It was Saturday night, post-cross country at Kentucky, and the barns were bustling. But instead of the hand-walking, icing, and poulticing one does when they’re looking ahead to Sunday’s show jumping, Courtney Cooper was sitting with her friends feeling, primarily, disappointed.
In 2016, Courtney and her homebred, Who’s A Star, successfully completed their first five-star at Kentucky, but in 2017, as she describes it, “the wheels just sort of fell off.” Courtney had retired after encountering trouble on cross country in what would end up being the pair’s final attempt at the level.
Without another horse coming behind “Tag”, Courtney thought about what would come next. “I just sat there thinking, how do I get back here?” she recalled.
In the intervening years, Courtney went back to the drawing board. She was already well-established as a source of horses through C Square Farm, but now she began widening the net. Finding a true upper-level event horse is more akin to finding a needle in a haystack than anything else, so she busied herself searching for suitable horses to sell as the core of her business while she also kept one eye out for a promising horse for herself.
Courtney entered into a fruitful relationship with Cathal McMunn and Jonathan Reape in Ireland to create Excel Star Sport Horses. The moniker, a combination of “Excel” for Cathal and Jonathan and “Star” for her own breeding and sourcing program, can be seen on a growing list of horses registered with the USEF and USEA. It’s no wonder: Excel Star has brought in and made matches for nearly 150 horses in the past five years.
One horse has Courtney counting her blessings more than usual, and it’s one she’s now tapped to take her first trip overseas to compete at the FEI WBFSH Eventing World Breeding Championships for 7-Year-Olds in October. Held annually at Le Lion d’Angers in western France, the championship for 6- and 7-year-old event horses draws top talent from all over the world. This year, Courtney is a part of a strong American contingent targeting the event with Excel Star Time to Shine (Luidam – Lismore Bella, by Cavalier Royale). For his part, the gelding has the breeding for jumping: his dam, Lismore Bella, jumped through 1.30m herself, while the sire line boasts a history of 1.60m jumpers.
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“I saw this guy in December of 2018, which would have been his three-year-old year,” Courtney said. “He’d just been backed. I watched him free jump and just loved him. He was a part of a group of six that I’d brought over that year. I hadn’t decided I would keep him, but it worked out, and he was the one I liked the most.”
The model for Excel Star Sport Horses has been simple: find quality young horses – “mostly three-year-olds that have just been started and four-year-olds who have been taught the basics and have jumped at home and at shows, and sometimes the odd five- or six-year-old” – with excellent temperaments, work ethics, and athleticism. “Good, solid citizens,” as Courtney describes them. It’s a model that’s proven successful – the sales market can never have enough safe, quality horses, and Excel Star Time to Shine stood out as one that had the makings to go further.
“David” (so named after his import-mate was nicknamed “Harry” – if you know, you know) finished his first year eventing stateside by winning the 2019 USEA Young Event Horse East Coast Championships for 4-year-olds; he came back the following year to place sixth in the Championships for 5-year-olds in 2020. Moving through the levels seemed to come naturally for the youngster, and he and Courtney made steady, intentional progress and stepped up to the Intermediate/3* level this winter, winning at their first Intermediate horse trials at Pine Top.
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Courtney credits the support from Excel Star Time to Shine’s ownership group, the Dare to Dream Team, who came together after the retirement of Who’s A Star to support her efforts to find another top horse. The group owns several horses for Courtney, under the idea that there can always be ups and downs with an individual horse, but when the support is spread among rides, there is always something to be looking forward to. As a result, Courtney finds herself in position to make another crack at the top.
“It’s funny, as I’ve been going back up the levels, people have asked ‘are you going to try to ride at the upper levels again?’ And I have to laugh because it’s like, ‘yeah, I never wanted to leave, but it just takes a while to get one there!’,” she explained.
And, as any rider who’s been around long enough knows, it’s the truth. In between 2017 and now, Courtney’s lost horses to injury or illness, soundness issues or rider injuries – you name it, she’s probably got a story to match it. “But that’s just a little bit the journey,” she said.
For now, she’s going to make the most of the partnership she feels grateful to have cultivated with Excel Star Time to Shine, and the support she’s had to come to this point.
“It’s just really nice to have the support I have,” she said. “My husband has been through it all with me – the good, the bad, the ugly, the horses getting hurt, me being hurt. All of the stuff that happens that is just a part of this. You can have the most fantastic group of horses and take care of them the best you can and then bad things still happen.”
Next on the docket is the flight out of JFK airport on October 11.
“It’s quite different traveling to go and compete overseas,” Courtney admits. “Unlike from going over to buy horses!” She will be the one traveling with both her horse as well as a horse of Lucia Strini’s heading to France, and she’s ready to tick off something that’s been on her competition bucket list with a horse she feels has all the makings of a “Star”.
If you want to help support Courtney and David’s trip overseas, there are many ways to do so! Courtney and her team have gotten creative and are hosting two online auctions, one of which ends TODAY and features riding lessons with top pros such as Jennie Brannigan, Jon Holling, Andrew McConnon, Susie Beale, and many more, entries to events such as Waredaca, schooling passes to Windurra – and tons more. That auction can be found here. A second auction featuring goods and other services will kick off a week from today on September 29. You can follow Courtney on Facebook for more updates on the next auction.