Carleton Brooks: The Horse Comes First

Photo © Irene Elise Powlick


At Balmoral, “The horse comes first.” Carleton and Traci Brooks believe horses should be treated as individuals. There are no cookie cutter training scenarios at their Southern California farms. ”You look at everything through the horse’s eyes,” says Carleton. “Every situation is unique. Think out of the box. If something doesn’t work, try something else.”

Best known as “CB”, Carleton is one of the most respected and recognized horsemen in the industry. Spanning four decades, Carleton’s career includes coaching, judging, training, and conducting clinics. Last year, in a culmination of his life’s work, he was inducted by his peers into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame.

Carleton was only eight years old when his family moved to a 140-acre farm in Fort Wayne, Indiana. A mile from that farm was a large stable and show facility. When Carleton’s brother and sister began taking riding lessons at the stable, he at first remained at home playing with his toy trucks. Soon, curiosity got the best of him and he decided he wanted to join them in their weekly lessons. “Although it was difficult, and frustrating, I loved it. I was attracted to the challenge.” Carleton was immediately “all in.” He craved more time with horses, and was on a mission to learn “everything I possibly could.”

Recognizing that this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, Carleton, along with his brother Andy, purchased two aged school horses from a barn that were about to be sent off to the killers. Their investment? Twenty-five dollars. With no equipment or paddocks on their farm, they created their own, tying gates together to form a fence, and riding bareback with only a halter and lead rope. “We took our mom’s mop buckets to use for water buckets in the barn.”

Photo © Alden Corrigan

While Andy went on to other sports, Carleton spent his time at the barn, and “kept at it.” Soon he was showing at “leaky roof horse shows.”  His next horse was an upgrade, at $250. “I’ll Think About It” was a high-headed, hot Thoroughbred with a less than ideal jumping style. But, Carleton says, “You do the best job you can with every horse and they all have something to teach us.”  

The day Carleton turned 18, he became a professional. He left Indiana soon after, in his lime-green pickup truck (a graduation gift from his father) and he and Andy made the road trip to California.

Shortly after moving to California, CB was offered a job working for Butch and Lu Thomas at their Willow Tree Farm in Woodside, south of San Francisco.  Here they did it all, from breaking 60-80 horses a year for the racetrack to taking a string of 60 plus horses on the road and competing in everything from hunters to Grand Prix. At Willow Tree he was truck driver, horse trainer, and groom. 

“You did whatever needed to be done. Some days I just fixed the fence!” 

Carleton is grateful for the experience to learn all aspects of the horse business.

Considering himself a lifelong student, Carleton is an obsessive reader to this day. He was religious about The Chronicle of the Horse and Practical Horseman, where he learned about such icons as Rodney Jenkins, and the training methods they used. Today of course his favorite periodical is, “The Plaid Horse! I love the information, mixed with personal interest and positivity.”

Tom Dorrance is another horseman who had a huge impact on Carleton, “Tom was the one who really opened my eyes to becoming the horse and getting inside of its mind. I constantly ask myself ‘How would Tom approach this?’”

Carleton still gleans knowledge wherever he can, “Everyone teaches me something; other professionals, farriers, veterinarians, our chiropractor.”

Deja Blue. Photo © ESI

His time at Willow Tree prepared Carleton for opening his own Uphill Farm Inc., in Atherton, California. Working out of Uphill for 22 years, he trained horses like Center Stage, Just For Fun, Vested, Clay County, and Penn Square, to name a few.

He still remembers vividly the lessons learned from each horse. With both Vested  and Penn Square, Carleton did not jump a single jump in the warm-up area before going into the ring. With Clay County, Carleton used a driving rein. “He didn’t like you pulling on his mouth. But when I rode him with a driving rein, he was like butter. He had a special cotton rope which he wore to lead him to the ring because he could act silly. I would walk him to the schooling area, trot up and down, and then go right into the ring.”

Carleton met his wife Traci in 2001 at the Indio horse show. “She had just moved to California from Ohio. I knew of her, but that’s where we met.” Carleton immediately fell hard, but, “She made me pine for her for years until she finally married me.” He laughed, “Her wedding march, appropriately, was to ‘The Long and Winding Road’ by the Beatles.”

The happiness and success they’ve shared together certainly made it worth the wait. Together CB and Traci operate Balmoral from two locations, Malibu, and the west side of Los Angeles. Horses are shuttled back and forth between them in order to have access to spacious turnouts and relaxing trail time.

