Rowan’s Dana Cooke has the inside track on return to Olympics

Published 12:10 am Sunday, April 21, 2019

By David Freeze
For the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — Dana Cooke has always had a connection to horses.

“My mom has a picture of me as a toddler watching my brother’s pony club lesson with a soother (pacifier) in my mouth,” Cooke said. “I did pony club (English) and rodeo (western) until I was about 10, then I stuck mostly to English. When I was 8, I started eventing and was hooked.”

“Eventing” is an equestrian triathlon, with one of the phases, cross-country, having a significant risk and adrenaline factor. Dressage is done in a memorized pattern, similar to figure skating. Show jumping is the portion most often related to equestrian sport and has knock-down barriers.

Cross-country jumping has more rigid jumps, and riders are seldom able to break away when hit by the horse, increasing the chance of injury for the horse and rider.

“It’s an equestrian triathlon that tests the communication, trust, endurance and strength of a horse and rider combination,” Cooke said. “As a pair, you need to have the ability to be elegant and fluid on Day 1, fast and agile on Day 2, and controlled and accurate on the third and final day.”

Cooke, 32, has been to the Pan Am Games and the Olympics as a groom and trainer. She took care of fellow Canadian Rebecca Howard’s horses while working at Fork Farm in Norwood and helped Howard compete at the 2011 Pan Am Games and the 2012 Olympics.

This year, two of Cooke’s own horses have qualified for the Pan Am Games, and she’s working hard to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Canadian team.

After the 2012 Olympics, Howard stayed in England and Cooke took a job of equestrian director and resident trainer at Fork Farm with an eye toward building her competitive riding and training career.

“The next year, I met my husband, James, and the people that own Kingfisher Park Equestrian,” she said. “When I decided to leave the farm in Norwood, the owners of KFP, Hugh Wrigley and Diana Crawford, offered me a job. When I was at the Fork, they had sent me a horse to train. Both are amazing, supportive, kind and generous people whom I am so lucky to have.”

Kingfisher offers boarding, training, sales, lessons and cross-country schooling. Cooke is now the resident director of equestrian activities at Kingfisher Farm Park, just off Jackson Road in southwestern Rowan County.

As equestrian director, she is in charge of 22-plus horses on the farm and everything associated with them.

“I ride 10 or more horses every day and teach lessons on top of that,” she said.

Tesla Parker, an assistant trainer and groom, helps her manage it all.

“Plus, I have amazing girls that help with the daily chores and care,” Cooke said. “With their help, I am able to focus more on the training side of things.”

Parker is from Vermont and has worked with horses for 20 years. Cooke refers to Parker as the horses’ security blanket during travel and competitions, noting that they can get excited and will be flying to Peru for the Pan Am Games.

The two horses that qualified for the Pan Am Games are Mississippi and Whole Lotta Rosie. Mississippi has a couple of competitions this spring, one in May in New Jersey and the other in Bromont, Quebec, in June.

At their most recent competition, Mississippi, sometimes called Missie or Miss Perfect, placed second and Whole Lotta Rosie was eighth. With the horse and rider both scored, Cooke’s best chance for the Pan Ams and Olympics will be with Mississippi, a 9-year-old Wortenberg, a German sport horse.

The Canadian team will be chosen in mid-June.

Cooke was born and raised in Merritt, British Columbia, a small logging and ranch town in western Canada.

Her mother is a teacher and counselor, and her father is a heavy machinery operator for Douglas Lake Ranch, the largest working cattle ranch in Canada.

Her stepdad is a cowboy who has worked for ranches around Merritt.

“I grew up around horses and played a lot of sports,” Cooke said. “My older brother rode and competed in the sport of eventing, and my younger sister did rodeo.”

She moved to Norwood at age 20.

Training horses and competing often, Cooke has been injured a few times. Two years ago, she suffered a concussion; a year before, it was a broken pelvis. Told that recovery would take three months before she could mount a horse, Cooke was riding again in six weeks and jumping again by three months.

A broken ankle kept her sidelined for two weeks.

Twelve-hour days are the norm for Cooke, who said she is a workaholic and just a bit stubborn. Spare time is at a minimum.

“My days are pretty full with riding, teaching and training,” she said. “I live on property and so if I want to take a day off, I need to leave. Occasionally, James and I will go away for a couple days, usually just to a hotel in Charlotte. That way, I get a little extra sleep and some rest.”

When she takes a vacation, she likes to go someplace warm with a beach and great food.

Cooke and James, who’s originally from New York, met at a yoga class and then met again at a Memorial Day outing when both were invited by a friend.

James graduated from Pfeiffer University and remained in the area as a public school teacher.

Although laser-focused and super-fit, Cooke says she has a lot of work ahead.

“I still have to qualify for the Olympics next year, and my plan for getting qualified will depend on what happens with the Pan Ams,” she said. “The pieces are there. I just have to stay consistent and not screw it up.

“I love what I do. It’s really easy to get up every day when you are so excited.”