lived in New York City for years, but I still never know what to do when I see a celebrity in person. After all, it takes a certain brand of confidence to walk up to a complete stranger, introduce yourself, and politely demand a selfie.
Whatever that brand is, I don’t have it.
On those rare occasions that I’ve encountered famous people for any length of time—Gwen Stefani at a hotel once; Adam Levine backstage (swoon)—I’ve been far less nervous than the few times, as a young rider, when I rode in clinics or lessons with my real-life heroes, George Morris and Beezie Madden. I’ve only had one, extended encounter with a true star in my life, and that occurred not in L.A. or New York but, strangely enough, in the Green Mountains of Northern Vermont.
"Like Cher on a comeback tour, though, Cocoa would not be satisfied with anything less than center stage"
When I met him, as is so often the case in these situations, my first thought was, Wow, he’s so much shorter in person! Our eyes locked. His were dark brown, inquisitive, and keenly intelligent. He was munching his hay.
His name was Cocoa. And like Madonna or Prince or Bono, it was just ‘Cocoa’—Cocoa in the barn, Cocoa in the show ring. No other name was required. Offhand, it seemed better suited to a trusty school pony, but somehow, it fit him.
He had large eyes, pert ears, and a face sculpted like a Grecian bust. A strong, broad chest and perfect, if petite, proportions. He might have been 16-hands on a good day, but in his stall, he looked more like 15.2. Under saddle, however, there was nothing small about Cocoa’s expansive stride, his textbook jump, or his otherworldly mind. He was more human than horse, and like so many of those who grow up in the spotlight, Cocoa could also be a bit of a snob.
I’d just arrived in Vermont with my fiancé, looking forward to a new start in a new state. But more than anything, I was eager to ride again. When I went looking for lessons at a local barn, my future trainer (and Cocoa’s caretaker) gave me a brief introduction to the famous horse that, with her help and support, I’d eventually go on to lease.
“I have something kind of nice that’s looking for a job,” was all she told me prior to our first ride. “He’s a little older, but you’d never know unless I told you.”
“Older” turned out to be 23, but I was glad that we’d been speaking privately. As I’d come to learn, Cocoa never liked when you talked about his age in front of him.
That fall when we met, Cocoa had been terrorizing some of the younger kids in the program, stopping at crossrails, refusing to turn right at the canter, and occasionally running them into the fence for kicks. The effort being asked of him was intentionally minimal. It was—or was supposed to be—a nice, easy retirement gig for a horse who’d successfully competed at one time or another in many of the equitation finals on the East Coast, and, in the case of the Massachusetts and New England Equitation Championships, several times over. He’d even won New England’s “Nicholas” Lifetime Achievement award for horses in 2005.
Like Cher on a comeback tour, though, Cocoa would not be satisfied with anything less than center stage. For him, the short-stirrup ring was a degradation, and though he and I had come up through the ranks both states and worlds apart, as second career partners, we got on like gangbusters.
In me, Cocoa found a kindred spirit, a rusty adult amateur hungry for a shot at the medal final she’d never competed in as a junior. For my part, I’d never sat on anything half Cocoa’s age with a stride so big and fluid…I’d never sat on anything like Cocoa, period. He made finding the jumps easy, and more than anything else, he was right at home in the horse show limelight.
Frankly, he blossomed in it.
The one and only Cocoa
Cocoa knew what it meant to be bathed, clipped and braided. Instead of snorting or whinnying nervously at the clank and rumble of an arriving trailer, he stood a little taller in his stall, waiting patiently, if not peevishly, for me to come and wrap his legs. On course at shows, he seemed to innately know where the photographers had stationed themselves and, in almost every jumping image I’ve seen of him, his knees are never less than perfectly square, his ears pricked, his expression bright. Cocoa was a star, and always had been. It offended him to pretend to be otherwise.
