A true “mid-life crisis” is typically reserved for those over 40, but a mid-career crisis can happen any time.
For Californian rider Karl Cook, the years following his successful junior career—which included one silver and three gold medals at the FEI North American Youth Championships for Young Riders between 2007 and 2008—were followed up by a period of uncertainty. More than once, Cook admits, he thought about quitting the sport altogether.
“Like a lot of successful juniors do, [I had] this great pairing with one or two horses and [you] sail on through [your] junior career and keep right on going,” Cook says. “Once those matchups [change], and those horses start to retire, then you see what really happens.”
Somewhat older and, by his own account, considerably wiser now at the age of 28, Cook describes his junior years on the circuit as a kind of winner-take-all battle royal among some of the West Coast’s most recognizable names. Picture a kind of Beverly Hills 90210 for the who’s who of show jumping.
“I competed against Lucy Davis and Saer Coulter and Hannah Selleck—there were a bunch of just really good people in my junior era in California, and I think it helped everyone get better,” says Cook, who came up through the ranks at Willow Tree Farm in Burson, California, under Butch and Lu Thomas, and later, their son Guy.
“There were some epic battles [in the jumper ring] where the speeds were way unsafe—I mean, just unsafe. Sometimes you wrecked, sometimes you didn’t, but you learned.”
Described by his peers as a natural in the saddle, Cook came by his competitive drive honestly—“flying by the seat of his pants,” as he calls it—and still does today. Riding came easily, winning came easily, and if the technique wasn’t broken, why fix it?
“I didn’t really have ambitions within the sport. I did it because it was fun, and because it was easy—and I know that doesn’t sound great. I had the horses, and at that point, I didn’t have to clean stalls or do any planning whatsoever, I could more or less just show up and ride,” Cook reflects.
Things might have proceeded on that way, and very nearly did, until the year 2012 arrived, and with it, the London 2012 Olympic trials.
“We attempted the Olympic qualifiers and did horrendously—I didn’t even complete [some of] the rounds,” Cook says. “After the qualifiers, we went to a local show and I did a 1.35m grand prix [with Jonkheer Z], and I had 16 faults. I didn’t miss, or do anything like that, we just cantered around and I had 16 faults.”
Confused, defeated, and hungry for both a change in scenery and a fresh outlook on his training, Cook packed up his three top horses and caught the next flight to Europe. There, he holed up at the family breeding farm of French Olympic medalist Eric Navet in Normandy.
“I didn’t intend to show [in Europe]. I basically, like, hid in France for two months,” Cook jokes.
According to Navet, there were practical reasons for Cook to take a self-imposed time-out, not only from the show ring, but from his own horses when he got there.
“At the beginning, Karl didn’t ride his horses at all. I rode [them] until they were ready for me to help him, and teach him how to deal with [issues] and how to flat them,” Navet explains.
“If you want to teach someone to drive a car, and the car has no brakes or the [steering] wheel doesn’t turn, but the car will keep going, [you’re going] to have a car crash. It is exactly the same with the horses.
“Karl would just watch, watch, watch, and I explained to him what I did, and why I did it to get the result I wanted to get.”
When Cook finally did get back on the proverbial and literal horse, the learning curve was steep, to say the least.
“When you’re an American, you get brought up with, ‘Push your heels down, close your hand, sit up…’ all these standard things that you hear that get drilled into your brain.
“I get there, and the first day, [Eric] says, ‘Don’t push your heels down, don’t close your hands, don’t arch your back…’ literally undoing all this stuff that I thought was correct, or I thought was, ‘the way.’”
Despite their systematic differences, little by little, Cook began to get the hang of Navet’s program in the saddle. Outside of it was a different story. Following his coach’s lead, Cook says he began to see that there might be more to the sport than simply getting on and riding: everything from proper nutrition, to bitting and shoeing, to riding in order to develop a horse’s topline was suddenly within his purview.
“Learning those details made it more interesting,” he says. “It’s not just, ‘How does it happen?’ ‘Well, you just go into the ring and jump.’ That’s not that interesting, at least not for me. I want to win, and if [developing a] better understanding will help me win, then I will do it.
“If you actually want to be successful for an extended period of time, you need more—more nuance, more method, more understanding. That was the intent when I started training with Eric, and that’s done exactly what I hoped it would.”
Seven years later, the Karl Cook we see today in the show ring is a different kind of rider altogether. Sure, he’s still climbing to the top of podiums—he logged 10 international victories in 2019, including the $100,000 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Sacramento CSI3*-W qualifier aboard Caillou. But these days, in addition to what takes place in the irons, few elements in Cook’s program are beneath his notice.
“If you want the horse to compete well, you should start at the beginning. How is it fed, and what is it fed, and how often? We test all of our hay before we buy it, and we test each load when it gets to our farm again to double-check,” Cook says.
“If you walk by the stall and the stall is poorly kept, you can’t then go to whoever was keeping the stall [without being able to say], ‘You need to do XYZ better,’ or, ‘I expect it to look like this,’ or, ‘Here, let me show you.’ Not only from a horsemanship side, but also from a people management side, [it’s important] to make sure that the quality of the output of your team is at a higher level.”
Navet, who bases full-time at Cook’s Pomponio Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, CA, still maintains input over all aspects of his student’s program. But their relationship, according to Cook, is rooted in an ongoing, open dialogue.
“I hate the master/apprentice [mentality], because I don’t think it’s the most efficient way. We have more of a back and forth,” Cook explains. “As I’ve learned and developed and gotten better, I’ve been able to do more of it on my own. I’ve started to realize [my own way of doing things], and what I like, because no one rider is identical to another.”
You won’t find Karl Cook’s name this year on the Global Champions Tour (GCT) results list. In fact, the last time he competed in Europe was during his run at Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Finals in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2013. According to Cook, that’s not by accident.
“It’s not like we’ve gone out and bought super well known horses just to show in the GCTs, or do that kind of thing.
“We’ve been [at home], working on developing horses, and whether the development went well or not, I learned a lot,” Cook reflects.
According to his coach, those efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.
“The good thing with Karl is that he is not only motivated to be a top rider, but also a very great horseman,” Navet says. “It’s not only about being a pilot. Karl has always been very hungry about that part of the job, and that’s a good thing.”
Adds Cook, “If I didn’t earn it, then I don’t really want it.”