By Kimberly Gatto
Portraits by Pam Jensen
Payne Equestrian proudly displays the American flag in their barn, while Doug Payne, left, groom Courtney Carson, middle, and Jess Payne sport their USA wear. Doug was a member of the 2021 Tokyo Olympic USEF Eventing Team and was the highest-ranking U.S. individual horse and rider, placing 16th overall while the team finished in sixth place.
Albert Einstein once said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” For Olympian Doug Payne and his wife, Jessica (Hampf), maintaining the right balance seems to be a key to success—and a way of life. Married since 2014 and parents of two adorable children, Doug and Jess have formed a winning partnership that is truly awe-inspiring.
As the owners and operators of Payne Equestrian in North Carolina, Doug and Jess successfully juggle the hectic demands of competitive equestrian life while parenting son Hudson, 4, and daughter Abigail, 2. In addition to competing at the highest levels of eventing, Doug actively campaigns several Grand Prix show jumpers, trains a string of promising young horses and is a sought-after clinician and judge. Additionally, he is the author of “The Riding Horse Repair Manual” published in 2014 and is a licensed pilot.
Jess is an accomplished equestrienne, having competed in the Kentucky Three-Day Event on several occasions and having been named to Canada’s eventing short list. She is also a skilled trainer, teacher and manager of the daily operations of Payne Equestrian. Now a busy mom, Jess has taken a hiatus from upper level competitions to devote her energy to supporting Doug’s career while tending to the needs of two active preschoolers.
“I am very lucky,” Doug said. “Since Jess has ridden through the five-star level herself, she totally understands everything. She helps a ton with operating the barn—including training horses, teaching, riding, managing the travel schedule, setting up vet appointments, organizing training camps—you name it. She really plays a critical role in any success that I achieve.”
Doug and Jess at the entrance to their farm.
The son of Dick and Marilyn Payne, Doug was born into an equestrian family. He and his sister Holly—also a top professional event rider—grew up at their parents’ idyllic Applewood Farm in New Jersey. Marilyn is a sought-after dressage and eventing trainer, clinician and judge who has officiated at every four-star event in the world as well as at the Olympic Games. It therefore comes as no surprise that Doug was on the back of a pony before he could walk.
“I really didn’t know any differently, as we had horses in our backyard,” Doug said of his equestrian childhood. He was enrolled in Pony Club at the age of 7, eventually earning his “A” certification, while learning to ride several different types of horses. “Growing up, my sister and I always had one horse of our own that we would compete,” Doug said. “It was nice because we never felt a lot of pressure from our parents. But the rule in our family was that, when we turned 18, we had to sell the horse that we had and go to college.”
An excellent student, Doug graduated from Voorhees High School and went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology with intentions of pursuing a career in that field. “I had always been interested in flight controls, aeronautics and forensics. I really had no intention of becoming a horse professional when I graduated,” Doug said. “It’s a long story, but the opportunity presented itself where I was able to make my living by riding and I decided to take it.” Since then, Doug has never looked back.
Born in Ontario, Canada, Jess was also introduced to horses at a young age. Her family relocated to Franklin, Tennessee, where she says she “did a little bit of everything” with horses as a child. “My parents had a barn. I started out by doing barrels, then moved on to hunters and jumpers,” Jess said. She ultimately made the switch to eventing, reaching the five-star level with her horse of a lifetime, a 15.2-hand Australian Thoroughbred called High Society III, aka Trevor. Jess also earned a bachelor of science degree from Auburn University with a focus on equine science and nutrition.
Doug and Hudson work together to get the plane ready.
A Perfect Match
Despite their shared interests and the fact that they had mutual friends, Doug and Jess didn’t initially know each other. Then fate intervened when Doug—working in the eventing mecca of Aiken, South Carolina, at the time—took part in a local bowling league. “A group of us riders used to go bowling on Monday nights at this little alley,” he said. “We all became friends. One of my teammates happened to be Jess’ mom.” The rest, as they say, is history. Once introduced, Doug and Jess hit it off immediately. When Jess took some time away from competing to finish her degree, Doug campaigned her horse Trevor in several events.
The couple became engaged in 2013 and married the following March. Later that year, they were able to purchase 30 acres of land in Durham, North Carolina, after the sale of Doug’s three-star horse Crown Talisman, aka Tali, to British eventer Nick Gautlett. On that land, they were able to build a top-rate equestrian center now known as Payne Equestrian. “Thanks to Tali, we were able to build a future,” Doug said.
