Adaptation Brings Out the Best in Caracole de la Roque for Karl Cook

U.S. Olympic Jumping Team short-listed rider Karl Cook used technology to fine-tune his training with Caracole de la Roque.

Intimidating is the word Karl Cook uses to describe a pivotal circumstance he found himself in at the end of the 2022 season.

In top equestrian sport, many, if not most, of the horses who reach the highest levels have often been purchased as younger horses, engaging in a specific rider’s program to bring out their best potential and to establish a strong partnership. The strength of a rider’s partnership with and trust from a horse is often directly attributed to the success they find—or not—in competition.

Cook is no different. Many of his top horses have come through his own program, sourced at the age of 10 or younger and given time to develop to the demands of grand prix and international competition.

So when he found himself with the opportunity to purchase a confirmed CSI5* horse (and winner), he didn’t actually feel as if he’d won the figurative horse lottery right away.

Karl Cook and Caracole de La Roque compete at the Rolex Grand Prix of Rome. | Sportfot

A World-Class Horse

“It was very scary,” he admits. The horse in consideration was Caracole de la Roque (Zandor Z x Pocahontas d’Amaury, by Kannan), a 2012 Selle Français mare who’d already collected multiple CSI5* victories. She made her World Championships debut (Herning, 2022) with French World Cup runner-up (2024) and European individual bronze medalist (2023) rider Julien Epaillard.

“Julien had already been so successful with her,” said Cook. “He’d taken her to Worlds, won multiple World Cup qualifiers with her. It was at that time arguably the second best horse in the world behind [Swedish double World Cup winner] King Edward. Julien is also very unique in his style. So it was, in all ways, extremely intimidating.

“At the end of the day, I had green lights all around, and it was my decision to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Cook continued. “And how often does a person buy a top horse like that and have it go well, at least at the same level? Sure, you might still buy the horse, but to actually do well, that’s a big question.”

And it wasn’t as if he was stepping into the irons on a horse without many of her own opinions. Caracole de la Roque has plenty of those, and Cook knew he would need to spend some time under the hood with the latest addition to his string.

Getting to Know Caracole de la Roque

Read or watch any interview Cook has ever done about the now-12-year-old mare by Zandor Z, and you’ll see frequent descriptions of her as a “dragon” or a “lit rocket”—enough to know that this was not a horse one could just toss a leg over and press play. Cook knew the only thing he could do was to try to meet the mare where she was.

“Everything was on the table [in terms of how to ride her well]. I had no illusions of the challenge because, for me, success would have been that I understand how to ride her, not that I could make her go my way. That was never my goal. A middle ground wasn’t even the goal. It wasn’t like we tried this or that and it failed so we found a middle ground. It was, ‘Let’s find what works.’ I will change as much as I need to and as much as I am capable of, and we’ll go from there.”

Certainly, there were some growing pains. After starting their first season together in Wellington, Cook tasted success early on, winning several grands prix and the 2023 American Gold Cup in Traverse City, Michigan. They punched their ticket to represent the U.S. in Santiago, Chile, for the Pan American Games.

Challenges in Chile

Things did not go to plan in Chile.

“For many reasons, that was the worst show of my life,” Cook recalled. “Everything had gone well [up to that point]; we were winning, and not by small margins. And then we go to Pan Ams and it’s an absolute dumpster fire. We at least jumped clear in the last round, but by all accounts, it was a horrible showing. She’s kind of that way: she’s so fiery and forward that you either win by eight seconds or it aggressively doesn’t work. There isn’t much of a middle there. It’s not like she has to rise to the occasion to go fast.”

Cook knew he had more yet to learn about the quirky mare. With her previous rider, the mare had gone in a hackamore. Cook had ridden her with one previously, but found that neither he nor the mare understood each other well. After Chile, he opted to put the hackamore back on.

Working on the Fundamentals

Cook emphasizes the fundamentals of flatwork at home with all of his horses, but Caracole is a horse that works on the flat more than most others. “The big thing with her is just trying to keep a consistent gait and a consistent track. That sounds elementary, and it is, but it is critical because she is so aggressive in her movement. If you say, turn left, you’ll be spun 360 degrees before you even know you asked for that. So you need stability to know what you have hinted at and the reaction that’s about to come. It’s elementary, but with horses like her, that is the whole thing.”

