Karl Cook couldn’t have had a much better trip to the Las Vegas National. He earned the top two spots in the $50,000 Fisker Automotive Grand Prix CSI-W, the feature class of the competition held Nov. 13-18, winning on Jonkheer Z and taking second on ASB Conquistador. To top it off, Cook took blue in the $30,000 Las Vegas Speed Classic on Notories Utopia.
Not bad considering that just six months ago, he nearly quit the sport.
Cook enjoyed a spectacular career as a young rider. He helped Zone 10 clinch gold at the FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships twice, and he stood on top of the individual young rider podium as well in 2007. Since then he’s become a consistent winner on the West Coast amateur and grand prix circuits. But this spring, things started backsliding.
Cook traveled east and competed in the USEF Olympic Selection Trials during the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) where he put in a series of subpar performances, and when he returned to California, he couldn’t get back in the groove. He was riding badly, his horses weren’t at their best, and he just couldn’t seem to find clear rounds, no matter how high the jumps stood.
The tipping point came when he picked up 16 faults on Jonkheer Z in a 1.40-meter grand prix in May that the Zangersheide, in Cook’s words, “should have been able to walk around with one eye closed and two and a half legs.”
Cook felt dejected and knew he needed a radical change. He considered hanging up his hard hat, but he just couldn’t imagine a life outside horses.
“It sounds silly, but I didn’t know how to do anything else,” admitted Cook, 21. “I really didn’t want to go to school, so it was either that and be very unhappy, or really get after riding.”
Cook chose the latter, and he set about rebuilding his program from the ground up. That meant leaving his longtime trainers Butch and Lu Thomas and pairing up with Eric Navet of France. It was a tough change, as Cook had been training with the Willow Tree Farm team for 12 years, and his mother, Signe Ostby, had ridden with them since the 1980s.
“It was difficult to get Eric to agree to work with me—not because of any financial reason, but because he only does things if he really wants to and enjoys it,” said Cook. “But we get along really well. We’re both quiet and go about our own business, and we have a good understanding of how things work.”
Cook spent the summer out of the show ring, shipping three horses to Normandy, France, to work with Navet. He had to convince Navet he was up for the challenge of living in an isolated area without knowing any French, but Cook knew it would be the perfect distraction-free environment where he could reconstruct his entire system.
“I needed to change a lot quickly,” he said. “When Eric and I started, he asked what I wanted to work on, and I told him we need to work on everything. I have a big record for my age, but we need to go back to basics, all the way down. We completely changed my riding style, completely changed my approach, completely changed my program.”
Cook swapped from riding in half seat to a more vertical position, changed his hand position, shortened his stirrups, put less weight in his heels and revamped his body position over the fences—a major difficulty, as he’s struggled for years with back issues. He rides all his mounts, save his two longtime rides, Uno De Laubry and Notories Utopia, in his new style.
“People asked me how I did it,” he said. “Where I was earlier this year, it was either change quickly, or I wasn’t going to ride anymore. I was open to learn and change, which made it possible. You can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to change. I had to redo all my muscle memory.”
At first, the radical revamp had Cook feeling like a beginner all over again. If he focused too much on his leg, his shoulders would tip forward. If he concentrated on his own position he would lose sight of what the horse was doing. Cook’s still getting more comfortable with his new seat, and he reminds himself about his form with plenty of focus and keeping a virtual tape recorder of Navet in his head.
Time in the tack was just one part of the radical change. Cook also had to work on his horsemanship in the barn. Previously, he hadn’t been intimately involved with the daily maintenance of his mounts, but Navet encouraged him to reconsider his approach. Cook started working with Philippe Benoit, DVM, redoubling his efforts to get his horses to peak condition and keep them there.
And Cook, who rides as an amateur, also took stock of his stable and realized he needed to re-evaluate how he and his family purchase horses.
“We’re trying to buy them for what they’re going to be used for: a second horse, a No. 1 horse, a speed horse. They all have a place and purpose,” he said.
Cook bought Jonkheer Z last year, and the stallion had been competing at the 1.45-meter and 1.50-meter level in Europe. But when Jonkhher Z landed stateside, he suffered an inguinal hernia, where his small intestine dropped into his scrotum and wrapped around one of his testicles. The Belgian Warmblood (Jetset-D—Ulderina van Westleven, Skippy II) spent an extra month in quarantine recovering from the surgery to remove the affected testicle. Despite the surgery, “Johnny” remains one of Cook’s more fertile stallions.
Since the revamp, Johnny has made great progress, putting in clear rounds in five of the seven World Cup qualifiers they’ve contested.
“When he’s paying attention and in good form, it feels like we’re jumping a children’s/adult class,” said Cook. “He’s not a fast horse—it’s kind of like steering a cruise ship. He’s quicker than that, but he spends a lot of time in the air.”
Now that Cook is back on track, he’s already looking ahead, hoping to qualify for this year’s Rolex FEI World Cup Finals in Gothenburg, Sweden.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing . The original version of "Karl Cook Rebuilds His Riding Style For A Vegas Win" ran in the Dec. 3, 2012, issue. Check out the table of contents  to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.