Conversations With Equestrians: Carleton Brooks

By Jackie McFarland

Dual Inspiration

In a conversation with Carleton Brooks regarding the horses he’s worked with over the years, I was fascinated with the sincerity of his connection and the methods that evolved from this union. The inspiration was two-sided: he was inspired by each horse’s innate desire to perform, and through innovative training, the horses were encouraged to enjoy being at the top of their game.

Carleton considers himself a producer, not a rider. He doesn’t just train; he channels the horse’s focus, bringing out the best in a horse by allowing them to do what they do best. His methods are inventive, inspired by the horses themselves, and by legendary horsemen from a variety of disciplines. “One of my favorite ways to allow a horse’s hind end to come up underneath him I learned from cutting horse trainers.” He wants the horse to guide him as to what works in their program.

“All my horses went in a snaffle, or occasionally a thick sweet metal twisted wire because they would like to balance on it. I also created my own bit by taking a piece of cotton rope, re-braiding it and attaching to two D-rings. They liked to suck on it.” He further explained, “I tried to feel what they were going through, to see it through their eyes. Once I did, I could figure them out.”

Carleton was often asked to work with horses that were refusing to jump, not performing to their potential. “I would spend days just trying to figure them out. Once we were on the same page, many of the horses became overachievers. They wanted to give and give.” After investing this time, Carleton would know what made the particular horse tick or not, and then gave as much breadth as possible for success.

As a horseman, “I didn’t dominate my horses – I allowed them. I allowed them to think. I was the guard rail, keeping them from going off the road.”

The Horses

We discussed the stories behind some of the horses in his rich history. The list is extensive – “Looking down five columns of horses over two pages (handwritten), I can tell you I learned something from each and every one of them.” Below is a small sampling of horse stories with more on his website.

This just in: Just for Fun, one of Carleton’s first conformation horses, will be inducted into The National Show Hunter Hall of Fame later this month!

Doubletake – The word is WOW. An amazing horse. Wise and extremely talented as well as subtly sensitive. He was a 2nd year horse out of the Northwest. I rode him in a warm up class and bought him. I competed on him at Indoors with a broken elbow. And later sold him to Eva Gonda.

Trinity – A 16h Thoroughbred, he was the little train that said ‘I think I can, I think I can… I know I can.’ He never ceased to amaze me. Who would have thought he would jump 3’9”, let alone 4’. Just kept firing. He won so much we gave him a year off showing.

Vested – Extremely intelligent Thoroughbred with an amazingly spectacular jump. He was one of the overachievers. We never schooled him in the warm-up ring. A bit quirky, you had to be a horseman to deal with him. Just incredible in the air.

Penn Square – This was a horse that could fill Vested’s stall (and shoes). Another that we never schooled, he went straight to the ring.

Both Vested and Penn Square communicated with me from a distance, they would look at me when I came around the corner of the barn. I spent hours riding these horses at the walk, just becoming a part of their team.

Calvin – When I purchased him he had a difficult lead change. I didn’t ride him until the horse show. We went to the back ring and jumped off a bank, and I asked him for a lead change. By teaching him to change his balance in the air via the bank jump, he was able to carry that over to changing leads across the ground. He didn’t have a problem after that. He was also a Thoroughbred and an overachiever.

Buccelatti – A Thoroughbred that had a mentally rebellious personality. The day before the winter circuit started I went out to the paddock and worked with him for 30 minutes on the ground. He was 3rd in his first two classes and then he started winning everything and never looked back. His warm-up was vertical-vertical combinations, maybe at 2’6” or 3’. Never a single jump.

Carleton Brooks photo © Cathrin Cammett.

Laura Listens

By Laura Ware

About a month ago, I wrote a really sad story about the death of my favorite horse of all time – Tustin. Fortunately, not all is lost, and though I have had to gain some patience and take a step down from the height at which I was previously competing, my parents were gracious enough to purchase me another jumper.

