If you ask any professional in the industry what it takes to be successful, their list would likely include two little words, “work ethic.” Fortunately for 17-year-old Cooper Leather, that quality comes naturally.
Leather, an incoming high school senior from Wahoo, Nebraska, has a list of references that many industry hopefuls would covet. At this year’s 6666 NRHA Derby presented by Markel, he is working for NRHA Two Million Dollar Rider, Jordan Larson. Other notable names in the reining industry, including Steve Ross and Dan Huss, are included on his list of references.
As the stepson of Nebraska-based reining trainer Matt Phillips, Leather grew up in the horse industry. He fell in love with the atmosphere at horse shows and the meticulous nature of the sport of reining. He started showing at the age of 10, competing at NRHA shows in and around Nebraska, and making multiple trips to the AQHYA World Show for reining and ranch riding.
In 2019, he attended a clinic in California, where he had the opportunity to learn from not only Larson but also NRHA Three Million Dollar Rider Casey Deary and NRHA Two Million Dollar Rider Jason Vanlandingham. Larson was impressed with Leather’s abilities and work ethic, so he promised him a summer job when he was older.
Larson kept his promise. In 2021, Leather spent a portion of his summer vacation working for Larson at his farm in California and traveling to horse shows, including the NRHA Derby and the Summer Slide in Denver. That fall, he joined the Larson team again at the NRHA Futurity.
While working for a trainer like Larson is enough to set any teenager apart, a casual conversation with his FFA advisor, Cole Bloomendahl, set a chain of events in motion that surely solidified Leather’s path to success.
“My ag teacher said that his father-in-law is a horse trainer down in Arizona, he does a lot in Oklahoma City, and he actually comes to the North Central Regional finals in Lincoln and announces,” explained Leather. “I always knew that Steve Ross announced (in Lincoln), and so I put it together. I asked him if it was Steve Ross, and he asked if I knew him… which I did. It’s Steve Ross. He’s the greatest out there.”
Bloomendahl connected the two, and Ross offered for the high school student to visit him in Arizona sometime- an offer the eager teenager accepted. When the school year ended, Leather packed his bags and headed to Arizona. Once he arrived, Ross introduced Leather to his friend, Dan Huss. For the time he spent in Arizona, Leather would spend his mornings working for Ross, then head down the road and work for Huss in the afternoons.
“It’s refreshing to see young people that don’t expect anything handed to them,” Ross remarked. “The great thing is to see a young man that’s committed to working toward a goal and committed to learning his craft. Professionals like myself and Jordan and Dan are always more than happy to help because we came from the same place they did. Every single one of us.”
Leather hasn’t doubted for a second that he wants to work in the horse industry, but his goal for this summer is to figure out what direction he’d like to go. “I like Steve a lot because he’s figured out how to make money in the horse industry, and he’s figured out how to do it correctly, in the right way. That’s why I admire him and wanted to learn from him,” he said. He is greatly considering getting a business degree but would like to continue riding and working for trainers.
One thing is for sure – Leather is the type that will surely accomplish whatever he sets his mind to, and he has a top-notch group of mentors to help him along the way.