Raised on the family ranch near Olton, Texas, Carl Nafzger showed an early interest in the sport of rodeo when he started riding bulls while still in high school. That interest continued after graduation and he eventually turned professional and began competing on the professional rodeo circuit as a bull rider. By the early 1960s, Carl had become one of America’s leading bull riders. In 1963, he was the third-ranked bull rider in the U.S. He qualified for and competed in the National Finals Rodeo three years in a row, from 1963 to 1965. His success as a bull rider has earned him membership in both the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and in the Professional Bull Riders’ Ring of Honor. By the late 1960s, Carl says he was smart enough to realize that a rodeo career could not be a long career. The physical toll of bull riding was such that most bull riders faced retirement by 40, if not sooner.
That realization set Carl to thinking about a career move. He had a sincere respect for animals and knew that he had a talent for working with them, whether those animals were bulls or horses. Cowboys who spent time on the road with Carl recall that even while bull riding he often told his buddies that one day he’d be training racehorses. In 1968, he took out his training license and began the process of learning all he could about the training and management of horses, which even included attending farriers school so he could shoe his own horses. He also married his wife Wanda in 1968, who is a very skilled horsewoman. In 1969, the couple spent time in Wyoming where Carl began his Thoroughbred career breaking and training horses for Polo Ranch. In 1970, Carl and Wanda, along with Carl’s brothers, made a trip to Keeneland in Kentucky. They pooled their resources and with $8,000 bought two yearling fillies. And with that, Carl’s racehorse training business officially began.
Carl’s last bull riding competition was in 1971 and he officially retired from bull riding in 1972 but by then he was already busy developing his new career as a racehorse trainer. Carl and Wanda spent most of the 1970s on the road traveling from racetrack to racetrack. It was much like the life Carl led as a bull rider traveling from rodeo to rodeo. And, like his rodeo career, Carl’s early racing career was filled with many ups and downs. Carl recalls times when the couple was so broke they could hardly come up with the money to get to the next race meet. But they never gave up and they used the adversities they faced as lessons to guide them along their path. Carl’s philosophy was simple — accept the adversities, reflect on them, learn from them and then move on. It proved to be the right approach to life. In the early 1980s, their racehorse training business took off.
Carl’s career earnings have now totaled more than $52 million. He has developed a long list of leading horses, among them Banshee Breeze (winner of five Grade 1 races and the three-year-old filly champ in 1998) and two Kentucky Derby winners — Street Sense in 2007 and Unbridled in 1990. Unbridled also won the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year. Carl’s first winner was Pretty Li’l Bessie, at Santa Fe Downs where he also won his first stakes race with Speedy Karen in the La Fiesta Derby. Carl has also won the Travers and Alabama twice each and had victories in the Florida Derby, Coaching Club American Oaks, Go for Wand, Apple Blossom, Super Derby, Arlington Classic and Jim Dandy, among others.
Carl’s success as a racehorse trainer earned him the Eclipse Award Winner for Outstanding Trainer in 1990 and in 2008, he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. Carl continues to train some racehorses, but more recently, he has turned his attention to writing. He published his first book in 1994 on training Thoroughbred race horses — Traits of a Winner: The Formula for Developing Thoroughbred Racehorses.
Carl’s latest book is Why – Discovering Your Essence is Important for a Life of Meaning. In this latest book, he shares the results of his lifelong quest to understand the true meaning of success and how to achieve it. Carl’s road to finding meaning in his own life was a bumpy one that had extreme highs but also many lows that made him question not only his life, but life in general. As a young cowboy on the rodeo circuit, Carl read everything he could that might help him find answers to his many questions about life, most all of which began with the word “why.” He started his life as a Christian, rejected it and eventually found his way back to God. In Why Carl explains how he found success and peace in life and how others can do so too.