Chat Transcript: Debbie Cooper

Host: Welcome to and Horse & Rider magazine‘s chat with top coach and judge Debbie Cooper! This will be a hosted chat, where questions and comments will be sent by you to the Host. The Host will then select questions that will be directed to Debbie for her reply. You WILL NOT see your questions or comments unless they are selected by the Host. Because of the moderation features, your name will not be visible in the display, assuring your privacy online.

Katie: How did you get started in your profession?

Debbie Cooper I started by showing as a youth. I started at age ten and literally never stopped… as I got older I stayed with it. I’ve never done anything else.
Debbie Cooper If you’re ten, I’d advise you learn from the very best instructors.

Morrie: Why did you decide to judge?
Debbie Cooper To judge?
Debbie Cooper I decided because I feel I have knowledge and experience in this industry and feel it is a way to give back to my industry.
Debbie Cooper The horse business has been very good for me, to allow me to travel and meet people I would never have had otherwise.

Katie: Have the divisions changed any since you first started judging? In what ways?
Debbie Cooper I don’t think they have changed tremendously since I started judging. Styles, trends, they change. The way of going for the horse has changed dramatically…
Debbie Cooper What I mean, for instance, with Western Pleasure horses they move slower, with a lower head position, basically, we have learned how to improve techniques, equipment, and the horses are better than ever.
Debbie Cooper Horses are better because of refined breeding, we can breed them into specific athletes for specific events. Now we breed for a reining horse or a cutting horse…
Debbie Cooper we’ve created sub-breeds within our breeds.

Cora: As this season comes to an end, were there any particular errors or behaviors appear consistently?
Debbie Cooper Consistently? No. On occasion you’d see someone with an unsportsmanlike attitude, but that doesn’t happen often.

Gail: What is the single best piece of advice you can give someone going to their first show?
Debbie Cooper First show? Go with an open mind and be very willing to have open eyes… look and learn! Watch what the winners do to be successful and figure out why they are being successful and emulate that. My mentor was my trainer…

Beau: How does reining size up elsewhere?

Debbie Cooper I have some reiners of my own and hope to be a part of heading our industry in that direction. I’ve judged reining overseas, in Italy, France, Germany, Denmark. Reining horses in Italy and Germany are outstanding!

Toby: Do you foresee reining and, say, show jumping happening at the same venue in the future?
Debbie Cooper It is already happening – at the USET Festival of Champions in Gladstone, NJ.

donna beirmann: In SMS class, is there a standard to follow when asked the number of steps for backing? Do you count each front leg as a step or one front leg and one hind as one step?
Debbie Cooper By SMS do you mean showmanship? If so, you count each time the HIND leg goes back, one, two, three, four. I don’t look at the fore and then look at the hind. Just look at the hind as being one stop.
Debbie Cooper And in the ring, of course I’ve encountered times when I’ve almost been backed up over!!

Katie: What is the difference between horsemanship and showmanship?
Debbie Cooper Horsemanship is a class that is where you RIDE the horse. Showmanship is where you LEAD the horse only.

Gail: I read an article on halter showmanship and it seemed to say that the handlers were remiss in their duties and more interested in showing themselves off than their horse. Can you talk about that and some tips for good showmanship?
Debbie Cooper In showmanship, be prepared, be on time, and look confident. Be turned out in an efficient and attractive manner. Look professional, even if you’re an amateur.
Debbie Cooper I agree with you Gail. They show themselves more than the horse. The premise for showmanship was to teach young people how to show a horse for conformation at halter…
Debbie Cooper it has grown away from that. It seems more emphasis is put on the showman than actually on the horse itself is being presented…
Debbie Cooper At the judges’ level is where we need to change that…
Debbie Cooper Judges are the ones out there placing riders and horses, so we are the ones dictating to the industry what we want to see…
Debbie Cooper If judges are losing sight, if their vision is becoming distorted, it’s up to them to change it.

