Practical Horseman Podcast Transcript: Doug Payne

Team USA eventer Doug Payne talks about his journey in the sport, his mentors, Jim Wofford and Annie Kursinki, and three of his horses who are qualified for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Below is a full transcript of the Practical Horseman Podcast with Doug Payne.

Doug Payne and Starr Witness at the 2021 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. © Sandra Oliynyk

Opening quote—Doug Payne: Not winning is my primary motivating factor. I think if [I] go in and make a mistake, it will drive me to work even harder at home to make sure that that mistake doesn’t happen again. We always think, with the horses, in their developmental process, if you make a mistake in your progression of learning and getting better, that’s no big deal at all. But, if [I] make the same mistake twice, that would totally kill me. But, if I’m making different mistakes, that is something that you can continue to learn and grow and be better from. It wouldn’t be something that you’re going to pout that you lose, it’ll just be something that you’re going to be up even earlier the next day working even harder to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

[Music fades in toward the end of Doug’s quote and then back out at the beginning of the introduction.]

Introduction—Julia Murphy: Welcome to the Practical Horseman Podcast, featuring conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts. The show is co-hosted by Practical Horseman editors, and our goal is to inform, educate and inspire. I’m Julia Murphy and this week’s episode is with U.S. eventer Doug Payne.

I’m excited to bring you this episode with Doug. I’m new to the world of eventing, as I grew up with a hunter/jumper background, so I learned a lot about Doug during our conversation for this podcast. I always knew Doug’s name—I think it’s hard not to with his long list of accomplishments, which we’ll talk about in a moment—but it was great to sit down and get to know him personally.

Doug shared his journey as a rider—coming from a horse family, it was hard not to get into the sport. Once he was in it, like many of us, there was no getting out. At one point, Doug says the sport is “a but like a drug,” which I think a lot of equestrians can relate to. He also talks about his mentors and the influential people and horses that have impacted his career, as well as how one of those mentors pushed him to get into show jumping, which is now 50% of his business.

When I spoke with Doug, he was preparing for the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, which he finished 12th at with Vandiver in the CCI5*-L. Doug will talk about Vandiver in a little while, but now that Kentucky is behind him, he’s looking towards the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Three of his mounts are qualified—he gives the inside scoop on all three of them as well.

You’ll also learn more about Doug’s training philosophy for both his horses and his students, plus the nifty tool he believes everyone should have in their riding arena. And, as you heard in the intro, Doug speaks about how mistakes motivate him to work even harder.

Before getting into the conversation, I’d like to thank the sponsor of this week’s podcast, Vita Flex Pro, and share their message: Welcome to Vita Flex, where performance is everything! Over the last 25-plus years Vita Flex has lived by their goal to provide innovative products specifically designed for the extreme requirements of high-caliber equine athletes. Trainers, owners and top riders demand the best and that’s why they rely on Vita Flex Pro products, because they deliver results. Every single product is backed by extensive research, testing and is formulated to help you achieve the ultimate in performance. Visit today to browse their selection of equine health supplements, antioxidants, joint supplements and more! That’s v-i-t-a Vita Flex Pro, the fine line between good and great.

Julia Murphy: Now, let’s jump into the conversation with Doug. So, how did you get interested in horses and riding?

[00:03:33] Doug Payne: I guess I was just very, very lucky to grow up in a horse family. My mom has judged now at two Olympics and the World [Equestrian] Games and every five-star in the world. So, it’s something that my sister and I, basically, just were exposed to early. There was certainly no pressure to ride, or you know … they honestly didn’t really care either way what we ended up doing. But, I think it’s the natural thing that you’re around [horses] all the time that you’re probably going to end up riding.

Julia Murphy: What is it about horses and the sport that’s kept you involved for so long?

[00:04:06] Doug Payne: You know, it’s funny. I grew up and obviously rode the entire time, but went to school—I have a degree in mechanical engineering—I really thought I’d be doing something outside of horses, and then maybe just riding recreationally. Very long story short, I had an opportunity out of college to give it a shot and haven’t really looked back since. I think what drives you is … in all honesty, it’s probably fear of failure. We didn’t really have any sort of backstop and our deal growing up—my sister and I both—when we turned 18, our parents would very generously pay for tuition, but anything outside of that was on us. So, not much of a backstop makes you pretty motivated to make it happen. I think that gets the ball rolling and then you have some success and then it’s a bit like a drug. I think you probably get addicted to [success] and that becomes the driving force. You just want to be there in the mix all the time.

