‘Control Your Brain’: Karl Cook Has Some No-Nonsense Advice on Dealing With Show Ring Nerves

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arl Cook’s life has been a bit of a whirlwind lately. From developing young horses at his family’s Pomponio Ranch, rescuing bunnies, and oh yeah, marrying Kaley Cuoco and establishing their life together, the guy is a tad busy.

With so much to balance, we wouldn’t blame Karl for being stressed to the max, and yet, we never see him break under pressure or lose his cool. Kudos to you, Karl.

But we wonder, is he really as laid back in the saddle as he is on his IG stories? Surprisingly, yes. Sure, it might be something in the California air, or the fact that he looks like he might throw on a wetsuit and paddle out on a surfboard at any moment, but the reality is that Karl has learned over time just what to do when the jumps go up and the prize money gets heftier.

His method for staying cool under pressure are is simple as this: Karl looks at his rides through the most straightforward lens. “You have to be a reductionist and take it down to the most important thing,” he says. “It’s complicated enough as it is. We don’t need to make it more.”

We visited Karl and Kaley at Pomponio Ranch and, as you can imagine, we didn't want to leave!

So what are Karl’s secrets to staying Cali cool in and out of the saddle? We’ve got in the inside scoop.

Do What Works for You

Some people have superstitions, some have necessary routines, and some just like to nap. But for Karl? It’s business as usual, and that’s just the way he likes it. “The morning before a grand prix, it’s just normal,” he says. “I don’t really think about the class. I don’t worry or set expectations or anything.”

Though he acknowledges that some riders like to watch several rounds or beat the course to death with a mental stick, that’s not Karl’s preferred method of preparation.

Want to dive even deeper into mindset work? Take this Masterclass course and change your brain. 

“There are people that like to walk the course, go over the course a thousand times, keep going over the course, keep watching people go, and that’s great for them,” he says. “But for me, that doesn’t help. I need almost to have to remind myself of the course.”

Avoid System Overload

As riders, we have the tendency to try to plan ahead, right down to the most minute details. The truth is, though, that we can only remember so much, and trying to jam too much information into our noggins before heading into the ring doesn’t necessarily pay off.

Rather than go into system overdrive, Karl takes the simplified approach. “For me, if I’m walking every single step, every single possibility, and spending 40 minutes just going over everything, I end up forgetting everything,” he admits. “I boil it down a lot in my head.”

If a bending line is set with two different ‘options’ (either direct in six strides or out in seven), Karl doesn’t stress about the nitty gritty. “I will just remember six or seven,” he says. “I won’t go over all the little steps to do this one or that one. I think your brain can only handle so much.”

Keep Your Wits About You

Some days, we walk up to the show ring, get an eyeful of the big oxers or the tough rollbacks, and instantly begin to spiral (speaking from personal experience). Sound familiar? Karl has this this advice: “If you’re psyching yourself out, it’s all in your head,” he laughs.

Mind over matter — it's easier said than done! Make your mindset work for you, not against you.

As riders, our emotional state and body language — whether it be good, bad, or ugly — transfers directly to our mounts. “If you’re stressed out and you want your horse to be calm, you’re already missing the point,” Karl says. “Discipline has to go both ways. You also have to control your brain.”

Mind over matter. Right. Of course, things happen and competition nerves get the best of us, and Karl will be the first to admit that even he isn’t immune to that, but it’s how you regain composure that sets you apart from the pack. “Honestly, when you’re on course, you’re not thinking about all that stuff. You have to learn it so well that you forget it.”

So next time you head to the show ring, or gear up for a lesson at home, take a second to breathe, stay relaxed, and embrace your inner Karl Cook.

Read this next: 'Why does my horse ___?' Tik Maynard Takes on Masterclass Members' Horse Behavior Questions

Photos by Anasofia Vazquez for NoelleFloyd.com.

Written by Kate Kosnoff

Kate Kosnoff is an equestrian journalist, blogger and photographer. When she isn’t working, Kate can usually be found sipping green tea, scrolling through Twitter, or petting her horses—sometimes a combination of the three. She is based in Indiana and can often be spotted in jumper rings across the Midwest and Florida aboard her strawberry roan, Waffle.