Toby: Do you give clinics on showmanship?
Debbie Cooper Yes. I don’t clinic on JUST showmanship, but do clinics periodically that cover many classes.

Debbie Cooper If you’re interested, check my website,

Gail: Are there any fads you’ve seen as a judge that you wish would go away?
Debbie Cooper Oh boy! Let’s see! Yeah, there are probably many I’d like to see go away…
Debbie Cooper where to begin… Number one would be, I wish that the style of Western Pleasure horses would change slightly – return to a slightly freer way of going…
Debbie Cooper Next on my wish list, I’d like to see a little less emphasis on youth and amateur riders in ostentatious clothing. Less ‘evening wear’ at 11 in the morning. Those would be the two main things I’d like to see change.

Beau: EquiSearch reported that the judges were asking for more speed in the western pleasure classes. I know that reining is totally different but do you think that signals a change for, as you say, a “freer way of going”?
Debbie Cooper I hope so! Clearly, it’s an indication.

Gail: What sort of ostentatious clothing?
Debbie Cooper Lace. Sequins. Clothing that should be at a cocktail party, not while working around horses…
Debbie Cooper I’d recommend, I like to see a well turned out rider with clothing that fits correctly, chaps that fit correctly, a well-shaped hat, and clean, prepared tack. ..
Debbie Cooper Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to see riders in blue jeans. But sometimes youth and amateurs put more emphasis on how they look rather than the time they put into riding and training their horse…
Debbie Cooper Equally, all the greatest clothes in the world aren’t going to help your pattern if you’re not a good rider.

Toby: Is the ostentatious clothing a recent trend? I have not been to a show in a while. Why do you think people have gone that route? Is it mainly youth and amateurs?
Debbie Cooper As a judge, somebody doesn’t need to catch my eye by wearing bright lime green. Hopefully I have a good enough eye that I will find the best horse and rider myself. Your bright colors won’t change that.
Debbie Cooper They’ve gone that way, Toby, because they believe the brighter they dress the more attention they will draw to themselves. That’s my interpretation…
Debbie Cooper Ironically, what they DO achieve is annoying me by being so obvious in their attempt. That won’t help them win.

Katie: Who is your favorite horse? Why? And what horses have you judged that you really liked?
Debbie Cooper My favorite horse has been Look Who’s Larkin.
Debbie Cooper In addition to his incredible athleticism, it’s his heart and disposition…
Debbie Cooper He’s the kindest and most giving animal I’ve ever been around.
Debbie Cooper As for seeing other horses in a show… when I place them, I don’t necessarily know their bloodlines or their names. We’ve got great bloodlines throughout our industry, so I can’t really name one or two horses I’ve seen that strike me. Debbie Cooper If I had to pick the greatest horse of all time, I’d say Secretariat!

Gail: Another question on clothing, are there any rules about dress or a dress code? Do you think that the associations should implement rules on this? Or do you think that it is just up to the judges to send a message to the riders that that style of dress does not help in the show ring?
Debbie Cooper> The only rule that exists in the AQHA rulebook involves a long sleeve collared shirt, boots and a hat. I don’t think anything needs to be changed, rule-wise…
Debbie Cooper Leave it up to the judges to establish the precedent.
Debbie Cooper er, precedent I mean!

Carol:When you started riding, what discipline did you ride? How did you get into reining? Who are your influences?
Questions are answered in order so please be patient. Keep the questions coming!
Debbie Cooper When I started riding I showed in all of the typical classes. I started showing in 1967, and it was typical at that point of time to go in a lot of classes. Horses weren’t specialized. You showed in showmanship, pleasure, barrel, reining, did it all on the same horse!
Debbie Cooper I began showing in all classes, as I got older I became most interested in horsemanship, Western riding, and reining and working cow horse.

donna: Do you ever foresee the halter classes changing – to judge a horse on whether or not he can perform rather than all the bulk we currently see?
Debbie Cooper I would like to see that, but I don’t think it will happen…
Debbie Cooper I’d love to get back to a more form-to-function Halter horse, but I don’t think it’s realistic.
Debbie Cooper It’s not realistic because I think that today’s Halter horse is here to stay. People in the halter industry are satisfied and they like what they’ve bred – that particular horse is beautiful to them.

