Sensible, Self-Reliant and Still in the Saddle

At age 73, Marilyn Payne has officiated at two Olympics, raised an Olympian and recently achieved a long-held dream of competing at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Out of bed at 5 a.m., Marilyn Payne heads straight to the barn, making sure everything is in order. Then she cleans seven stalls before starting to give lessons that can run as late as 8 p.m.

Competing in the 2021 USEA American Eventing Championships, Marilyn Payne and Double Entendre jump into the Head of the Lake at the Kentucky Horse Park. 
© Shannon Brinkman

For decades, that structured regimen has been the same whenever she’s at her Applewood Farm in Hunterdon County, New Jersey.

Explaining why she is so dedicated to the early morning part of her process, Payne explained, “It’s an automatic routine. You get all that done and you feel really good. You accomplished something already.” 

Even at age 73, this grandmother’s energy and fascination with horses has never dimmed. She and her husband, Dick, have passed that on to the next generation. Their son, Doug Payne, was the highest-placed U.S. eventer at the Olympics last year, finishing 16th in Tokyo. Daughter Holly Payne Caravella also is an accomplished eventer and professional trainer.

The Payne family at home in 2012. From left: Doug, Dick, Marilyn and Holly
© Nancy Jaffer

Payne’s equestrian involvement began at age 12. She often would peddle her bicycle for an hour to get to Union County’s Watchung Stable in New Jersey, where she took lessons. With six children in the family, her parents didn’t have time to drive Marilyn to the horses she loved, so she found her own way.

Such self-reliance and discipline were key traits that paved her path to becoming a prominent eventing judge who has officiated at two Olympics. She’s also an important figure in development of the sport and a respected teacher and a competitor—at an age when many of her septuagenarian peers confine their riding to the ring, if they are in the saddle at all. 

Officiating at the horse inspection during the 2008 Olympics, Payne worked with Germany’s Martin Plewa (left) and Switzerland’s Christian Landolt.
© Nancy Jaffer

“I don’t think of her as a person in her 70s,” said U.S. Eventing Association President Max Corcoran. “She’s one of those ageless persons. When she’s around, you just feel like, ‘Oh good, Marilyn’s here.’”

Payne’s schedule doesn’t leave time for frivolity. “She’s on it all the time. She seldom turns it off,” Doug commented.

Her resume and no-nonsense manner might intimidate some, but as Holly pointed out, to those who really know her, she’s “an iron marshmallow, one of the nicest, most caring people.”

That is reflected in her efforts to mentor other judges.

Marilyn Payne with a young Doug and Holly
Courtesy, Marilyn Payne

“She’s the best at what she does that the U.S. produced,” said former U.S. Equestrian Federation President David O’Connor, chair of the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) eventing committee and an individual Olympic gold medalist in the discipline. “Not only did she have her career, but she spent a huge bunch of time educating what the next generation of judges is going to be.”

Payne has judged all the world’s five-star events, with the exception of the new fixture at Fair Hill, Maryland, last October. She last judged at the Olympics in 2016, and she turned down another go at the Games in Tokyo because of the possibility that Doug might make the team (even though at the time, she thought it was a “slim chance”) so she wouldn’t have a conflict. And because of the possibility that her children will be competing at future Olympics, she won’t officiate at another Games. “I would rather have them go to the Olympics than me judge it,” she noted.

Still in the Saddle

It’s easy to characterize Marilyn as eminently sensible, an approach that applies to her riding as well. She’s aware that extra care and caution in the saddle are important for anyone getting up in years.

After stepping back from competing, she thought about starting again when returning from an event with Doug and Holly. Hearing how much fun they’d had, she decided to join them and in 2007, began riding a Westfalen who had been used primarily as a broodmare.

“Her name was Gamine, but I renamed her Safe Harbor (after a firm offering life insurance), since she was the perfect horse to come back with,” Payne recalled.

Although Payne has moved on since then, she emphasizes, “I don’t do anything where I’m afraid I’m going to get hurt. I don’t ride the young horses or compete at the upper levels.”

Payne, who participates at Training level, also has entered Modified events with her reliable mount, Double Entendre, better known as Pun. She has ridden at Intermediate I in dressage and is known for her clinics on how to deal with the new dressage tests every time they are revised.

Marilyn Payne celebrates finishing the 2021 AECs with a fifth-place Training level ribbon.
© Shannon Brinkman

She realized a long-held ambition in 2021 when she entered Pun in the USEA American Eventing Championships at the Kentucky Horse Park, coming home with a fifth-place Training level ribbon.

Usually low-key in her conversations, she rhapsodizes when she talks about her experience at the park. “My one goal was to ride at Kentucky. When I was younger and competing, there wasn’t even a Kentucky. Back in those days, you didn’t travel like we do now. You waited all winter and then did some events in the spring. I did Essex [New Jersey] and Ledyard [Massachusetts], Radnor [Pennsylvania]—only events relatively nearby. You didn’t go south for the winter.”

At Kentucky last summer, she enthused, “I was so excited to be able to gallop cross-country. We had a combination at the Hollow,” one of the best-known obstacles in the park’s five-star Land Rover event.

“It was the same questions they would ask, obviously much smaller. It was so cool to gallop on the cross-country course. I got to judge there and the kids had ridden there, but now I got to experience it myself,” Payne said. “I got to go in and out of the Head of the Lake. I had a blast.”