Julia Murphy: Who are your mentors? What kind of people have influenced your writing over the years?

[00:05:11] Doug Payne: We were very lucky growing up. I think from the age of, I don’t know, 12 or 14, Jimmy Wofford was the coach for area two young riders. So, he would have played a huge influence early on. And, really, I’ve been in touch with him ever since. As I got going and was actively pursuing the professional life, as you will, I did ride a whole lot with Anne Kursinski. I would say she would be the second person or second stage there that played just a massive role in development and sort of opening [my] eyes to all aspects.

Although, at this point, our business [Payne Equestrian] is nearly 50/50 between eventing and jumping, I was not exposed to [show-jumping] more than what every other event person would have been growing up—the straight show-jumping. So [Anne] certainly opened my eyes to that being a potential feeder or aspect of our business life. And, I absolutely loved [show-jumping]. At this point, we have a really great group of both event horses and jumpers. You know, good riding is good riding and there’s something that can be learned from everyone in every discipline.

Julia Murphy: You just touched on it there for a second—you ride in the hunter/jumper world and you do eventing. Why do you like each discipline and what is the difference for you?

[00:06:39] Doug Payne: Growing up, I’ve ridden through Intermediate-1 [level] in dressage, I’ve got a silver medal there. We would probably go to one or two dressage shows, but just because our calendar is slammed right now [we’re not]. Eventing—that’s always been the lifeblood of it. I absolutely love cross country, so that’s definitely not going anywhere. We’ve had a development path for horses that we’ve just been successful with and very comfortable with. We try to buy a weanling a year that would be primarily bred to jump, but would have enough Thoroughbred that it could event. As they become 5 or 6 or so, we then tend to route them to wherever their preference might be. Actually, our top jumper right now, Quintessence—he’s jumped through CSI4* at this point—he’s 10-years-old and he actually evented all the way up through Preliminary-1 [level]. I think the basic training that would be offered for the younger horses … I think the wider the experience, the better they’re going to be, regardless of what they end up doing in the long-term.

Then on the jumping side, there’s certainly an aspect as you get in the bigger and bigger classes, the margin for error is smaller and smaller and the skillset that you learn there is directly applicable to eventing. In many ways, it’s actually super similar. It’s just a different group of horses, a different group of people on each weekend. But, like I said, good riding is good riding, and the horses, wherever their strong suit is, we will try to direct them in that way.

Julia Murphy: Sticking to eventing, what’s your favorite part of that discipline?

[00:08:29] Doug Payne: Favorite part of eventing for sure is cross-country. Without a doubt. I mean, that is the heart and soul of it, isn’t it? There’s nothing quite like it, especially once you’ve got a horse that you’ve had for a while and that you’ve got a really good relationship with … attacking a course is a lot of fun.

Julia Murphy: Can you talk some more about the most important or influential horses in your life, like who they are and what they were like and why exactly they were influential for you?

[00:08:58] Doug Payne: I guess the first one would be a horse called Running Order. He came to us as a 4-year-old and he ended up being my first then four-star, now five-star horse. We also went to Boekelo in Holland for the Nation’s Cup there with [Running Order]. He certainly exposed me to a whole different level than what I had been able to before. I’d ridden advanced before, but never on a really, legitimately, good horse that could be a total player at that top. Unfortunately, his owners did sell early. He was owned outright and then sold, so from that point forward, we’ve tried to go into partnership with almost every horse we have here. So, nearly all of them we have some ownership stake in. So, if they did someday … say an owner wanted to sell or whatever it might be, we have the ability, if we do have to sell, that we can roll those funds back into the next generation and keep the pipeline coming. So, Running Order’s sale absolutely changed our whole outlook on how we operate.

But, the next big horse after that was a horse called Crown Talisman. He went, again, from young horse all the way up through what would be a current four-star. He was sixth at Saumur, which is over in France. Then, he was sold and we owned half of him and it was one of those things that, the price was such that we absolutely couldn’t say no. [His sale] set a foundation, along with a number of other horses, to establish my wife Jess and I’s life going forward. We were able to buy the farm … it just changed our whole reality of how our life and how our trajectory might go. So, that was one of the things that was quite sad, but it opened up so many doors to us.

