Growing up, Courtney Carson was serious about eventing. Between 2013 and 2016, she brought along a special off-the-track Thoroughbred from the beginner novice level to intermediate, and she never imagined not riding.
But over the last year she’s found a new passion—grooming. Carson’s been in charge of Doug and Jessica Payne’s large stable of eventers and show jumpers, and she admitted she doesn’t miss riding when she’s so busy.
And when she does have a chance to breathe, Carson enjoys cheering from the sidelines, especially for her favorite charge, Doug’s four-star horse Vandiver.
“She’s got an incredibly hard work ethic,” said Doug. “She was really quick to pick everything up, and she has initiative. Ninety-nine percent of the time she’s one or two steps ahead of us. It’s a great thing.”
Carson, 26, grew up riding in Pony Club in St. Louis, Mo., but when her parents divorced she moved with her mother to Illinois and ended up 15 minutes from Mark and Jill O’Donoghue’s farm.
After 15 years under their tutelage, she went on to work for and ride with Jan Byyny. Carson attended Hollins University (Va.) where she studied chemistry and mathematics, and thought about going to vet school but decided to try the equine industry.
While pursuing her riding, Carson also worked for former Karen and David O’Connor groom Sam Burton Henley and earned a second degree in journalism.
But then life hit, and Carson realized she’d need to find a way to earn money. Not wanting to pursue a job in “the real world,” she tried a stint grooming for show jumper Agatha D’Ambra. She’d found a good home for her horse and was ready for something “more fast paced.”
When Carson realized she enjoyed grooming, she contacted Doug and Jessica, who she’d met while working for Byyny, and asked if they needed help.
It was the perfect fit as the Payne’s have been pursuing more show jumping in the last few years along with their eventers.
“I spent a lot of time competing as an eventer, but I didn’t have a lot of experience show jumping,” said Carson. “I spent several weeks at the Vermont Summer Festival with Agatha, and going from a whole month of that to working for Doug and Jessica, I felt very prepared when I got here, and we turned around and went to Tryon [N.C.]. I didn’t feel completely overwhelmed.”
Carson’s now in charge of anywhere from 25 to 30 horses, about half jumpers and half eventers, and works alongside one full-time working student and two part-time working students.
A typical day starts at 6:30 a.m. with a collaborative effort to do stalls and chores. She often sets jumps for the Paynes, then while they teach in the afternoon she’ll catch up on other things like pulling manes, packing, organizing and going to the feed store before evening barn chores wrap up the day.
“I like to oversee the top horses, whether it’s Vandiver or the top show jumpers, depending on what they’re doing. I like to be the one to put my hands on them and tack them up in the morning.”
“We have a pretty good system right now with a really good group of girls that are on the ball and very helpful. I’m able to be successful because I have them to help me,” said Carson.
She takes pride in using some of the tips and tricks she learned working with D’Ambra to apply to the eventers and vice versa, especially with post-ride care.
“I treat my 1.20-meter horses like I would treat my advanced horses,” she said. “They’re all upper level athletes, so I’m a bit more thorough about icing and hand walking and wrapping, and grazing especially. I don’t see a lot of show jumpers grazing their horses. My horses love to eat!”
Carson enjoys the Paynes’ program, even if it means spending all week at a jumper show then attending an event the next weekend.
“It’s really cool the way Doug and Jess have their program. They like to get them as yearlings or 2-year-olds. They produce them up,” she said. “They go to jumper shows and events, then they kind of land in whichever category. We don’t label one as an event horse until it’s probably doing the intermediate. The same thing with the jumpers—until they step up and prove that they’re not going to be super brave on the cross-country or don’t have a talent for the flatwork. There are some that come in that are a bit more obvious.”
Doug said he appreciates Carson’s ability to adapt to ever-changing situations and her knowledge of upper level eventing. While the Paynes build their farm in North Carolina they’ve been splitting time between Jessica’s parents’ farm in Aiken, S.C., and renting Phillip Dutton’s winter base just down the street.
“[Having jumpers and eventers is] a bit of a headache at times, but the nice thing is that it never gets boring,” he said. “We have anywhere from 25 to 30 horses at a time, and there’s a lot of cycling through, but she was really quick to pick up what horses need what and what equipment they need or what little quirks each one might have. She’s very good with dealing with owners of the horses if they call up.”
Carson has a special relationship with Vandiver, or “Quinn,” a 13-year-old Trakehner gelding (Windfall—Visions Of Grandeur, Mystic Replica XX) owned by the Paynes and Debi Crowley.
“Vandiver is like my child. I spoil him to death,” she said. “I love all of them, and I do have others that are a bit pet favorites, but there’s just something about that horse. He does not have a mean bone in his body.”
Carson was excited to win a $1,000 grooms prize this winter at the $100,000 Land Rover Wellington Eventing Showcase (Fla.) when Doug and Quinn finished third. She saw it as a turning point in her career.
“That was incredible. I was completely shocked. It was incredibly generous of Caroline Moran to donate that for us,” she said. “It was incredible to be in Wellington to start with, and to have a horse that did well. I didn’t even know what to say! I just took the giant check and smiled. It’s such a great community. People kept coming up and congratulating me that I’d never seen in my life. It really brought me into the eventing family at that level. Especially since Wellington I made so many more friends that weekend. Now we go to events, and I talk to everyone up and down the barn row, and I don’t feel like such a novice groom.”