Nine years and two children later, the Paynes’ farm is thriving, as is their partnership. Payne Equestrian is a highly balanced operation, with Doug riding eight to 10 horses each day while Jess rides another five or six. Jess teaches most of the lessons and manages the day-to-day operations of the barn as well as the travel schedule. There are plenty of horse shows, as Doug competes equally in eventing and Grand Prix showjumpers.
“It’s a busy schedule,” Doug said. “We often have an event one weekend and a Grand Prix the next.” With much of his early focus on eventing, Doug didn’t begin showing jumpers until he was in his 20s, when an unruly horse was sent to him for training after it bucked off several riders. Doug successfully retrained the horse, eventually competing in the Grand Prix ring, and found that he really enjoyed doing the jumpers. In addition to many talented event horses, Payne Equestrian now has four active Grand Prix jumpers in its string.
Doug notes that riding in both disciplines helps his skill set in various ways. “For example, doing the jumpers helps with eventing—even the cross-country, because most of the complexes now pose some sort of gymnastic question,” he said. “It may be a little less predictable on cross-country due to the terrain, but jumping big jumps is the same. I love it.”
Both Doug and Jess enjoy working with young horses to see how they develop. They try to purchase at least one baby each year and work to develop it into a high-level contender. One such horse, Quantum Leap, was purchased as a weanling and has shown great promise, already competing in two five-star events and Grand Prix show jumping.
Doug also has a knack for working with quirky or difficult horses, or those that may have been started in one discipline but would thrive as eventers or jumpers. Starr Witness, a KWPN mare, was purchased from Emil Spadone after a failed career as a show hunter and is now a successful event horse who was 4th individually and earned a team gold medal at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, with Doug. The gelding Quintessance, aka Quincy, was originally an eventer, but has found his niche in the jumper ring. “Quincy started out as an eventer purchased by Jane Dudinsky as a 4-year-old, but was destined for the jumper ring,” Doug said. “He is an absolute freak and has won the 6- and 7-year-old jumper finals as well as numerous Grand Prix including the $100k at HITS last year.”
Doug competing Vaya con Dios on the cross-country course. Doug is also a successful Grand Prix show jumper.
Life On the Road
Managing and showing so many horses, and in two different disciplines, requires an incredible amount of planning, especially with two small children in tow. “Fortunately, I’m naturally a very organized person,” Jess said. “I have lots of calendars everywhere.” She jokingly calls it “organized chaos.”
“We’re very fortunate that we are all able to go on the road together,” Jess said. “We go to almost every horse show as a family; we’re very thankful that we can do that. It’s a group effort from everybody on our team, working together. The kids enjoy it, too. If we’re home for a week, they usually ask where we’ll be going next.”
Doug adds that little Abigail is “absolutely obsessed with horses,” while Hudson is “interested on occasion.” “Whatever they decide to do, we’ll support them,” Doug said. “But we won’t push them if they aren’t interested. In our view they have to love it, and enjoy what they’re doing.”
In order to maintain balance, Jess says that she and Doug make sure to take a three-day “mini-vacation” each month to spend as a family. “We come up with a way to travel somewhere close, go see friends or visit different places. We recently went tubing in the mountains with the kids, which was great fun. We spent two nights and came back the next morning. As attached as we are to our horses, we realize the value of taking some time off. And we have such a great team at home with the horses, which gives us peace of mind,” she said.
Frequent travel is somewhat easier for the family since Doug is a licensed pilot and operates his own plane. It’s a fulfillment of Doug’s lifelong fascination with aviation—a hobby he shares with his father-in-law, who is also a licensed pilot. “I got my private certificate and instrument rating about five years ago,” Doug said. “A number of our friends fly as well, along with Jess’ dad, and we started talking. The learning process for flying was actually very similar to riding and gave me another way of looking at things.”
Besides the enjoyment it provides, flying allows Doug to travel more easily to and from horse shows and avoid long traffic delays. “It’s surprisingly very cost effective as well—on a per mile basis it’s the same as driving a pickup!” he said.
While the Payne family is flying the friendly skies, they’re happy knowing that groom Courtney Carson is keeping an eye on the horses. “I’ve been working for Doug and Jess for six years,” Courtney said. “It’s an incredibly exciting and rewarding job. It’s never boring because our time is split between the event horses and jumpers. We’ve even got the young stallion who does the International Hunter Derby. It’s been really fun to be a part of how the program has grown and developed while I’ve been here.”
