Paula Cooper

Competing with No One

Why learn to lay down a horse? It’s about building absolute trust.

 Paula Cooper, 24, represents a new generation of cowgirl. As a teenager, she walked away from competitive skiing at the top of her game — three national championships and a silver medal in ski halfpipe from the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Norway — to devote her life to horses. She is studying for a master’s degree in agriculture education at Cal Poly Tech in San Luis Obispo, California, where she is a graduate assistant coach for the school’s legendary rodeo team.

The first time I asked my horse Hedgehog to lie down, he almost pawed my head off.

We were alone in the Cal Poly arena. I clipped a rope around his forefoot, asked him to pick up the foot and looped the rope around the saddle horn for leverage. Then I asked him to back up. He had to kneel and nose the ground, like he was bowing.

I released him and did it again. Bow and release, bow and release.

I kept waiting for him to give me the middle finger.

The roper who sold me Hedgehog three years earlier said he was the most sensitive horse he’d ever trained. He bucked so hard I learned to land on my feet. Hedgehog once broke through two halters. Because of a wreck when he was cowboying, he suffered from crippling anxiety and trust issues.

Everybody told me to sell Hedgehog, and I had every reason to. But something told me to stick with him. Maybe he was going through a phase. Maybe I could make him trust me.

Fear of horses

I’ve been through my own phases, including being scared of horses. I’ve been horseback forever — there’s a picture of me as an infant sharing a saddle with my sister — but something shifted when I turned 15. I started freezing up and panicking anytime a horse bucked. I blacked out and got thrown a bunch.

I wasn’t afraid to race down mountains at 70 miles per hour, but a new awareness within my adolescent self had awakened to the power of horses — not just the physical power, but the power of their will. I had mastery over my skis, but I didn’t yet know what a relationship with a horse looked like.

I loved horses too much, so I kept at it. I spent years learning to relax on horseback. If you tense up, they won’t trust you. They’ll throw you. I learned to have a good seat, to ride with a horse’s hind end and keep the front end moving and free. To this day, if a horse starts to buck, I’ll make myself laugh.

Why learn to lay down a horse? It’s about building absolute trust. Horses are prey animals. Their only defense is running or kicking. If a horse lies down, he feels safe. He’s saying, I trust you completely. Historically, warriors laid down horses in battle to hide from the enemy. If you lay down a horse that needs to be laid down — a real ornery colt — they’ll sometimes get up with a new attitude.

Competing with no one

Before that day at Cal Poly I had come a long way in easing Hedgehog’s anxiety, but after a few rounds of bow-and-release, when I asked him to lie down, he was, like, Heck, no! He reared up on his hind legs and lunged at me.

It was my job to stay afoot, to keep the ropes and reins clear. And to lay him down. Once you ask, you can’t release early or they’ll know you don’t mean it.

I was sweating bullets. I’m strong, but you can’t outpower a horse. All I had was the leverage of the rope and the trust we had built over the past three years.

I was patient but insistent. I kept asking. When Hedgehog finally laid down, I could feel him release. I removed the rope from his foot and loved all over him. That day, I swear he stood up a different horse. Of all my accomplishments, that may be tops. And, it was just me and him. Nobody watching.

One of my favorite quotes is by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “Because she competes with no one, no one can compete with her.”

I first became aware of needing external validation at age 10. I remember standing in front of a mirror and not liking things about my body — my nose, hairy arms, broad shoulders. I decided then and there to not care what other people think. I’ve worked at it ever since.

Finding my purpose

I was living it up in the ski world, traveling internationally, real badass stuff. But working with horses fills my heart with a deeper sense of purpose.

Now I can lay down both of my horses — Hedgehog and One Time — without ropes, while I’m riding them, completely bareback. I learned how for one reason: to strengthen our relationships.

There have been rodeos where I didn’t remember how I placed in the rounds, but I still remember the way the sunlight shone on the dust and the movement of the horses’ hooves as the prayer ended to start the rodeo. It was less about winning money or catching my calf than the privilege of being horseback in that moment.

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