In the middle of April, my mother (who is also my trainer) and I traveled to Europe to find a promising young jumper prospect that, ideally, will eventually enable me to compete at the Grand Prix level. The trip was exhausting, fun, emotional, and a great mother-daughter bonding experience. Plus, I learned how to read a map really well – nothing like trying to find a hotel in a foreign country in the pitch dark to encourage the development of this skill! After what seemed like sitting on a zillion horses and driving every back road in Holland and Belgium, we were able to narrow our list down to three promising prospects – a five year old French gelding (Westin), a five year old German mare, and a seven year old Dutch mare. A multitude of traits caused us to choose Westin as our first pick. Even though he was a little younger than I had hoped for, he was ride-able, intelligent, and sweet…just like Tustin.

So with a clean vet check and one more test ride by the dealer (we had only tried him indoors, and wanted to make sure someone we trusted saw him jump around outdoors), we bought him. The two weeks between the time we arrived home from Europe and the time we wired the money seemed like an eternity, and he finally arrived in California during the first week of May. The day that my mom picked him up from the airport happened also to be my prom night, so I saw him for maybe five minutes before having to run off. Half of the people at our barn had already picked out his name before I even got to sit on him! Once he was mine, I absolutely fell in love with him. The first time I rode him at home, he acted wise beyond his years – didn’t spook at a single thing in our arena, essentially he behaved like a perfect gentleman. And he was super fun to ride!

After a few weeks of training him up a little bit at home, we took him to his first southern California show. We only did two Low Children’s Jumper classes and one Children’s Jumper class, but he jumped around the East Grass Field at the Oaks like he had been doing this forever. He’s such a game little horse. He’ll try anything I ask of him, even if I make a few mistakes. After a successful go at that height, we decided to start showing him in the Five Year Old Jumpers. What a great experience for me! Even though I’m not getting to jump as big as I had been with Tustin, being able to gallop around the Grand Prix field in my white breeches doing the Five Year Old Classics is every bit as thrilling as it was in the High Junior Jumper Classics. Warming up with and competing against Grand Prix riders on their young prospects makes me feel special, because, like them, I feel I’m now a good enough rider to train my own young horse. The “optimum time” classes are challenging – you really have to pay attention to the strides and turns the early horses in the class take, even more so than you would in a regular speed or Sec. 2B round. Learning to ride this type of class adds a new variable to my development as a rider and riding a smart, green horse like Westin is especially rewarding. I feel like every time I get on him he is more ride-able than he was before.

Now, I love Westin dearly and truly enjoy riding him, but I really wish he wasn’t mine. I wish I hadn’t made the trip to Europe last April to buy a horse, because that was a direct result of Tustin’s death. I wish I still had Tustin, who had already undergone the long and sometimes frustrating process of becoming a trained horse. Admittedly, if I had the option, I would prefer to be competing with my friends in the High Junior Jumper classes and chasing Prix Des States money rather than training a young horse during my last junior year. Every time Westin does something that isn’t absolutely perfect (lucky for me, this is rare), I end up comparing him to Tustin, and then I grumble “Well, Tustin never would have had that rail,” or, “I wouldn’t have made that mistake on Tustin,” which is unfortunate, because Westin doesn’t deserve this. He’s a fabulous horse.

A few weeks ago, after a Five Year Old class that didn’t go as well as I had hoped, I came out of the ring complaining to my mother about how Westin just didn’t match up to Tustin. One of my mom’s clients overheard this, looked right at me, and set me straight. “Laura, listen to yourself whining and moaning. I can remember hearing the same complaints two years ago about Parker (my hunter.) ‘Oh Parker won’t do this’ and ‘Oh Parker can’t do that’. Well look at him now, Laura, winning classes right and left. Westin will turn out just fine.” I am still a kid, often immature and impatient, but even I am old enough to know that her assessment is absolutely right.

After all, when I have my silly, little-girl dreams about becoming a Grand Prix rider, it is no longer Tustin who I am riding in these dreams. It is Westin.

Photo: Laura Ware and Westin © Cathrin Cammett