the Dressage Foundation. Its members must meet the age qualification, perform a dressage test and be scored by an official judge.
Back in 1950, Cooke’s first act as an official adult was to buy herself a horse.
“I bought a 9-month-old colt, Rocky Joe,” recalled Cooke.
In hindsight, she said, “That was a foolish thing.” After all, she noted, “I was 18. I didn’t know anything but saddling and riding.”
But she said, “It turned out OK. We learned together.”
She and Rocky Joe eventually moved to Dayton, where her mother had settled.
Back then, in the early 1950s, the city had a public barn where she could stable Rocky Joe for a small fee, plus a rodeo ground where she could exercise him. They were located near Joel Palmer House.
Cooke married a native of St. Paul. They lived near Woodburn at first, then moved to Yamhill in 1966, with five children in tow.
She continued riding when she could, but her kids’ activities became her principal focus. She taught them to ride and applauded when they showed and jumped horses in 4-H and other events.
The children also took lessons from a family that had an arena between Yamhill and Carlton.
In the early 1970s, a friend involved in Girl Scouts asked the Cookes to help out with a horse camp. She wanted Scouts to learn about horses.
The first camp was held in Salem. The next several years, the Cookes hosted Girl Scout horse camps on their property.
“I borrowed horses and we had quite a few of our own then,” she recalled. “The library let me take out all its horse books for the weekend, and we set up a horse library in the house.”
She enjoyed seeing the girls’ interest in something she loved. Plus, she said, “I met a lot of nice people.”
Later, she and her family took horses to Girl Scout campouts at Whispering Winds. They also helped with Camp Fire horse camps.
In addition, they ran “horse weekends” on their own, hosting young people on visits that included riding and camping. They invited the visitors to “Cinnabar Hill,” the name they still use for the property.
Cooke said she chose it to honor the first colt she raised there. The Arabian’s reddish brown coat had inspired her to name it Cinnabar.
Cinnabar Hill has been home to many horses over the years — 27 at one point, including foals, ponies, brood mares and a Welsh stallion who sired some of the young ones. In addition to Welsh ponies, there were Arabians, thoroughbreds and quarter horses.
Cooke loved working with them, as well as riding them. She enjoyed cleaning out the stalls and listening to them chomp on hay. She just loved being around them.
Almost every weekend, she and her daughters would mount up and ride into the hills. Sometimes they would camp wherever they found a stopping place.
“Riding all day can be tiring, especially if you’re riding right,” Cooke said. She explained that proper riding involves using your muscles, “not just sitting there letting the horse do all the work.”
Cooke started taking lessons years ago, learning jumping and dressage. She still takes dressage lessons every other week.
“Dressage is very complicated, more than people realize if they’re just watching,” she said. “There’s so much to learn: How to sit without bouncing, how to get your horse to collect himself correctly, how to bend him with your hands in the right position ...”
She added, “I’m not a natural rider, like some people. I’ve had to relearn some things I learned wrong to begin with.”
Cooke has been riding Tong Shan for eight years. She bought him as a 10-year-old and renamed him, choosing the Chinese words for “Copper Mountain,” honoring his chestnut coat.
“My son-in-law teaches in China, so I started asking him about the words for ‘mist in the mountain,’” she said. “That didn’t sound good, but Tong Shan, I like that.”
She calls Tong “a buddy horse,” meaning one who’s truly interested in being with her. He whinnies and comes toward her when she enters the barn, and he follows her wherever she goes. They even celebrate their birthdays together, hers on Feb. 23, his on Feb. 24.
“Some horses are buddies, some aren’t,” she said. She still misses another of her buddies, her beloved Hal (full name: Regarding Henry), who died of cancer several years ago.
She said she has enjoyed and gotten along well with all her horses, but some, like Hal and Tong, stand out.
“They’re more bonded to you than to the other horses,” she said, relating how Tong helps her put his horse blanket on by putting his head down and through the opening in the heavy material. “Riding with a buddy horse is something special.”
At 18, Tong is of typical age for dressage. It takes years for horses and riders to master the skills and muscle control necessary for the sport, Cooke said, so horses don’t usually become serious competitors until they reach their teens.
Tong, tall at 16 1/2 hands, is well-suited to dressage, she said. He knows what he’s doing.
However, that can be a problem sometimes. She said he knows the practice course so well, he occasionally tries to go through the tasks on his own, without listening to her instructions.
The small woman has to remind the horse that she’s in charge. “This is supposed to be teamwork,” she tells him.
Cooke, a member of the Chehalem Mountain Chapter of the Oregon Dressage Society, enjoys practicing with Tong. They work on skills like walking and trotting, making right angle turns, going in circles or cutting across the arena, always with smooth transitions between gaits and tasks.
Dressage is a formal and elegant sport. Horses are trained to bow their necks and step with precision.
Riders wear white or light-colored pants and dark coats. Traditionally, they also wore top hats or black caps, but they wear helmets these days.
“I hate helmets!” Cooke said. “They’re so hot. But they’re important for safety.”
Fortunately, she said, today’s helmets also are much lighter and more comfortable than older ones.
The sport isn’t always exciting for spectators, she said, but it’s exciting for the rider. Horses usually like it, as well, especially buddy horses who like to please their humans.
“Dressage shows how you and the horse fit together,” Cooke said, and she and Tong are delighted to be in such a partnership.
Some dressage shows include special activities, such as rounds set to music.
Once Cooke and a friend entered a musical ride in which they would wear costumes. They found long blonde wigs, pulled flowing skirts over their riding pants and carried faux swords made by their husbands.
“’We did the ‘Ride Of Valkyries,’” she said, naming the familiar fanfare from Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.
“We got the biggest laugh and the most applause,” she said, recalling their entrance into the show ring. “We didn’t win, but we had a lot of fun.”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
DRESSAGE SHOW OPEN TO PUBLIC
Spectators are welcome throughout the show. Admission is free. Pets must be leashed and children must be accompanied by parents.
Riders start showing their skills about 8 a.m. and continue all day each day. Cooke and Tong are scheduled for midday, about noon, on Saturday.
The pair also will become members of the Dressage Foundation’s Century Club, which honors riders and horses with a combined age of 100. Cooke is 82; Tong is 18.
Dressage is a word drawn from the French verb for “to train.” It is both a method of training horses and a competitive sport, and is designed to develop correct movement in the horse.
The local show is hosted by the Chehalem Mountain Chapter of the Oregon Dressage Society. Its name, “Bears Above the Ground,” is a reference to the famous “airs above the ground” movement performed by the Lipizzaner Stallions. The “bears” reference comes from the shagginess of many horses’ coats at this time of the year.
For more information about the Dressage Foundation or the Century Club, visit www.dressagefoundation.org.