When Tina Cook decided her next dressage horse was going to be Iberian, she wasn’t sure if she’d be as competitive. But since climbing aboard P.R.E. stallion Carbonero XCVI six years ago, the Denton, North Carolina-based rider has had no shortage of blue ribbons.
“Honestly, I think it’s been easier with him than it was with my warmblood,” Cook said. “I knew before I bought him that there could be [bias] against a non-warmblood, but I really have not found that to be the case.”
This week the pair is headed to U.S. Dressage Finals, happening Nov. 10-13 in Lexington, Kentucky, for the fourth time after clinching the adult amateur fourth level championship title (66.66%) at the Great American Insurance Group/U.S. Dressage Federation Region 1 Championships last month in Lexington, Virginia.
Cook, 53, bought “Camo” (Berbenero B— Sermonera) from his breeders at Coves Darden Farm (South Carolina) when he was a freshly backed 3-year-old. Since then, she’s done most of the training on the stallion by herself at her farm, where he’s the lone horse living alongside about 100 head of beef cattle her husband raises. The solitary arrangement suits Camo’s personality.
“He’s more of a ‘me and him’ kind of guy. He likes being by ourselves; when we go in the ring, he’s awesome, because all of the other horses are gone,” said Cook.
She aims to work him five days a week at home and trail rides him on the weekends. “He loves to go trail riding,” she said. “And he’ll jump; it’s not something I regularly do, but he likes it. We do it maybe like once a month, just [to do] something different.”
Because she’s the only one regularly available to take care of Camo at home, her alarm clock is set to 4:30 a.m. more often than not. Outside of the barn, she runs her own dog-grooming business, Country Paws Grooming, and spends time with her grandchildren.
While she grew up riding in the hunter/jumpers, Cook became a dressage convert later in life. In her 30s she purchased her first dressage horse, a 2-year-old warmblood with 30 days under saddle. She produced Razzmatazz (Rolling Stone—Elan Vital, Aerobic) to the Grand Prix level before selling her in 2015, with the help of her trainer Stacey Hastings.
Since she’d already earned all of her USDF medals on Razzmatazz, Cook turned her eye toward the USDF freestyle bars with Camo. After placing eighth in the fourth level freestyle championship at regionals (67.98%), she added the silver bar to her collection. All of Cook’s freestyles have been designed by fellow North Carolina resident Hailey Guard, and this year’s “Blazing Saddles”-themed iteration was no exception.
“The other ones were rock-and-roll themed,” Cook said of her past freestyles, which included music from bands such as AC/DC, Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses. “Then she came up with this one, and I just love it. It kind of takes me back to when I was a kid, watching Westerns on Sunday.”
She and 9-year-old Camo take weekly lessons with Hastings, whose farm is an hour away in Ulla, North Carolina.
“She’s been my only trainer for 16 years probably. She’s always there. I love Stacy,” Cook said.
According to Hastings, Cook is the kind of client every professional dreams of having.
“She just cracks me up,” Hastings said. “She’s so talented; I mean, she just gets it. She figures things out, and she has so much feel. It’s so easy to work with her. I know it sounds silly, but most people you have to explain a lot of theory to, and [they have] a lot of questions. But the less you explain things, the better off she is.”
This ability has served Cook well, especially in climbing the levels. Even when learning new upper-level movements, such as the half-pass, she never needed any hand-holding.
“Instead of getting too technical, I was just like, ‘So you know your leg yield? Just bend him the other way.’ And she was like, ‘OK.’ And then she went home for a week or so, came back, and she could do a beautiful half-pass,” said Hastings. “I was just like, ‘Nobody but you would figure it out.’ ”
In 2019, Cook and Camo took home three championship titles—first level adult amateur, first level freestyle, and second level freestyle—at the Great American Insurance Group/U.S. Dressage Federation Region 3 Dressage Championships, held that year in Atlanta, Georgia.
Watch their winning second level freestyle from the 2019 GAIG/USDF Region 3 championships:
Their continued success comes as no surprise to Hastings.
“[Cook] is pretty ripped. I mean, we call her ‘bad nanny’ at the barn—she’s got muscles everywhere; she works out all the time, and she eats super healthy,” said Hastings. “She’s pretty intense but in the sweetest, non-scary way.”
Cook hopes to reach the FEI ring next year, and she’s looking to inspire the next generation of dressage riders.
“My [youngest] grandkid now, she’s gonna get [the horse bug] bad. She’s obsessed,” said Cook. “I tell Stacy, she and I [are] gonna be in canes and walkers teaching the little one how to ride.”