Asked how she would advise other seniors about deciding when it’s time to dismount for good, she replied, “When you stop having fun,” adding it’s important for riders to monitor their confidence level. “If you have fear, you can get hurt,” she pointed out.

No Interest in Retiring

When she first started judging all over the country, her husband asked her to search for a good place to retire as she visited various scenic locations. “I never found it,” she revealed as she sat before the fireplace in her charming home, set on 12 acres, with seven more acres leased from the farm next door.

Marilyn Payne in an undated photo
Courtesy, Marilyn Payne

“I never found a place I like so much as here, out in the country and 40 minutes from Newark Airport and direct flights,” she said.

But the real reason it didn’t happen likely is because she has no interest in retiring. The closest she has come to cutting back is giving lessons in half-hour increments, rather than for 45 minutes at a time. That was an alternative to turning down those who wanted lessons.

“I can’t do that. I really love helping people and if they really want help, I want to help them,” Payne. That’s a long-held viewpoint. At 21, she was the youngest Pony Club District Commissioner. She and her friend, Molly Peet, worked with the Spring Valley Pony Club in New Jersey.

It takes planning to fit even the shorter lessons into her schedule, what with training at least 10 different horses each week, judging, being a supportive grandmother and other commitments, such as chairing the U.S. Eventing Association’s Young Event Horse Committee.

How does she accomplish everything? The answer is simple: “I just keep moving. I never work out; I figure I’m always working out.” 

Her husband backs her up. Though Dick’s main interest is auto racing, Payne notes, “He’s great. He knows horses, he knows how to handle them. If there’s a horse that’s sick, he’ll help the vet, he’ll do whatever he has to do. If something breaks, everyone knows to call him.”

Payne didn’t travel when her children were young. “I judged local shows. I was determined that the mother should be home with the kids. I would teach when they were at school or they would be out there with me.” 

Passing on Self-Reliance

During her time in the sport, it has changed enormously. The horses of yesteryear primarily were off-the-track Thoroughbreds and “it wasn’t such a big business. One rider had maybe only a couple horses, even the top riders. There are more people making a living from eventing now. If you had the old format [with steeplechase and roads and tracks], it wouldn’t work because horses couldn’t run that often and it took a lot more time getting them ready because you had to get them fit.”

In today’s era of riding, however, “One thing that’s been lost is seat-of-the-pants riding. That’s why Boyd [Martin] is so good,” she observed. 

She recalled that Doug and Holly didn’t have fancy show horses when they were young. They used to ride their ponies bareback and jump all the cross-country fences on the property. They also had to make their own way financially, whether it was through dog walking, braiding or riding difficult horses, which carried on in the family tradition of self-reliance. “We gave them a college education and sold their horses to do that. They had nothing,” Payne said. 

“School was always high on the priority list,” Doug remembered. “If your grades were dropping off, the first thing that was going to get cut was riding. Everything we did beyond 18 was on our dime. It made for a tough couple of years, but frankly, I think it also laid a foundation that set us up for success as well.” 

He added, “In many ways not having a backstop was a strong driving force. We were very lucky in what we were able to learn by being around her and everybody. Certainly, that skill set gave us a massive advantage, but on the financial side, we didn’t have it. It was, ‘either you make it or you don’t. If you don’t, go find something else to do.’”

The siblings bought horses during college and trained them. When the horses were sold, each of them purchased a condominium with the proceeds. That was justification for the senior Paynes to know that “we did the right thing” in the way Doug and Holly were raised, according to Marilyn.

When teaching, Payne asks her students questions and encourages them to become thinking riders.
© Nancy Jaffer

Her philosophy when working with students, as it was with her children, is to “try to keep their independence … [so] they can ride without me,” since they will have to go out on cross-country by themselves.

When teaching, Payne said, “I’ll ask them what they think, how they think they should jump this fence. What can we do to make it better? I try to make them be the trainer. I tell them what the right answer might be, but I always try to get them to think about it first, so they become thinking riders. When you jump an awkward fence, you have to know what to do to get the next fence right. You’ve got to be able to recover and think on your own.”

Still Learning

Doug and Holly speak with her regularly; the advice on students or a horse flows both ways. Doug called daily from the Olympics on WhatsApp, and because COVID-19 restricted travel to Tokyo, Marilyn hosted a whole group watching the Olympic cross-country test on the livestream. She follows her children’s careers and her three grandchildren (Doug’s two and Holly’s one) on Facebook. It was through Facebook that she discovered Doug was in a show-jumping grand prix.

“He didn’t tell me,” she laughed.

Despite her expertise, Payne is still learning. “I always listen if someone I respect is teaching. I go to the USEF training sessions. You don’t always get an insight,” she pointed out, but at the very least, “there’s confirmation about what you know. The more things you hear from different people, the more tools you have in your toolbox, and then when you’re teaching, you use those same tools.” 

The sport itself also has been her teacher.

“You learn discipline, having goals and sticking to a plan. You learn about disappointment and how to deal with failure. I think that really helps. If something bad happens, you go to Plan B. You always have another plan.”

The challenge of it all keeps her refreshed and assures she will keep going.

“Why is she still at it?” asked Sally Ike, the USEF’s former managing director of licensed officials. Then Sally answered her own question: “Because she keeps her brain active with the judging and teaching. Her eye has always been very sharp and it remains sharp because she’s still at it. She’s collaborative. She listens to what everybody has to say and steers the conversation where it needs to go,”.

Citing everything she does, and still loves, Payne predicts happily, “I’ll never get burned out.”