Wednesday, Sep. 27, 2023

Marilyn Payne Teaches And Judges With A Competitor’s Perspective



When Marilyn Payne first saw video of a family friend’s sale horse in England, she reminded herself of her rule: The sensible horsewoman has more than 60 years of experience as a competitor, trainer and FEI judge, and with all her decades in horses, she knows not to buy a horse she hasn’t tried herself. 

But when she showed the video to her children, upper-level eventers Doug Payne and Holly Payne Caravella, they affirmed the feeling she got watching the Irish Sport Horse mare, Rock Me Mama. Marilyn had been having trouble finding a horse she could “have a great time with,” and the horse in the video looked, in a word, fun.

“I sent the video to Doug and Holly both, and they both said, ‘Mom, this looks like a really nice horse,’ ” Marilyn said. 

With encouragement from her children, the veteran rider broke her rule and bought “Mama” sight unseen. Luckily, the mare that arrived at Applewood Farm, the training facility she runs with her husband Richard Payne in Califon, New Jersey, did not disappoint. 

And at the recent 2023 USEA American Eventing Championships in Lexington, Kentucky, Marilyn had her intuition about the young horse on the video validated once again—this time in the mare’s performance in the novice horse championship division. True to Marilyn’s first impression, 7-year-old Mama proved to be a capable horse under the pressures of the Kentucky Horse Park’s big atmosphere, earning sixth place in a field of 42. And more to the point, the pair had a blast. 

Marilyn Payne rode Rock Me Mama to a sixth place in the novice horse championship division at the 2023 USEA American Eventing Championships in Lexington, KY. Kristin Lee For Erin Gilmore Photo

The Family That Rides Together

When Marilyn sets up her calendar each year, she builds her training, showing and judging schedule around the events that are her favorite to compete in. Early this year, she left a gap in her schedule for Aug. 29-Sept. 3, using the rare blank space in her full 2023 calendar as motivation to qualify for the AEC. 

“In my world, I always have to have a goal, and my goal was to make the AECs this year,” she said. “I have to say the AECs are just amazing. When you’re there as a competitor, you see these people around you, and everyone is so excited.”


Part of the AEC’s appeal for Marilyn is that the championships are also a family affair. She knew her son Doug would likely bring horses from his barn in North Carolina. The riding family is competitive with each other “in a fun way.” (She still laughs about the time she, Holly and Doug went into cross-country in a three-way tie on their dressage scores.)

While innately competitive, the family also supports each other. Doug often coaches Marilyn at shows, and while Holly is taking a break from competing, she also helped her mother prepare for this year’s AEC. Holly lives only a few miles from Applewood Farm, and gives Marilyn jumping lessons every few weeks. 

“She’s a really great teacher,” Marilyn said. “She’s really focused on just riding the rhythm, having your position correct and not overriding. Just looking up and riding the horse—don’t ride the individual fences.”  

Marilyn’s lessons on Mama often end with Holly’s 2.5-year-old daughter, Harper, joining her grandmother in the saddle to “steer” the horse during their cool down. Back at Marilyn’s house, her granddaughter has her own rocking horse that she has dubbed “Rock Me Mama.” Perhaps inheriting some of her family’s competitive spirit, Marilyn says the toddler insists on holding a show ribbon as she rides her wooden horse.  

FEI 4* Eventing and USEF “S” Dressage Judge Marilyn Payne has officiated some of the biggest competitions in the world, and often at the Kentucky Horse Park, but her chief role at last year’s Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day was horse mom, cheering for son Doug Payne and Quantum Leap, who finished third. Kimberly Loushin Photo

Wearing Many Hats 

While Marilyn laid the groundwork for Mama to have a successful week at her first big event, the veteran rider was reminded there’s no way to truly prepare a horse for the championships’ electric atmosphere. As she tacked up Mama for cross-country, she noticed all the people, golf carts and tents that could prove to be distractions for the sometimes “looky” young mare. But Marilyn worked with her horse’s excitement to channel her energy into a competitive edge. 

“That’s what’s so good about it,” Marilyn said. “You go someplace like that, and then you’re not worried about going anywhere.”

Marilyn was personally excited about giving her mare the growth experience of handling the AEC. But as a horsewoman who cares deeply about the sport, she was also enthusiastic about what the championships represent for so many of her fellow competitors. 


“It means so much to them, from beginner novice on,” she said. “They just look forward to it, and they’re so in awe that they’re there in Kentucky. It’s unbelievable.”

Marilyn also found herself in that place of awe, especially when it came to riding through The Hollow, a famous fixture in the annual Kentucky CCI5*-L. Being a judge, she says she is often on the ground watching rides that make her itch to get into the saddle, herself.

“It’s just so much fun to ride somewhere where you’ve been so many times, watching all these fabulous horses and riders,” she said. 

Marilyn found the energy so contagious that she was inspired to volunteer for the event once she arrived. However the volunteer spots were so popular, they didn’t have any openings. 

“I mean, the first thing out of everyone’s mouth is, ‘Oh, I’ve got to come next year. I’ve got to make a plan so I can qualify for next year,’ ” she said. “It’s such a big deal. I can’t tell you enough how much everyone appreciates that the USEA does it, and all the thousands of volunteers that helped out.”

Now that the AEC is over, Marilyn has resumed her busy schedule. She and Mama plan to compete in the Colonel Bengt Ljungquist Memorial Championships (New Jersey) in October, performing a dressage freestyle to the mare’s namesake song, Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.” She’ll also put on her judge’s hat and will be working at back-to-back events that have her traveling between California and North Carolina.

For the longtime rider, coach and judge, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She says that wearing many hats actually stokes her energy for the sport (not to mention that she has a dependable farm manager in her husband, Richard). Marilyn believes that being a judge, trainer and competitor makes her better in each role. Transitioning from her week at AEC back into the judges’ stand, she knows she’ll have a fresh perspective on the riders’ experience. That renewed compassion doesn’t lower her standards for judging, but allows her to see her comments to riders as a form of teaching. 

“By riding and by judging, you get more insight into teaching,” she reflected. “And by teaching you get insight into judging; you understand what the riders are going through. You’re more empathetic.” 




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