Cooper Dean has come full circle at the Kentucky Horse Park.

It was at the same venue four years ago where Dean, then 14, topped the Individual Pony Jumper Championship at the USEF Pony Finals. Fast-forward to 2017, and Dean, fresh off the Reserve Championship title at the Dover Saddlery/USEF Medal Final, was a front-runner for another major title in the Bluegrass. He finished 10th in the ultra-competitive ASPCA Maclay National Championship, earning another prestigious accolade in his last time in the equitation ring.

It has been a breakout year for Dean, who also finished third in the jumper phase of the WIHS Equitation Finals, missing the final work-off by just a quarter of a point. But it seems as if the 18-year-old has been on an upward trajectory for quite some time. He’s quick to credit the many people who have helped him get to this point, especially as he readies to make the all-important decision of whether to turn professional when the show calendar begins anew December 1 and he ages out of the junior ranks.

“I want to make the best decision for me, and I want to make the smart decision, too,” he said. “That’s something I’ll have to talk to my parents about. I want to do this for the rest of my life. I’m a third-generation rider. My grandmother did it, my mother’s a trainer, and I do it as well. Horses have always been in my backyard, and I plan to keep it that way.”

Kentucky Fried Chicken and AM Radio

Cooper’s mother, Jill Dean, trains professionally at Windwood Equestrian in Pelham, AL, and receives the credit for igniting her son’s passion for the sport.

“The first time I wanted to start riding, I was watching from my bedroom window,” Cooper recalled. “This was when my mom had some pretty good riders [as students], and they were all doing the junior hunters and the equitation. I saw them out there, and I was like, ‘I could do this!’ And I was three, four years old!”

But growing up in the small town of Fayette, AL—population 4,432—Dean said horses were “kind of like the extra thing on the side.” Jill and Cooper’s father Steve Dean ran a KFC franchise (“We love some chicken,” Cooper says) and operated an AM radio station, where Steve occasionally called local football games. Building off that role, Steve began bartering announcer jobs at horse shows to cover Cooper’s entry fees in the pony hunters and jumpers. When Cooper was so successful at Pony Finals, his Zone 4 chef d’equipe, Katie Maxwell, suggested he take the next step in his riding career.

“[She] thought that I needed to ride for a well-known, bigger-name trainer and get me out there,” Dean explained. “She first contacted a man in Europe, and I was 13 at the time, so it was kind of like—I didn’t have any family there—too big of a step, going from pony jumpers to getting to ride great horses in Europe.”

“So, we took a big step in letting me go off to Aaron. That’s who she called next.”

Dean became Aaron Vale’s working student and moved down to work under the accomplished professional—who still holds the record for most grands prix wins in a single year—at his base in Williston, FL.

“I think he put me on one nice horse and one not-so-nice horse, and I was able to stay on the not-so-nice horse, and I got to stay,” Dean recalled. “I stayed there for three years.”

Dean rose up to the junior jumper ranks with Vale, and he made the junior team for Zone 4 at the 2016 North American Junior and Young Rider Championships in Parker, CO and earned a team silver medal at Prix des States at Harrisburg. But his breakout moment came in the 2016 HITS Equitation Championship, when he piloted Anne Seline’s Denver S to the top of the leaderboard in the class, in which no trainer aid is allowed.

I love you too Aaron…. @thinkslikeahorse #pc @ederose514

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“For that class, you’re on your own. You’re your own trainer, and you can’t have someone help you that has experience training anything professionally,” Dean explained. “So, I chose the one person I knew had no experience, and that was my dad.”

“I had to teach him to put a landing rail, because he didn’t know how to do that,” he continued, “so I had to say, ‘Alright, take so many steps, put it down. Oh, that doesn’t look right. Put it back a little more.’ But he’s always been one of my biggest cheerleaders, so having him down at the ring, getting me pumped up, making sure I didn’t get too high, making sure I didn’t get too low…We mesh, too, and I knew he was going to be perfect for the job.”