He’d been trained by some of the biggest equitation names in the business, and he’d won—a lot—with rider after rider. To lead him from the trailer into his stall on his “home turf”, the Fieldstone Show Park in Halifax, Massachusetts, was nothing short of a red carpet premiere.
“Is that Cocoa?” they would call from the farrier sheds, from the rail as they coached their students, from braiding ladders, the grand prix field, or leaning out the window of the veterinary truck. Whoever it was would inevitably stop what they were doing to pay their respects, mumbling a polite hello to me before moving on to rub Cocoa’s big white star, proffer a carrot from their pocket, and gaze appreciatively at the bright bloom of his coat and the aristocratic way he held his head. Cocoa would allow them to fawn, for a while, and then he’d grow bored and lead us both away toward the nearest patch of grass.
We jumped in the 3’ adult medals that summer, and though my horse show fund could only support a couple of off-property rated shows, I’d never won so many red and blue ribbons in succession, before or since. At the Massachusetts Hunter Jumper (MHJ) Finals at Fieldstone in August, we won the MHJ Adult Medal on Saturday, the division’s final qualifying class, and earned the right to compete in the Finals—my first finals—on Sunday.
Cocoa was pleasant to work with on the ground and even occasionally affectionate. But on his back, he was the consummate teacher. Miss too many times and he would stop jumping. Take your leg away and he’d do the same. In reality, I doubt there was anything built by the hands of men that truly scared him, but he preferred not to jump in hunter derbies, even little ones (I learned this the hard way), and adamantly refused gymnastic exercises of any kind.
"There was no arena that was out of our league, no judge we couldn’t impress, no course or combination we couldn’t master"
Growing up, I’d never ridden a veteran eq horse before, and certainly never an iconic one. A decade of muddling through on young or green projects had made the show ring an uncertain and occasionally nerve-wracking place for me. But walking into the ring on Cocoa, I felt invincible. There was no arena that was out of our league, no judge we couldn’t impress, no course or combination we couldn’t master. I hadn’t experienced a feeling like that before, but Cocoa never set foot in a ring without it.
Though we didn’t make the cutoff that year in Massachusetts, we put in a solid round, and I continued to ride Cocoa throughout the fall and early winter, with the hope of competing him again in the spring. It soon became apparent, however, that while Cocoa’s heart was set on the big jumps, his decades-old body was not. The decision was made to send him on to a loving retirement home in Maine, to a program that knew him (of course), where he would be well cared for by little girls with few demands but plenty of Skittles at the ready.
We kept him fit and happy, and when the time came, I packed up his blankets, tears streaming down my face. As I wrapped him, I told the kind but hurried girl who’d been sent to pick him up about his preference for bananas, and about how he’d been treated unkindly by men in the past and was just posturing when he pinned his ears and bared his teeth behind the stall bars. She asked about his turnout needs (private, naturally), and I bragged to her about how he was such a pro for clipping that I’d last done his ears standing on my tack trunk in bare feet while he slept, his top lip resting on the wooden lid.
Cocoa knew, of course, what that trailer meant. He knew he wasn’t heading to the winter circuit in Florida, and that the show season up North had yet to begin. He also knew I think, that I’d been jumping a younger horse at the barn and that he and I hadn’t had a lesson together for weeks. I hoped Cocoa understood that he wouldn’t be traveling alone; he’d be riding next to his longtime buddy, Frannie, another famous equitation retiree who’d be joining him at his new home in Maine.
As I loaded him, I hugged him close, my voice cracking as I whispered that I loved him, that he’d be well cared for, that I’d come visit, what a privilege it was to ride him, and that I could never repay him for all that he’d given me that summer. He looked me in the eye for a moment—Cocoa always looked you directly in the eye—and then he turned away abruptly and began to eat his hay.
He didn’t look back at me again, even though I prayed he would, even as the trailer bumped slowly away down the driveway. But I understood. Stars can be that way.
Feature photo by Tori Repole, featuring Kristy Herrera in the USHJA Hunter Derby.
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