A U.S. Eventing Association year-end honor was never the specific goal, but it came about organically as Donna Miller checked off each box on her training list with her Connemara stallion, Coud’Poker Tartifume. On a rapid ascent from unstarted 7-year-old to FEI two-star competitor in three years, “Cooper” ended 2022 by bagging the Theodore O’Connor trophy as the Smartpak USEA Pony of the Year.
“It was really tight. He had been leading for a while, and then he wasn’t,” Miller said. “When the final points were in, it was, ‘Yes, we did it!’ ”
Breeding, training and competing Connemara sport horses has been a family affair for Miller at Hidden Creek, her 6-acre Alpharetta, Georgia, farm since 2001. They aim to produce both purebreds and crosses that excel at any discipline, but especially in eventing, breeding for athleticism and ridability.
Miller took her first imported Connemara stallion, ArdCeltic Art, from unbacked 3-year-old to the three-star level before his death at age 10 in 2013. “Art” won countless events and earned a spot on the USEF Leading Eventing Sires list, leaving big shoes to fill.
In stepped French-bred Cooper (Westide Mirah II—Unedamdepik Tartifume, Quitus de la Loue), who Miller found after much searching through networking on social media.
“Everything in my barn, aside from the horses I bred, I bought from video,” Miller said.
Cooper arrived from France in 2019. He made his eventing debut with Miller at training level in January 2020, moving up to modified in June of that year. Then, while sidelined with a broken leg, Miller handed the reins to her daughter, professional rider Devon Brown. Brown, who won individual eventing gold at the 2011 Adequan/FEI North American Young Riders Championships (Kentucky), took Cooper through preliminary before Miller was back in the saddle. In 2021, Miller and Cooper completed their first short- and long-format CCI* events, finishing fourth in the CCI1*-L at Ocala International Festival of Eventing (Florida).
With Cooper showing himself to be a confident cross-country horse, Miller used 2022 to improve in the other phases.
“My goal from the beginning of the year was to improve my dressage scores and show jumping,” said Miller, who spends winters training with Missy Ransehousen, a five-star eventer and former coach of the U.S. Para Dressage Team. Miller’s strategy: traveling to dressage schooling shows to hone accuracy and take direction from the judges’ comments and tackling jumper shows to overcome her tendency to override.
The strategy paid off with top placings at preliminary events throughout the year, including a win at Chattahoochee Hills Horse Trials (Georgia) in September. Although Miller, 65, is an amateur who spent 34 years in the corporate world, she competes in the open divisions against professionals because she has shown through the three-star level within the past five years on her homebred gelding, HC Celtic Mark by ArdCeltic Art.
Being a 65-year-old amateur rider comes with its own set of challenges, Miller said, and competing against professionals while riding a pony makes those demands even greater, but Cooper is a perfect partner for the task.
“He’s like a little sports car. He’s amazing on cross-country,” she said. “We can make time because he is not only fast, but as I walk the course, I look for shortcuts. We can literally come off a turn, sit up and jump without a huge set up. He’s really quick and has really figured it out. I had to learn how to go with it and trust.”
In show jumping, Miller keeps a close eye on distances: “Cooper has a big stride and can eat up a one- or two-stride in show jumping, but past four strides, I have to be very thoughtful when I walk a course and think about what our striding might be: if a line is more than four strides, we’re probably going to need to add,” she said. “I’ve learned to have a plan and ride it as best I can and be prepared to adjust if needed.”
Miller regularly makes the three-hour roundtrip with Cooper and her other young stallion, OMS Machno Fear Dunto. “They are so happy and relaxed on the trailer together,” she said. “They hop off, get collected, and a few minutes later are back. Sometimes they even go and show that weekend. They are uncomplicated gentlemen that know their job.”
Miller said Cooper is kind and sweet.
“He’s popular as a breeding stallion with both sport horse breeders and Connemara breeders because he’s good-minded and just so trainable,” she said. “Think about all he’s done in such a short timeframe.”
In 2023, Miller hopes to tackle intermediate with him.
“I think a move up might be in our future,” she said. “We’ve done our homework. Tryon [International 3-Day Event] was the toughest by far—it’s a big, really solid two-star. We came out really well, considering. I think we’ll also do some more jumper shows. Honestly, they are a lot of fun.”
Miller is constantly adding to Cooper’s Facebook page.
“Every time I see his face, I have to take a photo, because he’s just so adorable,” Miller said. “He just makes me smile all the time.”