By Tafra Donberger
Portraits by Lori Ovanessian
Show jumper Karl Cook isn’t one to expound on his talents as an equestrian. To discover who the introspective and thoughtful horseman is as an equestrian, Instagram would be a good place to start.
From his @mrtankcook Insta handle, Karl posts what he calls his “walking and talking” videos in which he does exactly that: walks (sometimes riding a horse) and talks about a topic he’s interested in. From analyzing a ride to discussing supplements or bits to how the work you do at home carries over to your performance at a show, Karl is a veritable treasure trove of information that he shares in a fun and relatable way.
“It does help me because I have to think about taking something that’s in my brain and putting words to it,” Karl explained. “In that process, I think you learn it better.”
He confesses he isn’t able to read or respond to all the comments, but if one scrolls through them, it’s clear that there are many who follow his posts and glean value and perspective from his viewpoints, particularly on his over-fences evaluations, where he’s talking specifically to the course and its challenges. “How often do you get to hear anyone go over their courses?” he said. “No one ever does that, tells you how they feel about the course.”
“Karl never takes anything at face value,” said Margeaux Day, horse show manager at Pomponio Ranch South, Karl’s training facility in San Diego, California. “For example, during his walk and talks he never chooses his winning rounds. He has a lot of rounds that are absolutely a pleasure to watch but he never settles for that. How Karl applies the ‘what you can do better’ is the what, when, how and why that contribute to his decisions in or out of the ring. He is constantly growing and evolving!”
His Early Career
Karl was introduced early to horses by his mother, Signe Ostby, an equestrian herself. She trained with Lu Thomas at Willow Tree Farm, where Karl learned to ride. He spent 12 years under their tutelage, then spent a summer in France training with Eric Navet. In France, Karl found there was a bigger focus on function rather than form, and it helped him to revamp his own riding styles in pursuit of being better.
His years in the discipline left him realizing that there was often a tendency to divert the blame from a bad ride or experience away from the rider, and for Karl, it just wasn’t working. “When I think about anything I do, I try to think about what I could have done better,” he said. If he’s addressing why a horse didn’t jump a fence clear, he keeps away from “he should have jumped clear” and instead asks, “Why didn’t the horse jump it clear?”
Karl’s processes when it comes to riding always involves seeing the trees for the forest.
“If the horse didn’t jump clear because the shoulder was tilted to the left, ask, ‘Why was it tilted?’” Karl continued. “Now we’ve gotten to ‘I didn’t turn it right,’ and the conversation has changed. As a rider, I need to go back home or on the flat the next day and work on how I can turn better so I have better orientation.”
“He doesn’t hesitate to break something down to basics to understand it,” Margeaux said. “In fact, he often breaks down the simplest ideas then uses those fundamental basics to regrow or change the idea completely. Sometimes it leaves me wondering why he goes through all the added effort, but it’s pretty amazing to see his ideas grow and blossom and translate into his rides.”
In another beyond-the-norm approach, Karl stresses that he aims to not set timeline goals.
Instead, Karl remains patient and balanced in an environment typically driven by the need to move on to the next big show or the next big height. “If you’re prepared and do a good job, it will happen,” he said. “Starting from that, when I’m preparing, I’m trying to work with a horse and figure out what they do well and how I can work with that.” If a horse isn’t collecting well, Karl will ask himself why, beginning with ensuring there are no soundness issues — breaking it all down into pieces to address the root of the problem before building the horse back up.
Passionate About His Horses
At the root of his processes, Karl’s deep compassion for his animals is what truly impresses those around him. “He’s the hardest working and most empathetic rider I’ve ever seen,” said his wife and fellow equestrian, Kaley Cuoco. “He always feels the horses’ needs come first, and everything else is secondary.”
Margeaux, who sees him every day at the barn involved from the feeding program to exercise regimens, agrees. “Karl is passionate and caring for all animals,” she said. “His horses are truly his partners in the ring. He’ll do whatever it takes to ensure his horses are well cared for, happy and healthy.”
Karl’s current show string includes a variety of characters. In November 2019, he took E’special P.S., a 2009 KWPN mare, to the Las Vegas National Horse Show and won the $25,000 “InIt2WinIt” Jumper Speed Stake. Affectionately known as Sissy, she’s called the barn’s Miss Congeniality. “She has the heart of a champion,” Margeaux said. “She will do whatever it takes to be the best partner to Karl in the ring.”
Then there’s the 2010 Hanoverian stallion Menelik. “Menelik is definitely his bro,’” Margeaux laughed. “I could see them hitting the gym together or hanging out at Karl’s favorite hangout for a beer.” Fecybelle, a 2010 KWPN mare, is called the queen, and finally, the 2007 Holsteiner gelding Caillou 24 is the oddball. “He’s very strong-willed and has his quirks,” Margeaux explained. “Karl does well to not try and change him, and he encourages Caillou’s oddball behavior.”
Life Beyond Horses
Though Karl truly loves his horses, out of the saddle he’s a multifaceted individual, willing to try his hand at anything. His hobbies currently include metal working and growing his own food, which he uses when cooking for himself and Kaley; he’s also developed his woodworking skills. These activities help clear his very active mind.
“I think it’s good for me to have something else to do mentally,” Karl said. “If you’re always obsessing over one thing, I think your brain gets tired and you get stuck, and nothing new really happens.”
Beyond those skills, Karl and Kaley are strong supporters of animal rescue and have a menagerie of animals, including miniature horses, goats and rabbits. They both love dogs; there are five dogs between the two of them. Karl’s bulldog, Tank, was the inspiration for his Instagram handle, and he rescued a pit bull named Blueberry, who’s become his constant companion.
Karl’s collective interests and hobbies, however, all tie back in to the horses in their own special ways. He met Kaley at a horse show; his hobbies help clear his mind so that he can focus on his horses and riding; his videos let him chat about the topics that he finds intriguing and worth dissecting — all of which revolve around the horse.
“I think working with horses is a bit like balancing a marble on a pane of glass,” Karl said. “You’ll never be able to stop moving that pane of glass, because the marble will always move. It keeps moving, it keeps evolving.” And that analogy perfectly explains how Karl is able to continually grow and evolve as a rider.
“In a sport that has so many ups and downs, he knows how to stay balanced and keep things even-keeled,” Kaley said. “I’m constantly impressed by him in every single way!”
Photos by Lori Ovanessian, simpleefocused.com