Karl Cook on How to Fix Our Horse Shows

Karl Cook & Caillou 24. Photo © Natalie Suto Photography

TRANSCRIBED BY ELYSE SCHENK

“Horse shows are absurdly expensive.”

“It’s almost impossible to win enough prize money to pay off a week of horse showing.”

“We have an embarrassing lack of Grand Prix spectators.”

Who else is tired of hearing these complaints? Not because they aren’t true; not because they aren’t real issues, but because they’re restated endlessly without any proposed remedies (classifying them as mere complaints, as complaining rarely accompanies specific solutions). Such complaining fuels bitterness and resentment. This counterproductive attitude is a burden for any serious sport.

Yet, finally we’re presented with refreshingly tangible ideas from World Cup show jumper, Karl Cook. On Wednesday, Cook took to Instagram to air out his issues with the horse show industry. Cook’s recently popular Instagram stories feature entertaining monologues on horseback, usually reviewing his personal performances or offering his insightful opinions on various topics. Here’s what he had to say about progress in the industry from his Instagram account @mrtankcook:

“I want to talk about all of the problems with our horse shows, and just a couple of my personal thoughts on how to fix [them]. I’m not saying my ideas are right or would work. I’m just saying they’re my ideas,” Karl begins, humbly. 

“[Horse shows] are very expensive, and you compete for prize money on the jumper side and some of the hunters. Last week I showed in a $25,000 Grand Prix … It’s quite a common dollar amount for prize money. But I remember seeing newspaper ads for shows in the 80s and they were advertising $25,000 and $30,000 Grand Prixs. So you would think ‘oh, well, we’re at about the same level as the 80s’. 

We actually aren’t … Because of inflation, $25,000 in 1980 is $83,000 today.”

Cook explains, pointing out the failure of horse shows to keep up with inflation rates.

“Imagine if … the lowest that USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) would allow you to have for Grand Prix prize money were $83,000. Horse show managers would riot at that! But that just shows you how much we’ve regressed. Keeping the same prize money is regression. You have to keep up with inflation so the value of the prize money is the same.”

Cook addresses the prize money issue, then continues to offer an actual solution.

“When I look around at other sports, I see ATP tennis, PGA golf, bull riding … cornhole on ESPN, darts on ESPN, and all of the governing bodies (such as the PGA) actually bring in the biggest title sponsors. That then helps out the events. And the events also bring on sponsors themselves.”

Sponsorships finance higher quality events, in turn attracting more sponsors, thereby generating a positive feedback loop of industry growth and recognition.

Karl Cook & Caillou 24. Photo © Natalie Suto Photography

“The USEF does not [recruit title sponsors]. For World Cup qualifiers, Longines sponsors that, but that was brought in by FEI, not USEF. So our governing body does not support the horse shows like literally every other sport does. You have title sponsors for the NFL.. [It’s] not the teams coming up with Coca Cola as a sponsor, that’s the NFL signing the contract. That’s the NFL signing the rights for ESPN to broadcast their stuff, not the team. The teams are in communication, sure, but it’s the NFL, the governing body [in charge]. And ours doesn’t do that.”

Unlike the NFL, USEF leaves the sponsorship responsibility to the individual competitors.

“My theory is that USEF does not do that because they make enough money charging us for membership fees, and other fees that they collect, and they’re happy with that … There is not an incentive for them to push harder– to try to get sponsors, to try to grow the sport that much because they’re fine.”

Cook reasonably assumes, pointing out the seemingly backwards funding set up. 

“That’s not an issue with the president of USEF or the various committees, it’s an issue with everyone. It’s an issue with the horse show organizers, with the athletes that are not pushing it.

“My main point is that USEF should support our sport not just by accepting membership fees and testing our horses’ blood for nefarious stuff. They should also be supporting our sport by finding title sponsors to sponsor series. That then helps out shows, which helps out athletes, which helps out show organizers… then having more spectators then helps out USEF. If it works for every other sport, it would work for ours.

Second, our horse show organizers have a thing called the mileage rule where another horse show organizer is not allowed to hold another show within 250 or 300 miles from one that is approved of the USEF. So that creates a monopoly for that show organizer. Any argument in support of the mileage rule is an argument in support of monopolies, which in regular economics has been proved to be not great for the consumer in all cases. John Rockefeller of Standard Oil would be happy with these arguments for why the mileage rule helps the sport. It doesn’t.”  