“It’s been my whole family—grandparents, aunts, uncles—they’ve been supportive. They’ve never said, ‘Why are you riding horses?’ because they know how much I love it and how much it means to me. The whole support level is to a different degree.”

The Next Steps

Heading into his final junior year in 2017, Dean took another leap and moved to Wellington to ride with Andre Dignelli’s Heritage Farm. His goal: to win a major equitation final.

“I made the decision to say, ‘Hey, it’s time to really think about what the future is,’ and I wanted to win a final,” Dean said. “Where I was at, I didn’t believe I could have won a final. I think I could have done well, but there’s a difference between the 90s and the 85s (scores). Andre has put in those type of riders, year in and year out. I talked to him, and it was kind of the same thing. I came down, and we meshed, and it’s worked out.”

He was paired with Kori d’Oro, an 8-year-old grey gelding whom Heritage acquired from World No. 1 show jumper Kent Farrington. Together, they won the ASPCA Maclay Region 1 Championship in September.

“He was the first horse that I kind of—we just instantly did well together,” Dean said. “One of the first classes we did [together], we got an 88 in the [WIHS Equitation] Hunter Phase in the first few days that I’d ridden him, and Andre knew right away that it was a match.”

“I think also, I wasn’t used to riding super nice horses. I’d always kind of ridden a horse that had a quirk to it,” he continued. “To go from a quirk here, a quirk there, to no quirk, it was a big difference, and I tried to manage it too much. ‘Kori’ I get to manage just enough, [and he’s also a] really nice horse. It really works between us.”

Hard Work Pays

With his entire future ahead of him, bringing big changes and bigger decisions, it would be understandable for Dean to feel somewhat overwhelmed. However, the teen speaks with the sage perspective of someone well beyond his years. For one thing, he still acknowledges his roots.

Dean stops to express gratitude toward every trainer, assistant, supporter, and groom at every operation with which he’s been associated (this writer can attest to every member of his family and the teams at Heritage and Vale’s Thinkslikeahorse operation being individually thanked—too many to include in print).

This has truly been the best thing that's happened to me. I can't begin to thank Andre and @heritagefarm enough for the opportunity they have given me. Thanks all the Barn Managers and Grooms for what they do, because if we didn't have them the show couldn't go on. Thank you to my Parents. You guys let me leave to go ride under some of the best Riders and Trainers in the world, and without that I wouldn't be in this same position as a rider. Thank you to all my Trainers who have helped me through the years! Jill Dean, Mindy Darst, Gary Young, Aaron Vale, and of course Andre Dignelli. Thank you the riders who push me everyday to be better @daisyfarish @trinity_hammerschmidt1 @taylorstjacques1 !! Thank you for the competition! On to @wihs next week and hopefully we can be just as successful! #pc @chronofhorse

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“They work harder than anybody I know. No one gets enough credit,” Dean said.

Cooper still repeatedly gives credit to Vale and refers to him as a father figure, and the two recently caught up at the conclusion of the Washington International Horse Show—where Vale won a second consecutive Puissance with Finou 4—to watch an NFL football game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys. “I promised [Aaron] that the credit would never leave [him], because he’s probably been the biggest influence of my life,” Dean explains.

As he formulates his next goals, the young rider takes pride in the value of hard work, and where it has taken him thus far. Without a jumper mount this season, he aims to return to the ranks of the U25 division, and someday, he hopes to hone his prowess in both the jumper and hunter rings, just as his mentor, Vale—who also won two consecutive editions of the $500,000 Hunter Prix at HITS Saugerties in 2014-15—has. Dean maintains a quiet confidence that he will get where he wants to be, taking enjoyment in the effort he knows he will put forth along the way.

“The work does pay off,” he said. “Someone’s always watching over you; someone’s always noticing the hard work. The people that don’t work hard won’t win. Money can only take you so far, but the ability will, and you have to work hard at that.”

-Photo by Erin Gilmore.