Carol Metcalf is a competitor to be reckoned with. In the male-dominated reining horse industry, she’s inspired a generation of female competitors. Her knack for design has influenced many a Western wardrobe. But what drives this horsewoman to achieve her goals? Grit, talent, and a positive attitude, to start. More than anything, her passion for horses makes even the long hours in the saddle worth it.
Becoming a Queen
Carol grew up in a residential area of Santa Maria, California, the daughter of architect Nick Carter and his wife, Nadine. When Carol was 4, her neighbors started taking riding lessons. Carol wanted to take lessons too—an interest that just never stopped.
Carol acquired her first horse—a little bay pony with a roached mane named Tinker Toy—at age 7. She showed the gelding in trail, pleasure, equitation, and other all-around events. Carol trained with horsewoman Vivian Carter—no relation—for nearly two decades, and counts her as one of her greatest influences.
A black mare named Johanna Bar was Carol’s introduction to stock horse classes—the precursor to reining—and on whom she competed during a golden era for West Coast horsemen.
“We would go to shows, and I’d get help from different people with my black mare,” Carol says. “I spent a lot of time watching, because this was the Bob Knudson, Les Vogt era. Wherever we went, they were there, showing in working cow horse. It was a great influence on me.”
Among Carol’s crowning achievements during those years was being named the 1977 Salinas (California) Rodeo Queen. She counts the accomplishment as one of her proudest moments, and she displays the buckle in a shadow box in her kitchen.
“It was a great experience,” Carol reflects. “I think the most fun part was that whole next year, going everywhere for parades and events. I got to ride in the [queen] car and wave, make appearances. It was big time.”
The Power Couple
At age 20, Carol went to work for renowned horse trainer Tim Whitney in Santa Barbara, California.
Trainer Steve Metcalf worked with some of Whitney’s horses over the years. He and Carol met on one of his trips down from Snohomish, Washington, to Whitney’s facility.
At the end of her yearlong contract with Whitney, Carol applied for a job working for Steve.
Jan Hay, an AQHA judge and trainer—who lives in Pinnacle, North Carolina, with husband Mike Hay, a fellow trainer—met Carol in California when she was working for Steve.
“She was like a real-life Barbie doll, but she had that very natural ability on a horse, even back then,” Hay says of her first impression of Carol. “Her personality has always been the same. She’s vivacious and she fills the room with her personality.”
It was five years before Steve and Carol’s working relationship added a romantic layer, and several more before the two got married.
“At that time, I was a workaholic, and she was the only one who could keep up,” Steve recalls. “The working relationship was very good, the personal part of it was very good, and that was just kind of the way it ended up. We were a good working team, and we had a lot of fun together. After nine years, we just decided it was time to get married.”
Steve and Carol trained horses in everything from halter to cow horse, including trail, hunt seat, Western pleasure, Western riding, and reining. A look around their Texas home reveals a plethora of trophies from both trainers’ wins. Some of Carol’s include five Western riding AQHA world championship trophies and two reserves. She was also reserve world champion in senior reining one year, and a finalist the previous year.
Building a Family
In 1990, Carter Metcalf was born, changing Steve and Carol’s lives completely. When Carter was little, Carol admits it was challenging to adjust to being a mom and a professional trainer. But the tyke was an integral part of their family routine—even at horse shows.
“We both agreed early on that we weren’t going to just leave Carter at home with a sitter every single weekend. If you ask him, we probably left him too much,” Carol says with a laugh, “but we did the best we could. I always made sure I had somebody who could come along to the shows and take care of him [while we were riding], like one of his aunts.”
Steve says despite Carol’s talent in the saddle, he’s most impressed with Carol’s devotion to her family. And expanding their family meant changes to the dynamic.
“Carol is absolutely dedicated to our son, and she always has been,” Steve says. “We realized working till 11 o’clock at night with a child was tough. And we felt it was pretty silly to have children and not enjoy them—watch them grow and mature.”
When Carter was growing up, the Metcalfs spent a lot of time traveling to Texas and Oklahoma for major competitions. With shows back-to-back, the couple often spent more than a month away from home, several times a year. While Carter did travel with Carol and Steve some of the time, the Metcalfs decided to move to North Texas in 1996, when Carter was about to start first grade. Setting up shop in Pilot Point was a big change for the West Coast couple, but one that reaped immediate benefits.
“Our business accelerated,” Carol says. “We brought 26 horses with us, and within three or four months, Steve had basically sold out his entire show string. We couldn’t even keep any inventory. Not just our own horses, but client horses, too. It’s been good—there’s so much [horse-related] traffic here. It’s a great deal.”
Steve says the move cut down on time away from home, and made it easier to bring Carter along to the horse shows without disrupting school and home life. Their extended horse family followed them to Texas, including Hay, who worked for the Metcalfs at their Texas ranch for six years.
“I feel like now, we’re family,” Hay says. “Working alongside Carol every day, we became a lot closer as friends, but we also had a very good working relationship as professionals. To this day, I can honestly say she’s my best friend.
“Carol is the kind of person that when you first meet her, you feel like you’ve always known her,” Hay continues. “She just opens her heart up to you. She’s very friendly and has a positive outlook that carries through in her horse training.”
In the late 1990s, Carol branched out in the horse industry, collaborating with the iconic Sargeant’s Western Wear. Always a fashionista, Carol learned at her mother’s knee how to sew her own show clothes and chaps. So her work with Cheryl Sargeant to create a clothing line, saddle pads, and saddles that appealed to Western show competitors came naturally. And Carol often starred in the company’s famous catalogs.
“We’ve always teased Carol that when she retires from training horses, which she never will, she’ll be a pillow- and chap-maker,” Steve jokes.
