Gen Z Open Riders The New Force Taking On The Pros!

May 9th, 2022 by Sophia Skeith

Best buddies – Lance and Cade as youths killing time at a horse show.

After slingin’ dirt and cashing checks in the cutting horse youth and non-pro classes, childhood friends and successful showmen, Lance Cooper and Cade Shepard are now beating the pros at their own game!

They both handed in their non-pro cards one day apart after their wins in the Summer Spectacular Derby last year. Shepard had won almost a million dollars and Cooper was approaching a half a million when they became open riders.

Shepard is the youngest rider to be inducted into the NCHA NonPro Hall of Fame which he did in 2016 at the age of 15. Shepard is also, according to our research, the youngest million dollar rider, crossing over the massive milestone at his first NCHA Futurity in the Open last year. At 20 years old, Shepard just won the Open Classic Challenge at the Super Stakes with a 225.5 on Countess Catrina to become the youngest open rider to win a triple crown event.

Shepard is a third generation open rider. His late grandfather Sam Shepard, Hall of Fame rider and $2.4 million earner, got the family started in cutting. Cade’s father is two-time Futurity Champion and $9 million rider Austin Shepard and now he is continuing the legacy.

“I’ve gotten up and gone to the barn with Dad as long as I can remember. It’s definitely what I’ve wanted to do,” Shepard said of his decision to train cutting horses.

Shepard has always been homeschooled so he could be on the road with his father. The Shepard family are big Alabama football fans and he plays around with roping but cutting is his ultimate passion.

Cooper, the son of Michael Cooper, Hall of Fame trainer and $4 million earner, won his first aged event check in 2014 at 13 years old. Three years later he won the Limited Non-Pro Futurity in the Will Rogers coliseum, a lifetime goal for most non-pro riders. At 19, Cooper had won 20 limited aged event finals, collecting over $200,000. Now at 21 Cooper recently claimed Reserve Champion in the Classic Challenge Intermediate Open riding Bohemian Rhapsody.

“I wanted to turn in my non-pro card and Cade wanted to as well. We talked about it. At that time we were both winning very frequently in the NonPro. I wanted to challenge myself. As soon as I showed at the [2021] Derby, I felt like I wanted to [become an open rider] and Cade went right after me…It was cool, we both left the non-pro winning,” Cooper said.

Shepard won the Non-Pro Derby and Cooper claimed the Intermediate Non-Pro Derby at the 2021 Summer Spectacular.

Cooper Claiming the 2018 Ltd Non Pro Derby Championship at the Super Stakes on Zen and Tonic.

“It was something that me and Dad had been talking about for a couple months. I’ve wanted to be a horse trainer and I felt like I had everything I needed to be one. I was getting old enough to start having a business…There’s definitely a lot to learn about being a trainer…” Shepard said.

He added that, “Some advised me to show in the Non-Pro a little longer. One that really stuck out was Tatum Rice. He encouraged me the most to do it because he believed that we needed more young trainers and I’d been lucky and fortunate in the Non-Pro to win almost every aged event at every show in Will Rogers… I just felt like it was the right time.”

“Dad said there’s not going to be a time you’re ready. And I turned my card in and the next day I was working a customer’s horse and there it was, I was a trainer,” Shepard said.

Cooper is originally from Missouri. He played sports and attended school when he was younger but began to homeschool so he could attend shows with his dad after moving to Texas at around 13.

“College was an option. We decided that since I had so much scholarship money from cutting that I had to try it. I went with the option to do it online when Covid was coming around. I did two semesters with Liberty University and realized this wasn’t for me. I was a non-pro at the time loping horses for my father trying to make money that way,” Cooper said.

As far as competing against his dad, Cooper said, “[It’s] challenging. It has its ups and downs, it has its funny moments and challenging moments for sure. It gives me something to work towards to be better.”

Cooper said it’s different for him showing in the Open because he usually only had one horse to show in the Non-Pro and if it sold, he had to wait until next year. His first time showing multiple horses at a show was in the Open.

“It’s fun but it’s harder. You walk down there so many times and you have to mentally change for each horse but it gives you more experience,” Cooper said.

Shepard said the biggest difference between riding in the Open versus the Non-Pro is horsepower. “You have to be on your game every single time you want cows or if you’re helping. Every trainer does everything so well…You have to have every cow picked apart and know them because someone else already does…” Shepard said.

Cooper is currently the assistant trainer to his father. He is in charge of working about seven horses but his dad watches him regularly and sometimes rides the horses to get a feel and suggest any adjustments. Michael also gives Cooper the opportunity to show the older horses for experience.

Regarding the difference between him and his dad as trainers, Cooper said, “I feel like we’re pretty similar. He’s what I’ve grown up watching. We do have a different type of horses we like. That’s the great thing about [our program], some horses he doesn’t get along with I might get along with and vice versa,” Cooper said.

“[To have my dad help me] means everything to me. To learn from him everyday, you don’t get that opportunity all the time… There can be a lot of emotions tied in when working with family but when you do need help I think family helps you the most. When you’re down, family does more for you than other people,” Cooper said.

Shepard is also his father’s assistant trainer and feels the same gratitude for his guidance. “It means a lot [to have my dad helping me] We have been going to the barn my whole life. It kind of comes natural after a while. I wouldn’t know what I was doing if it weren’t for him,” Shepard added.

Shepard Claiming the 2016 NCHA Super Stakes Non-Pro Classic on Some Kinda Highbrow.

One of the biggest things he has learned from Austin is to “Make the way you work your horse relate to the cow. Make it react to the cow so next time the cow hits them in the same spot they will think the cow did it. Try not to make them listen to you so much,” Shepard said.

A piece of advice from Michael that has stuck with Cooper is, “You can’t change the past. When it happens it happens and you’ve gotta learn from your mistakes.”

Shepard doesn’t have any of his own clients yet but he does have one three year old that he only works with and plans to show at the Futurity. Shepard’s main goal is to make the Futurity finals.

“I have a lot to learn but I feel more experienced showing a horse than training one.”

It’s more than just the highs of winning that Shepard loves about the sport. Developing bloodlines that generations of his family can have success on is very appealing to him.

“That Flawless mare that I won the Derby on, I used to show her mother in the youth and [then my parents] bred her. I rode [Flawless] for the first time and rode her through her whole two year old year.”

“Dad made the Futurity finals on her in the Open and I came back and won the Derby on her. It’s a really good feeling knowing you can raise one and train it,” Shepard said.

Written by Sophia Skeith

Brought to you by Northern Star Equine


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