“I’m going to be honest, I never thought she would do this,” said Karl Cook (USA) quite candidly of his fiery 12-year-old mare Kalinka Van’t Zorgvliet.

Previously campaigned by Italy’s Lorenzo de Luca and Sweden’s Jonna Ekberg up to the 1.40m level, Cook first started in the saddle with Kalinka in the winter circuit of 2019.

“I have the videos of me trying her. I couldn’t slow her down. We jumped through a few front rails because she just jumped so hard and had so much drive forward. I don’t think my arms have ever been more tired after riding one horse ever in my life,” Cook reflected.

Despite rideability challenges it was evident that she had talent. The measure of that talent, however, was admittedly uncertain.

“She jumped so far past all the fences. So, she landed three-plus meters past every fence. The reason I said I’ll give this one a shot is because I figured if I could calm the fire on the approach, I know I have the power because I’m landing three plus meters past the fence at the same time.”

The Pomponio Ranch team were hopeful that the mare could become a speedy 1.40-1.45m horse with further training. What they got was a 5* winning Grand Prix horse.

On Saturday night at Desert International Horse Park (DIHP), Kalinka and Cook captured the second 5* Grand Prix win of their career, topping the Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) CSI5* Grand Prix 1.60m. In September, they also won the 5* Grand Prix at the Hampton Classic in New York.

Their latest win comes just two days after the pair jumped to the MLSJ Team Competition—and season championship—win with Helios. While the monumental weekend is a testament to the strength of their partnership, Cook said he owes his success to his team, but most especially Kalinka.

MLSJ / Atalya Boytner Photography

“We’ve had a long journey together. We started this year off here in January and we did our first 3* Grand Prix together,” said Cook.

“To end the year this way and to have the consistency that we’ve had, for me it speaks volumes to her. I don’t know if it says anything about me, but about her, she’s special.”

Cook’s performance on Saturday night was also undoubtedly special. The class of 32 starters boiled down to a two horse jump-off: Cook and Kalinka versus Kent Farrington and Orafina. Both pairs were in top form this week. Farrington logged a win with Orafina in Friday’s CWD CSI5* 1.50m.

MLSJ / Atalya Boytner Photography
MLSJ / Atalya Boytner Photography

First to return for the Alan Wade designed short course, Farrington laid down an aggressive track, stopping the clock at 35.27 seconds. Gutsy piloting by Cook managed to shave off four tenths of a second off to cross the timers in 34.84.

“I’m never that arrogant to think I’ve done enough,” said Farrington of going first in a jump off. “You do this sport a long time and you can always be beat. So you never think that. I think in a two-horse jump off, it’s always a little bit of strategy. Going first, you have to go fast enough to put pressure on somebody else that they have to beat you.”

The only pressure Cook felt though was what he put on himself.

“People always see it as pressure but it’s not when you go last because you know what you have to do…I’m not riding against Kent or whoever when I’m riding last, It’s just I know exactly what I need to do. I know I can do those turns. I know I can approach those fences that way. And so it’s just doing it instead of thinking about those outside constructs,” said Cook.

“[Karl] had an incredible round. He rode great and he pulled off the win,” concurred Farrington.

The rider who didn’t jump off but still took bronze on the podium was Tiffany Foster (CAN) aboard 11-year-old gelding Hamilton.

Farrington, however, didn’t close the evening without a win of his own. The second place finish awarded him enough points to take the title of MLSJ individual season champion title. His final tally was a whopping 93 points. Cook finished second in the individual championship with 79 points while his Helios teammate Ashlee Bond (ISR) finished third on 73 points.

MLSJ / Atalya Boytner Photography

There is something to be said about the horses Farrington and Cook ride to have finished first and second in the overall ranking. Orafina and Kalinka are both hot, strong and opinionated mares.

Related reading: Orafina Has Opinions and She’s Not Afraid to Share Them

If there was anyone who could help Cook carve the masterpiece from the marble it was his trainer, Olympic medalist and World Champion Eric Navet (FRA).

“[Eric and I] started working together in 2012 and I really knew nothing when we started. I remember it took me two months to canter a pole correctly, and over the past ten years he’s put in a lot of hard work because I’m not the easiest to work with,” said Cook.

“Everything I think about horses has come from him. So it’s all through his who he is as a horseman that’s brought me here,” said Cook.

Related reading: How Eric Navet Helped Karl Cook Find the Missing Piece

A 10-year partnership between a rider and trainer is no small achievement, and Cook admits he’s “not always the easiest to work with.”

“I can be kind of intense, and that’s kind of hard to deal with sometimes. Sometimes I can maybe be a bit too black and white and too in my own head. And that can be difficult for people…I want to win and I want to push everyone around me to be the best they can,” he shared.

But just as Kalinka’s natural intensity can be admired, so can Cook’s. Both stem from an even stronger passion for the sport. And ones that will likely bring more Grand Prix wins in the future.

All images courtesy of MLSJ / Atalya Boytner Photography