Every time we swing a leg over the saddle we know — in the deep corners of our minds — that things can go very wrong at any given moment. Yet in a daily act of bravery for the sport we love and trust in the horses who act as our teammates, we push those thoughts aside and press on. With that, the bonds we form with our horses grow deeper.
When it does go wrong — an inevitable reality of our sport — it’s easy to retreat into a silent world of shame and embarrassment, especially if there’s a horse injury involved, and attempt to work through those emotions alone. But in an enormous act of vulnerability and openness, American show jumper Karl Cook spoke candidly about a horrific accident that took place while he was riding at the Upperville Colt & Horse Show in Upperville, Virginia, this past weekend. Before you read on, please know that both Karl and the horse involved escaped largely unharmed:
“People who don’t ride horses or have never been around horses may not get what I’m about to say, but just bear with me. Yesterday was maybe one of the worst days that I’ve had in my life riding horses,” Karl began on his Instagram stories.
“My first round [at Upperville on Saturday] on my horse E'special P.S. was super. I think we would’ve been top three but second to last fence I tried to leave a stride out, it didn’t work; we chipped and the fence came down. We circled and jumped it."
However, he explains how his day took a terrifying turn for the worst during the warm up on his next ride — a new mount for him, Kalinka Van’t Zorgvliet. “Jumping a 3’6” oxer, she took off a stride early,” he explained. Karl was flung off but immediately knew he was fine. He wasn’t sure about “Kali,” though.
“As I was falling, I could hear my grooms and my trainer yell in shock. And when I turned around my horse was on the ground. She didn’t get up,” he said through tears. “She didn’t get up for a while. I thought she broke her neck; she was laying there shaking. Even now it’s so difficult — it’s so hard because you sit there as a rider, and you rode that horse. You picked that distance, that was your choice. And now your horse is laying on the ground shaking. The horse ambulance pulls up and people are talking about euthanizing. It was the worst experience.
“In this case, she ended up getting up. I think she was so much in shock, she needed a chance to breathe. But she got up. My vet was there and we spent hours and hours going over her, X-raying, ultrasounding, doing all sorts of things. She’ll continue to do more tests tomorrow. But honestly she’s fine — she tore her bicep. We took off 10 to 12 feet early and she landed directly on her shoulder. But she’ll be fine. Four weeks, six weeks, she’ll be fine.
“But her laying there, just shaking. I think it was the worst experience I’ve ever had with horses because it was my fault, it was no one else’s. She tried, and it was my fault.”
Karl explained that the mare will stay a few days in Virginia for a few more tests with his veterinarian before flying home to Karl’s farm in California.
In the midst of recounting the accident, Karl reflected on what drives him to be a better horseman and rider — and his answer was far from typical: “What drives me to be better and learn more and continue to improve is shame … I want to get better not because I want to win every jump-off or want to be clear every time, but because I never want to have that feeling. I never want to make a mistake. I never want anything to be bad for the horses because they’re innocent. I can’t live with myself if I know I could’ve been better.”
Karl’s tearful, honest testimony makes us wonder if there is an unnecessary silence around accidents like the one he experienced. Are we talking about them often enough, or is there a sense of secrecy that places a veil over the uglier, but nonetheless real, moments in the sport? Would a more open dialogue allow riders to feel more at ease opening up about their emotional state in a risky sport like ours? Perhaps some of that shame and fear of failure might dissipate and help riders find support when they need it most.
Kudos to Karl for speaking so openly, and may it empower other riders to do the same.
Feature photo by Anasofia Vazquez for NoelleFloyd.com.