The mileage rule enforced by USEF states only one rated horse show may exist at the same time within 100 to 250 miles. The mileage rule acts as a shield for managers from other local competition. Competitors then have fewer options for where they’re able to show, thus starving the horse show managers of the incentive to host safe, most efficiently-run, affordable, and entertaining horse shows.

“I could sort of get behind the mileage rule if USEF raised the standards of the show. If your show keeps up with these standards, you can keep your [mileage rule] protection. If you don’t, you can’t. Back to the first thing I said, I think at minimum, the horse show should have to keep up with inflation for that week of showing. If they have a show in the last week of July, that week of showing next year has to have prize money at minimum go up the same amount as inflation, so we’re competing for at minimum the same value of money. I think it should be higher than that because you need to push the sport to go forward, not stay the same, and definitely not to go backwards. [With] the prize money [continually adjusted], I think the quality of the surfaces, the quality of the jumps, how well they do bringing in sponsors and spectators will push our sport forward. If you’re going to grant a show a monopoly, you’ve got to expect them to deliver. If they don’t deliver, they shouldn’t have protection. That seems pretty easy. I think that makes sense to everyone else.

I think if you… push this sport to be more out there, more mainstream, more people are going to watch and maybe some of the uglier sides of our sport might get shown. People equate it to racing, (which it’s not, it’s significantly better than racing). I think there’s also a subconscious thing in a lot of people who don’t want the sport to get too big because that would mean they’d have to have a lot of hard conversations.”

Cook suspects that some competitors would rather avoid media attention that could potentially expose unsavory, or possible abusive, training tactics.

“I look at [that perspective] and say [nonsense], let’s just make ourselves better for the sake of being better. Let’s make it so there’s nothing we’re ashamed of. Let’s use our care for the horses as an asset, like in car racing, you could bemoan having to spend money to make the cars safer, or you could sell that and say ‘look how much effort we put in to make these cars as safe for the drivers as humanly possible’. They use that as an asset for the sport. Why can’t we do that? We could show how [well] we treat these horses and we could use that as an asset that helps our sport just like in car racing.”

Cook goes on to inspire riders more broadly.

Caillou 24 ridden by Karl Cook

“I think also athletes need to get better. It’s all well and good for me [to speak] about how USEF is really not doing very much to push our sport forward and how the show managers get too sweet of a deal with the mileage rule … that’d be unfair… without talking about the athletes. 

“We need to get better. Not just get better because I want to win every time I go in the ring, but also get better so our horses have a longer, happier career– that they retire better, that it takes less effort to keep the horses going, so that we’re more accurate in all of our care and work with the horses. 

“Riders can’t just sit back. We have to work. We have to work to refine what we do. We can’t say ‘oh I’ve done it this way for 30 years so I’m going to keep doing it that way. No sport or industry [ever says] ‘this engine worked in a Formula 1 car 30 years ago so I’m going to use the same one’. That doesn’t work. You’ve got to push the boundaries. You’ve got to use what works, build on it, and every now and again you’ve got to reevaluate what you thought was the best way to do something, and make it better.

“I say the riders have a responsibility, the show managers have a responsibility, and USEF has a responsibility to promote our sport. We pay them tons of money in membership fees [I think] for two reasons. One, to police the sport so that it dissuades the bad actors, and if someone acts poorly, that there is a mechanism for them to have repercussions for that. 

Second … is to promote the sport. USEF has a responsibility to promote the sport, not just for the rider, or the owner, or the fan, but for USEF as well. The NFL makes more money from sponsors than it would from membership fees. 

“It has to work. It works in every other field so it would work in ours. We just have to have the drive and the desire to push it there. We … don’t even have to be creative because the model for it is already out there. We just have to have the people with the desire to push our sport there, to make our sport bigger, to bring it to more people, to make it more applicable and to show it off. It’s such a great sport, yet so many people are scared to show it off. 

There’s cornhole on ESPN! Come on guys. I mean, I love cornhole as much as anyone but come on! If those sports can get on ESPN, then there is no reason why show jumping can’t be broadcast every weekend that there’s something important going on. 

The USEF has a duty to help make that happen. The riders have a duty to work every day to put on a show when they go in the ring to show there’s a media to sell. Horse show managers have a duty to keep pushing the boundaries at every event, not just for the riders, but for their own sake, because when they do that, they’ll make more money. When you bring in sponsors like that, it helps the event. I think we can do so much better.”