Age is no hurdle for eventer Marilyn Payne

By Nancy Jaffer
July 25, 2017

When she’s competing in the Novice or Training divisions, Marilyn Payne is far from being just another lower-level eventer.

The Tewksbury resident is unique in many ways, not least because she is an internationally known official, having served as president of the eventing ground jury at last year’s Rio Olympics, among her many other impressive credentials in the sport. Although she stopped eventing in 2001, she picked it up again six years later at an age when many riders contemplate retirement—if they haven’t already bowed out.

Marilyn Payne and Double Entendre competing at the Mars Essex Horse Trials this summer. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

Now 68 and soon to be a grandmother, Marilyn continues her participation in a discipline that is demanding in many ways, with cross-country a challenge that can often daunt riders who are far younger.

Marilyn had event horses early in her career, at one point riding as high as the intermediate level, but sold them after she and her husband, Richard, decided to start a family. She remains involved in the sport through their business, Applewood Farm, where she has bred, trained and competed horses that were eventually sold.

Marilyn Payne is always looking toward the next fence. (Photo by Lawrence J. Nagy)

“I really hoped that some day I would be able to keep a horse once it had been trained,” she said. Her decision to resume competing in the sport she loved came when she was driving home from an event with her children, Doug and Holly, both 4-star veterans. As they laughed and talked about their fantastic day, she came up with a plan.

“I was jealous of hearing about all the fun they had at these events. I decided that I had to get my own event horse and join them,” she said.

The mount she bought in 2007 was Safe Harbor, a sale horse that came from Doug, christened after the name of a retirement plan suggested by her sister, an investment broker.

Marilyn competed the mare from Beginner Novice up, through Training, doing the eventing championships and the Waredaca classic three-day event. When Safe Harbor hit 20, Marilyn started all over again in the spring of 2016 when she got Double Entendre, a horse that was being ridden by Doug’s wife, Jessica. Marilyn competed the young German-bred gelding, who has impressive Galoubet and Donnerhall bloodlines, at Novice in the Essex Horse Trials during June and is planning on moving him up to Training,  contemplating Waredaca again next year when the horse will be seven.

Riding cross-country is still a thrill for Marilyn Payne. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

“I just want to take him as far as I can,” she said.

Although she comments, “I don’t compete to win,” the Payne family is  notoriously competitive. Marilyn recounted that at one event, she, Doug and Holly all got the same dressage score, but since her cross-country clocking was closest to the ideal time, she was happy to finish ahead of them in the standings.

“It was great. I didn’t care if I beat anybody else,” she said with a chuckle.

“We have a great time. You want everybody to do well, but you just want to do that little bit more so you can say, `Ha! Here I am an old lady, and I’m still beating these kids.”

To some extent, she has a greater appreciation for her riding than she did when she was younger.

“I enjoy it more because I know more. I wish what I know now, I knew then. I’d like to get some of the horses back I rode earlier and see what I could do with them,” she commented.

Sally Ike, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s managing director of licensed officials, has known Marilyn since they both were district commissioners of their respective Pony Clubs; Sally at Somerset Hills and Marilyn at Spring Valley in New Vernon, where she used to live.

“I have so much admiration for her. Here she is, someone who has done so well as an FEI eventing official and is so well-respected,  but she still loves the sport so much that she rides horses at Training Level,” Sally commented.

“She’s totally without ego,” observed Sally. “Somebody who has an ego wouldn’t want to put themselves in that position. Someone who has judged at the Olympic Games–a lot of people like that wouldn’t want to expose themselves to what others may perceive as their weaknesses. She does what she loves to do. High five.”

“It’s all about staying active,” added Sally.  “Are you too old? Not if you stayed active. Carry on.”

Although Marilyn doesn’t ride as much as she’d like to because of her judging duties, she tries to keep fit between rides with other sports, including swimming, jogging and tennis when possible.

Marilyn with Martin Plewa and Christian Landolt, the eventing ground jury at the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

“I’m always challenging myself,” she said.

Marilyn notes a plus to her equestrian participation is the fact, “The riders really appreciate that I still compete. They think it’s great. Other officials think it’s kind of cool,” she continued, while adding, “There’s probably people who think I’m crazy because I’m older.”

Well aware of the sport’s risks, Marilyn doesn’t go at it the way she might have a few decades ago.

“I’m much more sensible and careful. I don’t want to fall off,” she emphasized.”

“I’m not going to ride some of the difficult horses that I rode when I was younger. I want something safe. But on the horses I ride, I’m not nervous at all. I trust them because I brought them along. There’s really no fear there, it’s such a low level it’s not like I’m out there doing Rolex,” she said, referring to the Kentucky 4-star.

Plenty of assistance is always available. She goes to dressage clinics and Holly and Doug help with her jumping. In a quid pro quo, she helps them with their dressage if the whole family is at an event, and all of them can look at each other’s videos.

Marilyn Payne and her husband, Richard, with their son Doug and daughter Holly Payne Caravella. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

Her children enjoy her involvement.

“I think it’s great,” said Doug who recently got a grant to compete at Great Britain’s Blenheim event.

“She got into this because she loved it. Safe Harbor was a perfect partner for her because she rode infrequently since she was judging so much, and the horse had a wonderful attitude.

“On the officiating side, it gives a much better perspective because it’s maybe not the top level, but she’s still in it. The moment you stop riding and only are officiating, it’s hard to stay cognizant of the questions being asked and how they will affect you,” said Doug. He noted another older high-profile official, Tokyo Olympics 2020 course designer Derek di Grazia, also tries to keep his hand in and won the 2-star at Rebecca Farm in Montana last week..

The riders appreciate having a senior official are out there with them.

His mother, Doug noted, “probably has one of the larger cheering sections when she’s out competing. My perception (of other riders) is that they all have the same respect that I do,

“It’s a lot of fun for us, too, when we’re able to compete at the same place. I’m pretty confident in her ability. She does a good job. She’s not going to push it beyond where she’s comfortable.”

Asked how he feels if she beats him in an event, he responded, “I guess you never like losing. But if you’re going to lose to somebody, that’s the first person I’d pick to lose to.”

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