Merritt rider named to national eventing squad

By on January 22, 2018
Dana Cooke rides FE Missippi during the show jumping event at a competition last season. FE Missippi was one of several horses Cooke competed with during the 2017 season, after a series of injuries cut her season short in 2015 and 2016. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Brinkman).

 

In a couple of weeks, Dana Cooke will be shipping off to Florida. It is the beginning of another jam packed season of eventing for the rider who grew up in the Nicola Valley, aiming to continue her meteoric rise through the rankings of North American riders which began last year.

And although she has yet to compete, 2018 is already off to a fantastic start.

On Jan. 11, Cooke was named to Equestrian Canada’s high performance squad. For the woman who grew up riding on trails around Merritt, it was the culmination of years and years of riding at a high level. But the achievement also spoke to her ability to overcome a series of devastating setbacks over the last few seasons, incurred while Cooke pursued her ultimate goal of competing in the Olympics Games.

Event born of military tradition

Eventing, said Cooke, is “kind of like a triathlon for horses.”

Riders compete in three different disciplines, aiming avoid penalty points in pursuit of the lowest possible score after the competitions are complete. Both riders and horses are judged on their poise, nerve and ability — which makes sense, as the competition originated as a calvary test for military riders.

The dressage phase has riders take their horses through a series of movements on flat terrain. Cooke described the competition as figure skating with horses, with judges who mark the riders on their competency as they move through a pre-determined set of motions.

Next up is the cross-country portion, where riders push their horses to the limit to jump solid obstacles at high speeds. Riders can incur penalty points for a variety of infractions, but “if you fall off, you’re done,” said Cooke.

The final stage is show jumping. Riders navigate over delicate fences, aiming to clear each jump without incurring penalty points. As with the cross-country portion, competitors aim to complete the course within the allotted time — again, any infractions costing them precious penalty points.

“Like a triathlon, you have to be training for everything — it’s not always practicing your swimming or your running,” said Cooke. But like most multi-sport athletes, Cooke has a speciality which has helped her become an elite rider. It just happens to be the same discipline which prematurely ended her season only couple years ago.

“We were having an awesome round.”

“The jumps that don’t fall down — that you’re galloping really fast at — that didn’t scare me as much. But I was always nervous going into show jumping,” said Cooke.

There is always an element of danger that goes along with equestrian events. Riders are perched high on the back of a powerful animal, moving at high speeds and navigating tricky terrain. But Cooke has always felt at home during the cross-country portion of eventing — despite it being perhaps the most high risk of the three disciplines. Terrain can be more inconsistent compared to show jumping which takes place in well-kept arenas. There are angled fences, dropped landings and aquatic obstacles that can throw a wrench into a horse’s behaviour.

In 2015, Cooke was just starting to compete on a new mare who had been recommended to her by her coach.

Cooke rides FE Missippi during the dressage event. (Photo courtesy of MP Stone).

“I had just gotten a couple really nice horses from him, and this mare was ready to go intermediate,” said Cooke. “We were having an awesome round.”

But disaster struck on fence 17 at the Five Points Horse Trials, when the horse flipped over and landed on top of Cooke, shattering her pelvis in three places. The injury marked the end of the season for the rider, who was lucky enough to avoid surgery.

Making a full recovery, and getting back on the same horse for the following season, Cooke and the mare experienced another setback.

“The same weekend, the exact same weekend on the same horse — we slipped again and she knocked me out,” said Cooke.

Although she climbed back into competition a few weeks later, the two successive injuries were enough to put an end to the relationship between Cooke and the mare, who passed the horse back to her coach (who has since ridden the mare to exceptional results).

But while Cooke was far from finished in competition, two successive seasons cut short by injury hindered her chances of being named to a national team.

Unique opportunity

She now makes her home in North Carolina, but Cooke said growing up in the Nicola Valley was an integral part of starting her career in equestrian.

“I had access to it where a lot of people, who live in the city, don’t have access to farms and horses. It was just my every day life,” she said.

From an early age she was involved with the pony club and took riding lessons from local instructors, Anita Orton and Lynn Larson.

Even Cooke’s eventual decision to move to North Carolina was fuelled in part through a connection to B.C.’s Interior — a trainer from Salmon Arm named Rebecca Howard first took Cooke on at a barn in the state.

“When I first moved down here, she asked me what were my goals. I said ‘I want to go to the Olympics.’ And she said, just once? At that time I was like, ‘Well yeah I would love to make the team once.’ It seemed so out there and such a far fetched idea that I would even have the chance, but I really wanted to be there,” said Cooke. “There are a few top riders in our sport for our Canadians, but there are a lot of us who don’t make it that far.”

Howard was one of the few who did make it to the highest echelons of competition, having been named to Team Canada for the 2012 Olympics in London. Thanks to their relationship, Cooke was also in attendance — working as Howard’s groom, and ensuring her horse Riddle Master was in in tip-top shape for the competition.

But Cooke has different plans for the 2020 games, set for Tokyo. Rather than being stuck in the stables, Cooke wants to earn her chance to wear the maple leaf in competition.

With that competition two years away, and the all-important first step of being put on Team Canada’s radar in January already accomplished, Cooke has her sights set on qualifying for the Pan American Games in 2019.

Olympic dreams

To achieve that goal, Cooke will have to continue where she left off last season — her first full season since being sidelined with injuries in 2015 and 2016.

Finally healthy, and riding on a variety of horses who have promise for 2020, Cooke strung together a series of top 10 and top five finishes and cemented herself as someone to watch in the coming years. Her finishes vaulted her up the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) standings in North America, moving her into 66th overall, an improvement of 102 spots from where she was in the previous season.

But the upcoming season — which starts with training camp in Florida in February, and continues with competitions in March, April, May and June before resuming in the fall — is an important one if Cooke is to achieve her goal of becoming an Olympian.

Being named to the Pan American team would be a boon to her hopes, she said, as competing as part of a team is a different beast than individual competition.

“It’s very different than regular competition — it’s not just about you,” she explained.

A solid performance at the Pan American games in team competition could go a long way to convincing the national team that she was deserving of a spot for the games in Tokyo, she added.

But if seeing her name included as part of the national team’s development squad has taught her anything, it is she is more motivated than ever to achieve her goals.

Years ago, in conversation with Howard, she admitted that she wanted to make the Olympics — once.

Now?

“I want to be on the team all the time.”

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