Over the years, clients, friends, and acquaintances have come to Carol for her advice on clothing and tack choices. And Steve says Carol had a knack for tailoring simple off-the-rack pieces with her own flair to make them show-ring stylish.
“All of a sudden, there would be a line of clothes out there in stores just like [her altered pieces], and a bunch of people showing would be wearing them,” Steve says. “I always told her that she could make more money starting a clothing line than what we’re doing now training horses. But she focuses so much on the riding, that she never really had an interest in slowing that down.”
As Western pleasure and all-around events evolved in the early 2000s, Carol was increasingly drawn to performance events, such as reining and cow horse.
“One of the biggest turning points in my career was when I decided to give up the all-around,” Carol shares. “I kind of do miss the Western riding. I was very successful in it. I knew going into the reining and cow horse that it would be harder for me to compete. But I’ve never regretted one day of it. It’s been great.”
Carter loved sports growing up, but he developed an interest in horses around age 11, and began showing at a higher level the next year. In 2004, Carol and 14-year-old Carter both showed a buckskin Quarter Horse gelding named Mr Mini Macho in cow horse events, leading them both to their first big wins in performance events. That year, Carol earned the reserve limited open bridle title, and Carter won the youth bridle event at the NRCHA World Show. For many years, the family of three rode, showed, and trained together. Now 27, Carter recently began working for performance horse trainer Chris Dawson.
“Carol is Carter’s No. 1 cheerleader, and they’re very tight,” Steve says. “The public sees her as a great showman and a great horsewoman, but in private, she is a great mother and wife.”
Reining and cow horse are still dominated by male trainers. But Carol has risen to the top and continued to succeed in these events. She says despite being one of the few women in the field, she doesn’t feel inferior.
“There’s good trainers and not-so-good trainers, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman,” Carol elaborates. “We all have to get good horses, and in the cow horse, good livestock.”
Hay recalls the 2004 NRHA Futurity, when Carol rode a mare named Whattaroyalprincess. The pair won the limited open finals, earned the reserve title in intermediate, and tied for sixth in the open finals, due to, ironically, a lead-change bobble. Of the top 50 open competitors in her division, Carol was one of only two women to even compete.
“At that time, for a woman to place at that level, it was really unique,” Hay recalls. “What I felt sitting there in the stands was the commonality of everybody in the industry supporting her. Even the men who’d been competing at the top forever were cheering for her. It was a really cool experience. She has full respect of the guys, not only as a horse trainer, but as a person, and that helps her stand on a different platform. But she’s also just a really nice person. It’s very hard in this industry for a woman to get to the top, but if you were to ask any one of these guys, they would 110-percent be on her side to support her.”
Part of what makes Carol such a strong trainer is her aptitude for multiple events, particularly Western riding, but Hay says her success is also due to her positive personality.
“She never gives up; never quits,” Hay gushes. “She’s the most durable person I know. I think she’d be a great candidate for a survival reality show. She’d make the best of any situation.”
Hay says at horse shows, Carol is competitive, but not blind to others or win-at-all-costs.
“She’s intense, but she’s always considerate,” Hay says. “She’s dedicated and focused. She’ll prepare the horse to the best of its ability, but then she’ll go and show what she has—she doesn’t show differently than she practices.”
Carol and Steve work side-by-side in their business, each offering their own strengths. The couple shares the same training philosophy: You have to start with the mind, and train from the inside out. When asked about their different skill sets, Carol laughs and says Steve was “better at all of it.” But then she shares her special talent.
“Sometimes, I’ll spend a little more time on a horse, and I’d have to say I’m pretty good at the lead change,” she offers.
Steve says working together as professionals has been a huge asset to their business.
“We have a common respect for one another in our abilities, and we are each other’s eyes,” Steve says. “There’s a lot of strength in us being a pair, but we have to be totally honest with one another, whether it hurts a little bit or not. When we’re at the barn, we’re professionals.”
Carol has always been competitive. Even at home, she and Steve engage in little games to make their work interesting. She’s always looking to improve her performance.
“Sometimes we’ll be fencing reining horses, and if we take off at the same time, then it’s a race,” Carol says with a chuckle. “It’s not even training; just a race! I’ve always enjoyed competing. And I think that keeps me going. I think they’ll have to drag me out of the arena.”
Steve says the key to Carol’s success lies in her grittiness, as well as her outlook on life.
“She’s absolutely determined,” Steve says. “There is no quit in her. Regardless of the quality of the horse she’s on, she’s an exceptional horsewoman, and she loves to show. She’s full of energy, she sees everything in a positive light; she’s focused and determined.”
One constant in Carol’s horse life is her deep-seated affection for horses. She says this is really what keeps her going all these years.
“I’ve always had such a passion for horses; a pure love for them,” she affirms.
Hay says Carol is an inspiration because she’s chased her dreams, and found them.
“Carol is a person who set her sights as a child on being a horsewoman, and she’s worked toward her passion ever since,” Hay says. “How many people can say 50 years later, that they’re doing what they’ve always wanted to do and they’re successful at it? It’ll be a long time before she hangs up her hat—she’s going to stick with it as long as she can.”
When asked what advice she’d give riders inspired by her, Carol says success with horses comes down to being willing to work hard, despite the cost.
“You have to have more than a good work ethic; you have to be obsessed with it,” Carol asserts. “There just can’t be any doubts on where you’re going, or what you want to achieve.”
But Carol stresses that she didn’t climb the ranks without help.
“Since I’ve gotten serious about the reiners, I could list 20 people who’ve helped me along the way,” Carol says. “You have to check your ego and ask for help.”
Steve says Carol’s level of influence is due to her willingness to help others.
“She always sees the positive in people and situations—in training and in life,” Steve says. “Even though she strives for perfection, there’s very little negativity to Carol Metcalf, and that rubs off on people.”