Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023

Behind The Stall Door With: Starr Witness


Starr Witness (Chello III—Carmen, Veneur) began her competitive career as a show hunter with Emil Spadone and has been an eventer for less than two years, but this striking mare makes an impression everywhere she goes.

She won the CCI3*-S at The Fork (North Carolina) and the CCI3*-L at the Jersey Fresh International Three-Day Event (New Jersey) in 2019, and made her international debut at the Pan American Games (Peru) this summer, where she finished fourth individually and helped the U.S. team to eventing gold.  We caught up with Doug Payne and head groom Courtney Carson to learn more about this fiery mare. 

• Starr Witness, an 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood owned by Payne, Catherine Winter and Laurie McRee, was originally named Ghislane, but her first halter read “Gisele.” It wasn’t a fitting name in Payne’s eyes, but he did say that if she were to be a person, Starr Witness would be a supermodel like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s wife Gisele Bündchen.  

• She’s Gin around the barn, but it’s pronounced more like “Jen.” 

“That was kind of a compromise,” Payne said. “One owner names all of her horses after food, but the other owner doesn’t drink, so this works for everyone.” 


Call her what you will, but you can’t deny Starr Witness’ class and presence. Kieran Paulsen Photos

• Gin is extremely social. All of Payne’s horses get turned out alone, but can see their neighbors in adjacent pastures. She took exception to the stabling at Loch Moy Farm (Maryland) during the 2019 Maryland International Horse Trials because the walls were too tall for her to size up her temporary barn mates. 

“She was kind of pissed off here because generally in tent stabling she can put her head over the dividers to see who’s next to her,” Payne explained. “She was almost rearing trying to see over them.” 

• Payne and Gin might have more in common than Payne admits. 


“Her color is technically brown on her passport, but we call her the ‘ginja ninja,’ ” said Carson. “It’s funny because Doug is red-haired too, so maybe there’s some bond.” 

• Gin made a memorable first impression on Carson. 

“I was like, ‘What in the world have they shipped home with me?’ ” Carson said. “She was all legs, really big, her eyes were bugging out of her head, and she went every direction but straight. She took about a week to settle, and then she was all business. She’s just been great since then. She was never difficult, just kind of overwhelmed at first. She was like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ” 

• Gin is extremely food motivated, sometimes to a fault. Her favorite snack is Twizzler bites. 

“We were at [the Millbrook Horse Trials (New York)] last year and had a huge bag of Twizzlers because we’re obsessed with them,” Carson said. “I saw [Doug’s wife, Jessica Payne] like, eating two and then feeding one to the mare while she hung her head over the tack stall.”


Greatness needs fuel, and Starr Witness isn’t exactly picky about what that fuel is.

• She was on a very controlled treat diet ahead of the Pan American Games, and she was not happy about it. 

 “Normal horse treats only,” Carson insisted. “But she tried to eat a highlighter the other day because it was orange and near the carrots.”

• Carson thinks Gin simply wasn’t stimulated in the hunter ring. She seems to prefer the variety and challenge of eventing.


“She’s got a fan base, people recognize her whenever we go,” Carson said. “People will come up can say, ‘Doug, you’ve got some pretty nice horses but that mare…that mare is something else!’ ” 


What Starr Witness lacks in experience, she makes up for in heart and personality.

• Gin loves to go on hacks and trails, but you ride her at your own risk.

“When you ride her she’s better to be actively doing something,” Carson said. “When we trail ride her, she’ll spook at, like, a butterfly, and she’s so quick. You can’t drop the reins and hack on her because the moment you do she’ll see something and be gone. It’s never malicious, it’s just like, ‘OK, you slept on me for a second, see ya!’ She prefers a group.”

• Carson and Doug have the utmost confidence in Gin. In the weeks leading up to the Pan American Games, they tried to keep the routine as normal as possible. 

“You don’t want to make it a bigger deal than it is because they feed off us,” said Carson. “If we start tweaking them and watching the clock they’ll internalize it.” 


Starr Witness has one international championship under her belt but she isn’t planning to stop there.




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