Cooper the horse is Chesterfield owner’s hero

  • Michael Metzger with his horse, Cooper, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, at his home in Chesterfield. GAZETTE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Michael Metzger with his horse, Cooper, at his home in Chesterfield. GAZETTE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Michael Metzger is shown with his horse, Cooper, Dec. 15 at his home in Chesterfield. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Michael Metzger with his horse, Cooper, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, at his home in Chesterfield. GAZETTE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Above left, in a Gazette file photo from 1999, former Amherst Community Service Officers Marty Townsend, left, and Tracy Farnham lead Cooper, then 12, out of a horse trailer during a presentation by the Amherst Mounted Police at the Strong House Museum in Amherst.

For the Gazette
Published: 12/21/2016 4:29:53 PM

CHESTERFIELD — Hanging on the wall of a small horse barn on South Street in Chesterfield is a photograph of a strapping horse in his prime, on the job with the Amherst Mounted Police in the late 1990s.

Now retired and living the good life, Cooper is about to turn 30, and owner Michael Metzger says this horse has a storied tale to tell.

“I think of him as my hero,” said Metzger, a 77-year-old collage artist. “There really aren’t many horses around like him.”

Fast, exceptionally well trained, intelligent and possessing nerves of steel, Cooper was a popular horse about town during the eight years that Amherst had a mounted police unit.

From those who rode and worked with him, to the citizens with whom he came in contact, the horse with the affable nature made a memorable impression.

“I can walk into a saddlery to buy something and if I mention Cooper, people still say ‘oh yeah I remember Cooper,’” Metzger said.

The person who perhaps knew Cooper the best was Marty Townsend, now Marty Gwinn, the community service officer for the Amherst Police at the time.

“Cooper is an amazing horse,” Gwinn said from her home in California. “I mean this is a horse could do anything.”

An exceptional breed

Born in Mississippi in 1986, Cooper came with “impressive papers” noting that he is an “Appendix Quarter Horse” — half thoroughbred and half quarter horse, Gwinn said.

“It is a pretty exceptional mix because he has the race horse strain coupled with the rugged cowboy quarter horse strain,” said Metzger, who speculates that Cooper may have once been a barrel racer based on how he rides.

While parts of Cooper’s history are shrouded in mystery, Gwinn said it was clear that he was well trained and may have previously worked in a park or law enforcement setting.

“Nobody knows exactly what Cooper did before coming to Amherst,” Gwinn said.

According to former Amherst Police Chief Charles Scherpa, Cooper was one of six horses donated to the department when it was implementing the new mounted police program in the late 1990s.

Gwinn and Scherpa, who was a captain in the department then, visited Heritage Farm in Easthampton to select a horse for the program on the very day that Cooper arrived at the farm.

“I immediately said, ‘wow, look at him!’” Gwinn said. “He was this beautiful, strong and powerful looking horse and you could tell that somebody had already spent a lot of time training him.”

After spending some time with Cooper, Gwinn said she knew he was Amherst’s “best hope for any kind of police horse community service program,” despite a large fresh gash on his head.

Her task was to persuade Scherpa.

“I wasn’t sure if he was going to be convinced, but then Cooper came over and laid his head on Charlie’s shoulder, and Charlie said, ‘oh yeah, we are taking this one.’ So Cooper sealed the deal!” Gwinn said.

Cooper joins the force

With his head wound repaired, the horse joined the Amherst Police Department and was named Cooper, in honor of the Northampton Cooperative Bank, which purchased him for the program.

While with the department, Cooper trained extensively with Gwinn and others who put him through rigorous tests and obstacles to teach him how to remain calm and composed in crowds, near gunfire and other loud noises and distractions including a ride through a simulated carwash.

Scherpa said that Cooper worked closely with the University of Massachusetts Police Department and also trained with the Springfield mounted police and police units in Boston and Rhode Island.

Regular and community service officers rode the horses, which played a big part in community outreach and bolstering the morale of those in the department.

“He was amazing and he was especially good with kids,” Scherpa said, noting that Cooper often rode in Holyoke where he was a big hit with children, many of whom had never seen a horse before.

“This program was very effective,” Scherpa said. “It was great for public relations and breaking down stereotypes, and it was beneficial to kids, the general public, and almost like therapy to the cops who rode the horses.”

The Amherst mounted police program came to an end around 2006 due to budget constraints.

TV producer meets Cooper

That was when Metzger, a former television producer from Los Angeles and avid horseman, met Cooper.

Metzger and his wife, Ellen, had moved to Chesterfield in 2002 for a quite country life complete with enough land to have a couple of horses.

“I mentioned to Marty that I was looking for a well trained horse that I could trust and wouldn’t kill me,” Metzger said with a chuckle.

Gwinn, a friend of Metzger’s, immediately thought of Cooper and arranged a meeting.

“I looked in the stall, we made eye contact and there was an instant connection,” Metzger said. “I rode him and I had literally never ridden a horse like that. It was amazing!”

Metzger said he was allowed to purchase Cooper only after fully convincing the department that he was “worthy of caring for such a horse.”

Inseparable bond

Since then, Cooper and Metzger have been inseparable, taking daily rides on the trails and roads throughout the Hilltowns.

When not with Metzger, Cooper hangs out with his stablemate Gracie, a 25-year-old paint quarter horse owned by Ellen Metzger.

These days Metzger and Cooper still go riding, though their trips are not quite as exhausting as they use to be.

“We don’t go for a dead gallop anymore, though I’m sure he would do it,” Metzger said.

Last year, Cooper was experiencing severe weight loss and his ribs were beginning to show. Progressive wear and tear on his teeth over the years was making it difficult for him to eat.

While many thought that Cooper’s advanced age and dental issues would prevent him from regaining enough weight to survive, Metzger was determined to nurse his best friend back to health.

By switching his regular feed to a hay stretcher made of softer, larger pellets that he is able to chew, and giving him a large bowl of hot bran and molasses every night, Cooper managed to put on 200 pounds, bringing his weight up to a healthy 1,060 pounds.

Amherst Animal Control Officer Carol Hepburn, herself a community service officer, managed the Saw Mill Stud Farm in Amherst where the police horses used to be stabled. She was responsible for Cooper’s care.

“Cooper is a great horse, and he is very smart. I like to think that is the quarter horse in him!” Hepburn said. “And he could not have gone to a better home because they really treat him like a member of the family.”

The average lifespan for most horses is 25 to 30 years. Perhaps Cooper’s longevity can be chalked up to a healthy work life, excellent care and a comfy retirement.

“I have never had a horse as lovely and dependable as Cooper,” Metzger said, joking that he is trying to keep him out of assisted living. “But really, it’s rare for a horse to live this long and not to be on its way out. I am not sensing that at all from him.”

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