He cites polework as being the most useful exercise to do at home with this horse in particular. Specifically, Cook starts with a single pole on the ground and canters over it consistently and quietly before adding a second 20 meters away, then a third, and so on. “With a horse like Caracole, it’s easier to jump 1.60m than it is to canter a pole. But we needed to do poles. It’s not complicated; it’s not crazy; it’s super basic. Canter to the pole, canter the pole, canter away. And if I could do that, everything else was fine.”

Cook and Caracole de La Roque found success in 2024, such as winning the Rolex Grand Prix of Rome. | Sportfot

Fine-tuning With Technology

In addition, a piece of technology Cook has been quietly working to develop has, he says, immensely helped him with all of his horses in training at home. The tech, which he’s still putting the finishing touches on and has not decided whether or not he’ll offer it as a publicly-available product, enables “tension sensors” that give him near-immediate feedback on the amount of weight and pressure he’s exerting on the reins and into his stirrups during a ride.

“We’ve all gone for a round in the ring and your trainer says ‘you had that rail because you were too late to sit up’ or ‘you pulled too much with your left hand,’ et cetera,” Cook explains. “And both me and my trainer, Eric Navet, agreed that we felt we were pretty accurate, but I still wondered if there was more information we could be gathering. So I felt the lowest hanging fruit was, ‘how hard am I pulling at any given point?’”

In the end, Cook designed a prototype that would sync this data to a pair of earphones via an app. The technology offered tonal feedback based on his own unevenness in the saddle.

Cook laughingly describes the tech as “humbling,” often giving feedback he didn’t necessarily want to hear, but that was useful. “It’s been really interesting. What I thought it would tell me, it didn’t tell me, which is maybe the point,” he says. “You have your assumptions and you work toward those, as everyone does. But this is an objective confirmation in the moment, which is what I think is needed.”

Success in 2024

He credits this attention to detail as one thing that’s helped him earn more and more trust with Caracole. “It’s helped my riding immensely over the last few months,” he says of the sensor technology. “I had a general sense that I felt I didn’t know enough and I didn’t have the information I wanted. I wanted to be more sure.”

With these details as well as more time in a partnership, things began to swing upward in a big way.

In 2024, Cook and Caracole de la Roque won the CSIO5* 1.60m Rolex Grand Prix of Rome in May. The following month, they were second in the Rolex Grand Prix Ville de La Baule in France. Cook was named to the Short List for the U.S. Jumping Team ahead of Paris, with Caracole de la Roque and Kalinka Van’t Zorgvliet (Thunder van de Zuuthoeve x Goldfee Van’t Zorgvliet). Both mares are owned by Signe Ostby. The final selection of team members is yet to come in early July.

“The main goal was to do well in Rome and La Baule, and all I could do in my power was to jump well there,” Cook says when asked about the looming pressure of Olympic selection. “The U.S. team feels very strongly about what they feel is right for who’s going to the team, so all I could do is jump as well as possible. The two rails I had were not great. But it’s still two rails out of 120+ fences, out of eight rounds at 1.60m, so that is not bad. And after La Baule, we take some time to relax, try to come back to normal. We have time now to calm down and get ready for if the U.S. team feels that we’re the right selection.”

Looking to the Future

Even if Paris doesn’t happen this year, Cook knows he’s got more in the tank with both his mares. “I would be pushing nothing to get to the Olympics,” he said of Caracole. “It’s not like she’s 16 and she’s running on fumes. She’s full steam, she’s fit and strong and sound.”

Cook is, at the end of the day, simply proud. “I’m not proud of myself, I’m proud of the whole team,” he explains. “There are so many people who put this all together, between Eric and [team vet] Phillippe Benoit and Caracole’s groom [Tessa Falanga] and the managers—everyone. This is not just me in a ring, and I know everyone knows that, but even me—I was watching the Nations Cup in Rotterdam and you kind of get lost a bit watching just the horse and rider. And you forget all of the support that happens. It’s because of them that I’m here, and I’m so proud of them because without them, I wouldn’t be here.”

To read more about Karl Cook and his show jumping career, click here.

Thanks to Sentinel Horse Nutrition for our coverage of the 2024 Paris Olympics. It includes rider interviews, competition reports, horse spotlights, photos, videos and more.

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