Then from there, now we’re very, very lucky. A horse called Vandiver has been with us for seven years. I’ve done a number of five-stars on him. Last time there was a five star, he was fifth place at [the 2019 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event]. And, he just recently won [The Fork at Tryon] four-star star last weekend. He would certainly be our strongest hope for Tokyo. We are lucky enough to have two others qualified right now. First of all, Quantum Leap, who we bought as a weanling. He is now up [in the levels] with the huge help of Susan Drillock. Oh—Debi Crowley owns Vandiver as well, don’t want to forget about her. But, Susan Drillock has owned a Quantum Leap with us for quite some time. He’s a 10-year-old and he’s stepped up to four-star, he’s going do his first five-star this spring at Kentucky. And then, Starr Witness would be the other high player right now. She’s owned by Lori McRee, Catherine Winter and myself. She was at the [Pan American Games]—she was fourth individually and team gold. So, that group is probably the best as far as event horses who are most impactful.

And then jumping, of course, Quintessence. Same thing—we got him as a 4-year-old. Jane Dudinsky owns him with us. He’s now jumped through four-star CSI and I would expect him to end up five-star sometime soon.

Julia Murphy: Can you talk some about the most important or favorable wins in your life?

[00:12:32] Doug Payne: I’m not so sure it ends up being one particular competition that stands out. I think the overarching thing that we have here going is that almost all these horses we’ve bought as weanlings, and so to see any of them succeed at whatever level they are, that actually is the most fun for me. I could get just as excited about a 5-year-old or a 6-year-old that’s winning at a prelim event as I would a horse winning a four-star.

I think if they’re really, truly successful wherever they are in their progression, that’s actually what excites me more. It’s not so much like I have to win, you know, Kentucky. Yeah, I would absolutely love to win Kentucky, for sure. But, it’s not the end all be all for sure.

Julia Murphy: And of course, in this sport, things don’t always go as planned and you don’t often win as much as you might like. How do you handle that? Like, how do you deal with that? If you’re disappointed at a show or something like that?

[00:13:33] Doug Payne: Not winning is my primary motivating factor. I think if [I] go in and make a mistake, it will drive me to work even harder at home to make sure that that mistake doesn’t happen again. We always think, with the horses, in their developmental process, if you make a mistake in your progression of learning and getting better, that’s no big deal at all. But, if [I] make the same mistake twice, that would totally kill me. But, if I’m making different mistakes, that is something that you can continue to learn and grow and be better from. It wouldn’t be something that you’re going to pout that you lose, it’ll just be something that you’re going to be up even earlier the next day working even harder to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

Julia Murphy: And do you ever get nervous and if you do, how do you handle your nerves?

[00:14:27] Doug Payne: For sure. I think if you’re not getting nervous, something’s seriously wrong. I think there’s an aspect of that nervous energy that is going to make you sharper and more focused and fine-tuned to allow your performance to be best. I would say, early on, I would have had more debilitating nerves. Like, you’d end up making mistakes because you’re nervous. I’m just very, very lucky. We’ve had an absolute ton of horses to be able to go show and compete and I think that’s the biggest thing that helped me along the way.

I was told at some point, you know, you’re at some big stage, wherever it might be, some big competition that seemed meaningful at the time, and if you’ve had the ability to develop the horse to that point, you’re going to be able to do that again and again. You’re not going to win every single time you go out. But, again, every time you do go out, if you do make a mistake, learn from that, make it better and come back again. [Being told that] was just a means for me, in some ways, to remove the significance of the one particular competition, knowing that I intend to be back there over and over indefinitely.

Julia Murphy: Do you have any routines before big competitions? Like say, Kentucky’s coming up or even the Olympics, are you thinking about that? Which I’m sure you are.

[00:15:50] Doug Payne: As far as routines … it’s kind of just the norm. We’re in a normal year. Pre-COVID, I think we were showing 45 weeks. We’re just glorified carnies, basically. We’re on the road all the time. In some ways, I operate best in a slightly chaotic schedule, just because there’s not a whole lot of time to think about one particular performance or one particular day. So no, I think it’s just trying to make the most of all the opportunities you have and just go with it from there.

Julia Murphy: And, moving on to training—what is your training philosophy?

[00:16:31] Doug Payne: I would say as far as training with the horses, I would try to give them as much time as possible, at all times, to figure out what’s being asked. I would really be tough on somebody if they were putting a ton of pressure on the horse to learn it really quickly or something like that. My goal is to expose them to a number of either exercises or training tools, whatever it might be, to help show them the best way to utilize their talents. Assuming that they’re giving a genuine try, I’ll give them as much time as I can. Generally speaking, if you go in a quiet way and they can figure it out, they actually progress pretty quickly.

Julia Murphy: And how would you describe your teaching style?