Photo © Jennifer Taylor

With the same love and respect for horses and appreciation for their owners, the two share training duties, and are known for their high standard of training and care, attention to detail, and matching horses and riders. A good example of this is hoof care. While everyone agrees that horses need to be shod on schedule, how many make sure that individual feet are shod on schedule? 

“They’re athletes that perform on four feet,” Carleton stresses. Carleton compares this to our own feet. “If you use insoles, and you crush one of those insoles, you buy a new set, you don’t keep wearing the one old one. And sometimes one foot grows more than another, so we’ll just shoe that foot.”

Within their systematic program, CB and Traci stress positivity in their training. If a rider comes out of a class with a less than ideal round, they don’t dwell on it. They use it as a learning opportunity. What did you do that didn’t work? How can we do it differently next time for a better outcome? Just as the horses are treated individually, so are the riders, “Everyone learns differently and we tailor our approach to what suits each rider. Some are visual learners; some just need bullet points. Some need a push; others need gentle encouragement. We try to make sure everyone feels prepared, comfortable, and safe.”

And they never take mistakes too seriously. In fact, Carleton says, if he’s on course and he realizes he’s going to chip, he starts laughing. And he hopes those watching laugh with him. “There’s too much pressure to be perfect in this sport,” he says, “And nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes.” 

CB defines a good horseman as “Someone who becomes the horse. They understand how a horse thinks, and reacts. Horses are extremely intelligent, but you have to lower yourself to where they are at that point, and then bring them back up. Together, as a team. You don’t make them do anything. You eliminate the options you don’t want them to take.”

Photo © Irene Elise Powlick

When asked which horse or horses have been his favorites, Carleton replied, “All of them. Every single one teaches me something; they all have something special.”

Asked for what advice he would give someone considering becoming a trainer, he replied (laughing), “Don’t.” 

Then he continues, “It’s important to get a business education, take psychology courses, and learn all you can about shoeing and veterinary care and biomechanics. When you think you know it all, you’re done.

“Think about the barn your horses live in. Would you want to spend a night where they are? How many people have ridden in the back of a horse trailer to see how it feels? And not just for a few minutes, but for hours?”

Carleton stresses daily discipline. “You create good habits with the horse. I never felt the riding was the most important part. I stress the horsemanship part.”

Teamwork is crucial. “You can only be successful if you have a great pyramid supporting you.” He and Traci are grateful to have an amazing support system, from head groom David Vega who has been with them for 27 years, to Miguel Escalante who runs the barn at home, and Holly Higgins who heads up the team of assistants.

“We couldn’t do this without them, our staff, farriers, vets, chiropractors, bookkeepers, braiders, the list goes on and on. Above all, we are so fortunate to have the most amazing, supportive clients who believe in us and our system.”

At Balmoral, any kind of progress is considered a success. A child or adult rider who completes their first course is on par with an experienced rider bringing home a championship from Indoors. They celebrate all the milestones, “Everyone’s goals and needs are different, and we are always mindful of that.”

Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography

He continued, “If you just walk away a better individual, then that’s a success. It’s not just competition. Riding is one of the best ways to learn life lessons.  Dealing with an animal that can’t speak (although Carleton says horses, “Do talk”—I agree) and doesn’t see things the way we see them and having to deal with that, helps them in all walks of life later. It provides so much value to families, learning how to lose and bounce back, dealing with adversity, using common sense and problem solving skills to deal with challenges and unexpected events, building confidence and independence. It really checks all the boxes.

“We have trained many (anxious) kids and adults and it’s so rewarding to know what this sport can do for them. Watching them thrive and really blossom into being confident is the biggest win of all.”

For those who are unable to ride at Balmoral, training advice through the recently launched Balmoral TV (, is available. Here you will find a wealth of informative videos. 

Some of the many honors Carleton has received in the sport include Leading Hunter Rider at The National Horse Show, four-time winner of the Pacific Horse Shows Association Don Tipton Award, and the Arthur B. Hawkins Award for Excellence in Horse Sport. He is a USEF ‘R’ judge who has officiated at shows such as The Washington International, Devon, The National Horse Show, International Derby Finals, and Junior Hunter Finals. He is also a three time recipient of the Sallie B. Wheeler Leading Handler Award.

Photo © AB

Carleton has come a long way since his bareback days on a $25 horse. But one thing has been a constant…his love of the horse.

Listen to Carleton Brooks on The Plaidcast.

About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years. She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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