By Catie Staszak
Portraits by Kristin Lee
On a Monday afternoon in the desert, there isn’t much going on at HITS Coachella to resemble the atmosphere of the horse show’s Indio, California, namesake. The loudspeakers are silent, the rings are empty and the most commotion one is likely to encounter is from the sand blown in by the strong wind tunnels that form beneath the Santa Rosa mountain range.
But Carleton Brooks doesn’t miss a Monday at the eight-week horse show circuit. While others are enjoying a well-deserved day off following a long week of showing, Carleton, who, along with his wife, Traci, runs Balmoral Farm in west Los Angeles and Malibu, California, is capitalizing on the opportunity to observe his horses in a quiet setting.
He watches, and more importantly, he listens, noting the tiniest of details. He mentally records the way his horses stand and move in their stalls — which leg is forward, which hind leg rests and which way they turn around. Throughout the circuit, he rotates his horses’ stalls so that they aren’t always leading with the same leg while eating, and he outfits every stall with a manger placed on the ground so that the horses eat more naturally and inhale less dust.
“The horse has to bend over to eat the hay, encouraging him to bring his hind end underneath him, bring his back up and bend his head and neck while he chews,” Carleton explained. “Isn’t that what we ask them to do [when we ask for shape] when we’re riding?”
Carleton, 60, and referred to by many as simply “CB,” is one of the most respected and recognized horsemen in the country — and he takes the title of “horseman” quite seriously. Operating Uphill Farm, Inc. in Atherton, California, out of the Menlo Circus Club for more than two decades before joining forces with Traci in the early years of the new millennium, he has trained four recipients of U.S. Equestrian Horse of the Year titles and 17 Champions at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, Washington International Horse Show, and National Horse Show, where he has been named the competition’s leading hunter rider. He’s also an “R” judge and popular clinician; many top professionals from across the country also reach out to him for advice, coaching or training for horses determined to be difficult to figure out.
“I don’t know that there are problem horses — just horses that are not completely understood,” Carleton said.
To talk with Carleton is to speak to a figure straight out of a novel — nearly every sentence to come out of his mouth is philosophically quoteable and worthy of being recorded in a book. Perhaps it’s because he, too, is writing down anything of note that he hears. For the past 30 years, he’s been taking notes of valuable tidbits he’s heard or learned from other professionals in the industry. He’s kept all of them. The majority is boxed up in his home, but he keeps his notes from the past year with him while he’s on the road.
“Carleton is always studying,” Traci said. “If someone says something, he writes it down. He studies other sports — how they train and what they say. He’s always looking for a tidbit of knowledge. He reads a lot about coaching and teamwork. The book that [college football coach] Urban Meyer wrote, ‘Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Season,’ is one of his favorite books.”
“I never go without pen and paper,” Brooks said. “If you write it down, you remember it. After they ride, I have [my students] write down the things that we touched upon that day or what they learned and what they have to do next. The handwritten word is very powerful.”
“Becoming the Horse”
Carleton’s horsemanship is deeply rooted, as he started out riding two horses bound for the slaughterhouse with his siblings in cornfields they cleared and plowed themselves near their Indiana home. Carleton credits that time for teaching him responsibility, work ethic and how to properly care for animals, at a young age. Eventually, he showed on the East Coast in the summers while he was in high school, and when he turned 18, he rebuilt a horse trailer from the frame up, loaded up his horse and drove with his brother Andy to California. To this day, he prefers to drive his own rig to cross-country horse shows like indoors and coordinates Traci’s and his shipping company, Uphill.
Carleton focuses his training methods on understanding horses and treating each as a unique individual. His program is the antithesis of “cookie cutter,” and he never forces a horse to do anything. More telling, he is not afraid to fail.
“It’s all about structure. You have to become the horse,” Carleton explained. “I have a philosophy of failing nine out of 10 times. Most of the time, I don’t fail 10 times before I figure it out. I used to laugh if I failed two or three times. I used to go, ‘That’s three down, that’s four down … I’m getting closer!’”
Carleton has used some unique methods to bring out the best in his horses. Neither Vested, the 1992 First Year Green Working Hunter Champion at Harrisburg, nor Penn Square, a top Regular Working Hunter, jumped in the schooling ring before showing. Clay County, a top ribbon getter at both Harrisburg and Capital Challenge, had to be ridden in a driving rein.
“Clay County didn’t like you pulling on his mouth. I rode him with a driving rein and he was butter,” Carleton recalled. “He had a special rope that he wore to the ring, which I got out of reading a book about a man who trained vicious and cruel horses using completely humane methods. I took him to the ring in that, trotted him up and down [the schooling ring], and then put him in the ring.”
“He’s a genius.” said Lexi Wedemeyer, Carleton’s assistant and rider. “I’ve worked with a lot of people, and there’s no one I’ve worked with that can think like a horse and put himself in that situation more than Carleton does. It’s amazing to work with him like that. Every day, I learn 10 things.”
The Professional’s Professional
Carleton is kept busy with the day-to-day ongoings of Balmoral. Traci does the teaching at their West Los Angeles facility, while Carleton works with and develops horses at a newer Malibu facility, which the couple has worked out of for two years. The horses often rotate between facilities so that they can receive ample turnout on the sprawling Malibu property, where the barn and the riding ring boast an ocean view.
While he doesn’t show anymore, Carleton is still riding regularly and teaching riders of varying levels, and on any given day at Thermal, you can find Carleton anywhere from the pony ring to the grand prix arena, educating his own students as well as other professionals.
“Over the last 10 years, he’s started to become more in demand for other professionals,” Traci said. “It started out where he’d help them in the schooling ring and give them pointers. Now, whenever somebody can’t quite fully get something, everyone says, ‘Ask Carleton.’”
“Anytime I have any questions or need help at a jump, especially if Mom and Dad aren’t around to help me, he’s the first one there to lend a hand or bounce an idea off of,” said Olympic veteran Guy Thomas, who grew up under the watchful eye of Carleton while the horseman spent a time working for his parents, Butch and Lu Thomas. “He’s 100 percent about everything. If he’s going to help you, he’s going to give it his best shot.”
“Carleton taught me to think outside of the box,” said Mandy Porter, a three-time World Cup Finals veteran. “Each horse is an individual, and what works for each can definitely be unconventional.”
When amateur rider John Zambrano saw the success his partner, top hunter professional Peter Lombardo, was having at indoors with Carleton’s help, he wanted to work with him, too.
“I swear, he can speak to the horses in their language,” said John, who is also bound for the indoor hunter championships this fall. “The first time I worked with him was 2013, and he was helping me with a green horse. She was a little horse, and I’m a big, tall person, so there was a lot involved with balance and upper body control. Carleton put it all together so nicely in the way he explained it. I ended up champion that weekend. Ever since, he and I just clicked working together. I feel lucky to be able to work with somebody like him.”
“At indoors or a very big show, he helps me and my horse get ready from the ground, and it’s been really helpful,” said Peter, who rode to two championship titles and a reserve championship at the 2013 National Horse Show while receiving help from Carleton. “I do everything myself, and it’s such a luxury to have somebody like that helping you. My whole career, I’d have to ask the groom, ‘How did that look?’ To have somebody like that on the ground has been especially helpful.”
By the number of calls Carleton receives daily, it’s become increasingly apparent that his skill set is rare, his methods a throwback to another era.
“In our business today, the true horsemen are becoming fewer and farther between,” Mandy said. “A lot of people don’t understand the depth of his knowledge.”
Photos by Kristin Lee Photography, www.kristinleephotography.com, unless noted otherwise