Debbie Cooper Going back to the earlier question about who I looked up to as riders… I was influenced heavily by West Coast trainers, and the early vacquero style of riding that took place in California. I’m still deeply influenced by that today… Like Ronnie Richards, Bobby Ingersoll… they are legends today that were truly my heroes. The vaquero style was a traditional, methodical way of training a horse. It was a long process, they invested a lot of time, started in the hackamore, moved to a bit, then a two-rein bridle, etc. It was a long term process… from the time you broke a colt to showing them was a 4, 5 year process… Whereas now, we’re asking 2-year-olds to go out and be broke and win a futurity! Or ask a reining horse at 3 to be incredibly broke and in the bridle. Katie: What do you mean by form-to-function? I am a bit confused by what you may not like in today’s Halter horses today. Can you explain?
Debbie Cooper By form to function, Katie, it pertains to how a horse’s conformation influences the way that horse functions, ie how he travels, performs, and rides… However, halter horses today are not bred to be ridden, they are bred for how they look. Most would not deliver a good ride, i.e., with long, smooth movment. So form to function means how conformation relates to their being a riding horse. I’ve read that people believe that Secretariat was the most perfect example of form to function. In fact, I read that when they did Secretariat’s autopsy they discovered his lungs were one-and-a-half times the size of the normal horse’s. reiner01: Do you think that people are pushing horses when they are young because of the money involved or personal glory?
Debbie Cooper Money vs. glory? I think clearly the industry has dictated through all the high prizes being given to two, and three year olds. There’s a huge purse involved in the reining futurities. Big purses create the demand for talented young horses, and dictates that value. Toby: Are you a bit of a racing buff?
Debbie Cooper Racing buff? Not especially. I just, as a horseman, truly appreciate a great horse no matter what its breed or purpose is. A true horseman is capable of looking beyond a single breed or discipline to spot a great horse. reiner01: So are futurities a bad thing? How can they be altered to prevent pushing young horses?
Debbie Cooper Don’t think Futurities are a ‘bad’ thing. I’d personally just like to see the emphasis moved up one more year. Have the futurity for four-year-olds for reiners, and for pleasure, put the emphasis on them at three, rather than at two. Gail: If you weren’t a horseperson and judge, what would you have been?
Debbie Cooper That’s a good question. In my fantasy world, I’d have been a professional golfer… In a realistic world, I’d have probably been a psychologist or school teacher… I love working with kids. I love to teach and help people feel good about themselves. Millie: What advice would you give to kids who want to show but whose families don’t have a lot of money?
Debbie Cooper Millie, I’d encourage them to find a trainer or someone in their area, a mentor of some sort involved with horses, go down and meet that person and tell them they are willing to work and do whatever they can to be around them…

Please send in your questions. The chat has 5 minutes left.
Debbie Cooper It’s not easy, but it’s essentially what I did.
Gail: Do you employ sports psychology when you show or with your students?
Debbie Cooper Gosh, good question… I think subconsciously I use a tremendous amount and I believe in sports psychologist, as well as sports hypnotists. But consciously, I believe in using positive reinforcement and positive visualization. For example, I have an image, if I’m going to go in a class. It’s visual of what I know I want to look like… I look at the arena, find the center, imagine what I will do, positively, in there. It’s like making a golf shot and you keep an image of where the ball is going to go down the fairway. Same thing when you make a run on a horse.
EquiSearch and Horse & Rider magazine would like to thank Debbie Cooper for chatting with us today.
Debbie Cooper Thanks for coming. I just want to let people know, if you want to show and be involved with horses, take your time, do a lot of research and get excellent help. Like learning any new skill, find a good instructor that’s highly recommended. You check out references on a doctor, do the same with your instructor – and get the best help you can at the very beginning! And good luck!

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