[00:17:20] Doug Payne: Probably quite similar to the horses. It’s my job if I’m instructing to show the riders how best to listen to their horses and how best to put their horses in a position that they can succeed in whatever it is they’re trying to accomplish.

Julia Murphy: Do you ever find that there’s one thing in particular that students typically need to work on?

[00:17:47] Doug Payne: On the flat I would say most people don’t ask enough as far as having enough energy. They often on the flat tend to ride too conservative. Almost trying not to make a mistake rather than confidently going all in for it. As far as jumping, I do a whole ton of small jumps that require a lot of agility and footwork exercises, that sort of thing. Because I think that there often is going to be a time that you feel as if all of a sudden you’re in trouble. You know, you’re in a spot, a tricky situation, the striding isn’t right. Maybe on a cross country thing, the horse slipped on the turn or whatever it might be. I want to have your get out of jail free that you can slow everything down and the horses will reliably be sharp on their feet and pop off the ground. I think often people end up on too long and strung out and running side of things that adjustment or the ability to adjust is lost. And, that’s often where people and horses get in trouble.

Julia Murphy: When you’re riding, do you have a favorite exercise for yourself and whatever that exercise may be, why do you think it’s important?

[00:19:03] Doug Payne: The biggest thing, if you can figure out a way to do it, is get a set of mirrors because you will have an absolutely free riding lesson every day. That has been, over the last sort of year and a half, two years, the biggest impact that I’ve had of late. It’s just one of those things, if you see yourself doing it, whatever bad habit it might be or whatever the perception is, you can be way quicker about fixing it. And, I think it’s more impactful if you can see it for yourself.

Julia Murphy: Why do you think you have been so successful as a rider?

[00:19:36] Doug Payne: I think that success comes as a result of the people and horses behind you, because it’s absolutely not an individual pursuit, for sure. I might be the one on the horse in the ring, but without a really intelligent and adaptable team behind you, that can pick up tiny little nuances or differences—you know, a horse might not be feeling right one morning or there might be a little swelling somewhere or whatever it is—if you can pick up all of that stuff early, it really then becomes not a big issue at all. I think without the horsepower consistently behind you, be it again through all of the staff and managers in the barn and ownership support, and certainly family support—my wife and now two kids—without all of that, you’re not going to be anywhere. So, that is the key—have a really good, flexible, attentive team behind you.

Julia Murphy: And what do you think is the hardest part of this sport for you?

[00:20:41] Doug Payne: The hardest part of this sport … I would hate to say this, but I think it’s the financial implications of all of it. It’s super difficult to keep all of these horses going at a top level and our constant pursuit is trying to figure out how to make it all work. We’re trying to expand and have the greatest group of horses that we can and it certainly can be challenging for sure, because it’s not inexpensive. But, it’s absolutely addicting and we struggle and our goal is to make sure that that happens at all times.

Julia Murphy: Is there any piece of advice you would give your younger self?

[00:21:27] Doug Payne: I would say early on, I probably was not near as coachable as I should have been. As you get a bit older, you try to glean any little bit of insight from anybody and sort of turn it into your own and integrate it. I would say, in all honesty, I was probably a bit too cocky earlier in my life to open my eyes to all of that.

Julia Murphy: And what’s next for you?

[00:21:57] Doug Payne: Yeah, what’s next … We’ve got Kentucky in a couple of weeks and so that’ll be really exciting. Vandiver is going back and he’s been there a number of times now. And, like I said, he would be our top hopeful for Tokyo. But also, what’s going to be really exciting is Quantum Leap, it’ll be his first five-star that he’s going to. I think he’s certainly ready for it, but it’s pretty special for us because we’ve had him now since he was a weanling. And, Starr Witness, we’ll head to [New] Jersey, to the four-long at Jersey Fresh [International] and all three of those [horses] are qualified for Tokyo. So, hopefully for those guys everything goes well. Then, we’re looking forward to the jumpers. We’re headed back to Tryon next week and we’re focused on the two FEI weeks at Split Rock [Jumping Tour] at the beginning of June. So, that’s what’s headed next for those guys.

[Music fades in and out]

Conclusion—Julia Murphy: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode with Doug Payne and a big thank you to the sponsor of this week’s episode, VitaFlex Pro. Learn more at You can subscribe to The Practical Horseman Podcast on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, Stitcher or wherever you listen. While you’re there, please rate and review the show. I’m Julia Murphy and you’ve been listening to the Practical Horseman Podcast.

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