Courtney Carson’s most thrilling grooming moments may not be the first that people guess. With her years working for U.S. event rider Doug Payne, most would point to one of the multiple international trips on her resume – especially the Tokyo Olympics. There, Vandiver, the horse she spent months rehabbing, earned the top U.S. eventing finish. Though a cherished moment, Carson instead gravitates to the ones with less fanfare: the times when a young horse matured to his first FEI-event or when a working student completed her first three-star.
“I just really enjoyed being a cheerleader for every horse and every rider in the barn,” Carson said. “I love standing at the finish at the ingate jumping up and down and whooping and hollering, making everyone and every horse feel like they’re special because you don’t have to complete a five-star to be good and be happy about it.”
You’re Living To Do This
Her comradery spirit started early as she quickly got involved in U.S. Pony Club in St. Louis, Missouri, and later in Cobden, Illinois. Initially, her love for horses took root, not through her own passion but second-hand, through her mother’s desire to ride herself. But she swiftly caught on to her mother’s perspective.
“I got my first pony for my sixth birthday; that was kind of the beginning of the end,” she said. “Then worked my way up the levels, did the hunter/jumpers for a long time, and then got involved in Pony Club, which ultimately led to eventing.
“Pony Club was the first real taste of, ‘You’re living to do this’ type of thing,” Carson added. “I think I was probably 8 at the time when I joined. It was a chance to learn and work more from your peers and not necessarily from an adult instructor – which at times can feel like it’s hammering to a small child. It was great, and it was encouraging. And I played a lot of sports, but it was the first real taste, though, as far as horses went, of being part of a team and it not being an individual competition, which I think is a huge thing that a lot of riders miss out on.”
Payne Equestrian LLC
After graduating high school, she decided to move to Virginia and attend Hollins University. And while studying there, she rode and worked for Pan American gold medalist Jan Byyny and then former groom of David and Karen O’Connor, Samantha Burton Henley, at the Sandy River Equestrian Center (Virginia). Between her experience with Burton and her years in Pony Club as a stable manager, she felt confident that she could run her own barn. But Carson didn’t think she’d be able to gather an established client base to enter the industry as a high-performance rider, though she’d competed through the intermediate level. So, when Jessica and Doug Payne of Payne Equestrian LLC (North Carolina) offered her a grooming position, she took it.
Six of the Best Years of My Life
“Doug and Jess had a grooming position open, and so I was kind of like, ‘OK, well, this is a way for me to get into the top of the sport without having to try to find owners and a barn to work out of,” she said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to groom. I thought I was going to work for Doug and Jess for a year, and I ended up there for six and a half. So, it wasn’t really the plan I was thinking of, but it was great. They were six of the best years of my life for sure.”
With the Paynes, she initially rolled up her stirrups. Her job focused on the grooming side only, although eventually, through the years, it transitioned into riding.
“It allowed me to really just focus on the grooming side of it,” she said, “and to really keep the barn in order, keep the horses going, not feel like I was missing anything as far as their nutrition or feet or fitness.”
Starting in 2017, Carson traveled internationally every year, sans 2020 for the pandemic and 2022. She crossed the Atlantic to groom for Doug at the Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials (England), was a part of the gold medal eventing squad at the 2019 Lima Pan American Games (Peru), and stood ringside stadium to watch several Kentucky CCI5*s.
However, in the fall of 2022, Carson decided to progress to a new chapter with less travel and more traditional corporate security. She left Payne Equestrian LLC and started working as a veterinary technician in Durham, North Carolina.
“I would tell my 20-year-old self to go groom again one hundred percent,” Carson said. “I still think it’s an incredible job. You’ll get to see a lot of really neat places, some of the best places in the world, and it’s going to teach you a lot of life lessons. It’s going to teach you a lot about dealing with adversity.”
Contributing to HorseGrooms.com
Though no longer in the equestrian world full-time, she still wants to be a cheerleader for the grooming industry. In addition to leading grooming clinics for Pony Club, she is contributing to HorseGrooms.com to share her experiences, advice, and opinions. Editor’s note: Carson is now also the US Coordinator of the International Grooms Association (IGA).
Through her years with horses, she’s experienced the holes in the industry, specifically regarding grooms, that she feels need to be patched up for the next generation. She’s been a part of team trips funded by governing bodies where grooms were an afterthought; she’s witnessed the cost of living and the workload increase, yet pay remain the same; she’s had the first horse ready by 7:30 in the morning and finished bandaging the last horse well past midnight.
“It’s kind of like everyone gets into a routine, and things get swept under the cracks,” she said. “Many grooms are afraid to come to their riders and be like, ‘Hey, the cost of living has gone up’ or ‘Hey, gas is $4 a gallon, and I’m driving these places, we need to negotiate a pay increase.’ Then it circles back to everyone in this country trying to make a living with their horses because we have no government funding. So then the boss is like, ‘I’m not living a life of luxury, so I can’t afford to pay you more because we’re barely getting by to feed the horses.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, I’m not going to take more money so that you can’t feed the horses.’ It turns into this horrible struggle.”
A Safe Space to Seek Advice
“I think the conversations need to be on educating younger people who want to be grooms and what type of questions they need to ask before they get hired,” she continued. “Because it’s really easy for a rider to be like, ‘We have all these upper-level horses, and we’re going to go to FEI jumping competitions’ or ‘We’re going to go to five-star events, and we’ll probably go overseas’ – they sell the dream.”
She hopes through her articles on HorseGrooms.com to educate the next generation of grooms and establish a space in which individuals on this side of the industry can band together to make it better. “I want younger grooms to feel like there’s a safe space to seek advice from veterans,” she said. “I think even those of us who don’t do it full time anymore, still want to see the industry succeed; we did it because we loved it,” she added. “The only way it’s going to continue to succeed is if it is better for everybody and if people have these educational resources to use.”
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I started riding horses in a desperate attempt to be like my older sister. So, when she turned in her ballet slippers for barn boots, I did too. From 5 years old onward, I’ve never been far from a horse whisker, as I worked my way up the levels in the hunter ring. I graduated with honors in art history and communications at Washington & Lee University, where I captained the school’s IHSA team.
Leaning into my communications major and love of horses, I joined the editorial staff of The Chronicle of the Horse. For six years, I traveled the country covering top competitions and found a great love for long-form features (especially historical ones) and profiles. Currently, I’m freelancing out of Virginia, where I live with my horse Nelson and rescue dog Minnie.