While Dana Cooke’s first major games experience at the Pan Ams in Lima, Peru, may not have personally played out quite the way she had envisioned, the end result – a bronze medal for the Canadian team – was nevertheless an extremely commendable outcome. Cooke, aboard the nine-year-old mare Mississippi, had been sitting 13th after dressage and 23rd after a difficult cross-country course that saw 40% of the field not finish. She and chef d’équipe Rob Stevenson made the difficult decision to withdraw the mare on the final day due to a slight injury to her elbow which required stitches.
“She will be back out on another day and it will be better next time,” said a disappointed Cooke, adding, “Winning a medal – any medal – is honestly amazing and representing your country is a big honour.”
Cooke, a new face on the team, grew up in Merritt, BC, before moving to the States to live and work. “My parents weren’t really horsey at first,” she explained. “They had moved to Merritt from Vancouver and they had this little chunk of property and some friends kept their horses there. Then they bought two trail horses for five hundred bucks.” When a Pony Club started up down the road, her older brother joined and she eventually followed suit. “So I’ve pretty much always been around them; my mom has a photo of me sitting on a horse with a soother in my mouth!”
An early influence growing up was life in a western saddle. “My stepdad is also a cowboy so we did some rodeo as well, and chased cows. A little bit of everything.” Her focus gradually shifted to eventing due to the influence of Pony Club. “When I was in Pony Club, they were all doing eventing. I did my first event when I was eight.”
Her passion eventually saw her heading south as an adult to the eventing meccas of the US. “I moved 10 years ago to work for [fellow Canadian eventer] Rebecca Howard as a working student at The Fork,” she explained. “It was just going to be a year … and I’m still in North Carolina. I became her head rider and groom and actually groomed for her at the 2011 Guadalajara Pan Ams and the 2012 Olympics.”
It was during this time that she decided to give a life with horses as a professional a shot. “Working for Rebecca, I’d already had the dream of going to the Olympics – to know you can actually do this, you can make this happen. It hasn’t been easy, though,” she admitted. “I had to give myself a five-year timeline: I told myself ‘if I can’t make something happen in the next five years, then I need to find a different career path.’ It’s a hard life and there are a lot of people doing it that don’t make it.”
She remembered how she got through the tough times. “I would look at myself in the mirror on the days that were really hard and say ‘if you went home tomorrow, would you regret it?’ And the answer was always ‘yes.’ So as long as the answer is always ‘yes,’ then I just keep going.”
Thanks to hard work and determination, her dream has become a reality. Home nowadays is Kingfisher Park Equestrian in Mooresville, NC, where she is the resident trainer and lives with her husband, James. She currently competes a very talented string of horses including her Pan Am mount FE Mississippi (see page 82) and others including FE Whole Lotta Rosie and FE Glamour, both also mares.
The path forward has not been without some serious setbacks, however. “In 2015, I broke my pelvis really badly in three places,” she recounted of an accident riding the mare Ophelia three fences from home at the Five Points Horse Trials in North Carolina. “We barrel-rolled over [a big table] and she landed on me. I spent about 10 days in the hospital and then 10 days in a physical rehab facility.” Her first question, of course, was “How long before I can ride?” The doctors told her three months; thanks to her self-proclaimed “stubborn” spirit and diligent work in rehab, she was back riding in six weeks with their permission.
The future is very bright for this resolute competitor who hopes to qualify Missi for Tokyo if individual spots become available. And beyond that? “I want to keep making teams,” said Cooke. “I’ve got a few horses that are coming up that are very good quality.”