Courtney Carson, head groom at Payne Equestrian, with Starr Witness.
Doug and Jess, with children Hudson and Abigail, work hard at maintaining balance and they take a three-day “mini-vacation” each month to spend as a family.
Courtney was present as one of Doug’s ultimate goals was realized last year when he was selected as a member of the U.S. Olympic eventing team. Doug and the bay Trakehner gelding Vandiver, known around the barn as Quinn, were the highest-ranking U.S. individual horse and rider, placing 16th overall while the team finished in sixth place at the Tokyo Games. Doug and Jess co-own Vandiver with the horse’s breeders, Debi and Kevin Crowley.
“The Tokyo Olympics was an incredible, but surreal, experience,” Courtney said. “It was very emotional for me to go with Quinn; I’ve got a very special spot in my heart for him. Getting to represent my country with a horse I care deeply about and a rider I fully believe in is an experience unlike any other. Not getting to see anything outside of the equestrian complex was a bummer, but being able to watch the best horses and riders in the world in all three disciplines was amazing.”
As with most athletes, the opportunity to compete at the Olympics was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Doug. “It’s truly one of the biggest honors you can have—to be asked to represent your country,” he said. “I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity.” Unfortunately, the thrill of competing at the Olympics was dampened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which restricted visitors and required almost-constant testing of the competitors. “It was very nerve-racking,” Doug said, “because you never knew whether a test would randomly come back positive and then you’d be stuck. That anxiety was lingering over my head constantly—almost more than crossing the finish line in cross-country! The last thing you could imagine is being plucked mid-competition to enter two weeks of solitary confinement.”
Another difficulty posed by the pandemic was the fact that Jess was unable to travel to Tokyo with Doug due to Olympic restrictions limiting the number of guests. “With quarantine,” Doug said, “I was gone for over a month, which is the longest I’ve ever been away. Thankfully I was able to FaceTime with Jess and the kids, but it was tough.”
For her part, Jess attempted to make the most of the situation by cheering on her husband via TV at home with her parents. “I was really sad not being able to be at the Olympics to support Doug and Vandiver,” Jess said. “But I was thrilled for Doug to be there, and I was also very happy that Vandiver’s breeders and co-owners, Debi and Kevin, were able go and support them. If it were a choice between them and me, I’d rather they be there to watch their horse. Hopefully Doug will be in more Olympic Games and I will have more opportunities in the years to come.”
Doug riding Camarillo at Payne Equestrian, a 30-acre farm in Durham, North Carolina.
A USDF Silver Medalist, Doug has a short-term goal to obtain his Gold Medal, while also continuing to succeed at the highest levels in both eventing and show jumping. Looking toward the future, Doug and Jess have the shared goal of developing a pipeline of “incredible horses that will do great things.”
“We love producing the young horses,” Jess said. “And I enjoy working with the kids’ and clients’ horses.” Of course, the care and treatment of the horses is paramount for both Doug and Jess. As a testament to that care, Jess’ horse of a lifetime, Trevor, is still thriving at the age of 26. “Initially, I didn’t think I could ever sell him, but I found the perfect home for him with our friend Wendy Luce,” Jess said. “I knew she would love him as much as I do, and I can still visit him anytime. For me, and for Doug, it really is all about the horses and how lucky we are to have them in our lives.”
That sense of true horsemanship, in addition to his talent, humility and kindness, has made Doug Payne a fan favorite in the eventing community. When Doug was named to the U.S. Olympic team last year, fans and officials at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina honored him with a surprise ceremony on the grounds. There they presented Doug with a cross-country jump flag that was personally signed by horse show officials and staff. It was a sign of the appreciation that the equestrian community has for Doug and all that he represents as an athlete and a horseman.
Of course, for both Doug and Jess, family comes first, and they are both excited to watch their children grow and thrive. Professionally, Doug says his dream is to develop “a group of horses that could contend for U.S. teams for the future and contend on the world stage in the years to come” in both eventing and the Grand Prix. “With a bit of luck, I hope we will be there,” Doug said. Jess concurs, adding, “My dream is for Doug to be on every team. And I will be there supporting him.”
Doug and Jess are the happy and proud parents of son Hudson, 4, and daughter Abigail, 2.
For more information, visit Payne Equestrian at pe3s.com
Photos by Pam Jensen, www.pamjensenphotography.com