Six legs and a dream
A Chico man is riding around the world—on horseback
When he was a boy growing up in Cohasset, Ezra Cooley says, he wanted to be the first kid to ride his horse on the moon.
He’s 27 now, and his grand ambition has become more down-to-earth. Now he just wants to be the first person to ride a horse around the world.
No kidding. In fact, he’s on his way. Early this year he sold all his possessions, including his small construction business, and on April 5 he set off from Chico atop a 5-year-old quarterhorse named Red and, leading a 26-year-old Arabian pack horse named Jahob, headed east. He crossed Nevada, Utah, parts of Wyoming and Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, and is now wintering at the home of his grand-uncle in Bryan, Ohio, having arrived there in November after averaging 20-25 miles a day. Sometime next summer, he says, he expects to ride into the heart of Manhattan and right down Wall Street.
Interviewed recently by phone, he breezily described his future itinerary. From New York, he’ll go to Spain, then around the Mediterranean and through the Middle East to North Africa. He’ll head south from there, all the way to South Africa, where he’ll catch a boat to Australia. He’ll cross that continent, then bounce to South America. He’ll ride north to Central America and Mexico, returning finally to California and Chico.
He figures he’ll ride some 27,000 miles altogether and has given himself up to eight years to make the trip. “I just wanted to conquer something nobody else had done,” he explained. “I’ll either make it or I’ll die trying.”
That would sound like bravado coming from most young men, but from Cooley, who’s been bucked off and climbed back on more than his share of horses, it’s just determination. He’s competed for years on the rodeo circuit as a wild-horse racer, which he says is the most dangerous rodeo sport of them all. “I rode bulls a long time, and I can tell you there’s nothing rougher than wild-horse riding,” he explained, saying he’s got the busted bones to prove it.
It took a lot of determination just to get out of Chico. He planned to leave in early March, but the first day out, Red pulled a muscle and he had to turn back. By the time the horse had recovered a month later, spring storms had dropped several feet of snow in the Sierras. They got to Butte Meadows, but Red was sinking to his flanks in the white stuff, and they could go no farther.
Refusing to return to Chico again, Cooley had a friend drive up with a truck and trailer and haul him and the horses to Chester, where they resumed their journey. This time they made it across the mountains.
Cooley’s itinerary is loose enough that he often doesn’t know from one day to the next which road or trail he’s going to follow. He gets guidance from people he meets along the way. He’s able to spend hours and even days alone on his horse, but if the testimonials (called “Sightings") posted on his Web site (www.ezrasexpedition.com) are indicative, people are attracted to his boyish face and friendly nature—not to mention his spirit of adventure—and eager to talk with him and help him out.
Local media also have shown interest, and he’s been greeted by television camera crews in several towns he’s come to. A round-the-world traveler on horseback makes for good visuals, of course, but his Web site also has links to half a dozen articles in small-town papers like the Grand Island (Neb.) Independent and the Monticello (Ind.) Herald Journal and even an article in U.S. News & World Report.
He’s mostly camped out, but about once a week he’s treated himself to a motel room and a hot shower. Also, generous folks he’s met on the trail have fed him and put him and his horses up for the night. Some have given him short-term jobs. In Colorado he worked for a rancher breaking mustangs, and in Wyoming he helped build an addition to a feed store.
He’s been recording a journal of his trip and sending the tapes back to Chico, where his friend Anna Williams transcribes them and sends them along to his brother, Josh, who lives in Portland, Ore., and maintains his Web site. Anyone who wants to read Cooley’s diary entries can go there; the site also has dozens of photos he’s taken along the way (click on “Media"). They show many of the people and the wide variety of terrain, from high desert to mountain meadow, he’s encountered, as well as the range of weather conditions, from freezing rain and snow to searing sun.
He’s had one accident. He was in the Rockies, east of Crested Butte, Colo., following a brown bear along a trail, when he and Red fell off a cliff and “went tumbling down the mountain.” Cooley separated his shoulder, but fortunately Red was uninjured. He climbed back up on the horse and turned back to Crested Butte in search of a better route.
He’s also had at least one great insight. Somewhere “in the dreadful desert” of northern Nevada, he told a reporter for the Gothenburg (Neb.) Times, he decided to make his trip about more than accomplishing his own goal and to help some worthy cause as well. Now he donates half of the money he collects via his Web site to the National Children’s Cancer Society. That gives him even more motivation, he said.
When it comes to funding, though, his goal is to find a sponsor. On his way east, he stopped in Sydney, Neb., home of Cabela’s, one of the world’s largest outfitters, hoping to obtain a sponsorship. The company has already contributed some gear, but he’s hoping for full sponsorship. He’s returning to Chico for a visit this winter, and on the way he intends to stop in Sydney again to talk with Cabela’s managers.
Other than that, he’s thinking ahead—to the Middle East, for example. “I’m very concerned about crossing Iraq,” he said. “I may have to find a way around it.”
Cooley said he learned resourcefulness from his father, Ron Cooley, who used to take him on long pack and camping trips into the Sierras and Cascades. The senior Cooley taught his son how to shoe horses, repair tack and otherwise take care of himself and his horses in the wilderness.
Reached by phone at his Cohasset home, Ron Cooley said he had full confidence in his son’s ability and determination. “If he gets hooked up with Cabela’s, he’ll be all right,” he said. “Unless he dies, he will make it.”
For his part, Ezra Cooley tries to keep his priorities straight. As he told the Gothenburg Times reporter, “My philosophy has been God comes first, then my horses, then my gear, and I come after that. So far it’s worked. You’ve got to take care of your ponies. They’re your ride.”