When you’re a competitive amateur with dreams of conquering the biggest shows in the country, what do you do when your path changes?
For event rider Courtney Carson, growing up was always about reaching for the stars. Producing two horses from the track to the Intermediate level of eventing, Courtney had a dream of competing at the Advanced and international levels of the sport. She worked full-time while attending school and also took in horses in training to make her ends meet, always letting her competitive nature govern her path. This all changed, though, when she graduated college and began looking for the next step.
“I had been applying for ‘real’ jobs for awhile and had just turned down a marketing job that didn’t fit really well for me,” Courtney recalled. “I was helping a friend job search for a grooming position and sent her one for a show jump rider in New York. A couple of weeks later, I found the ad on my phone again and thought, ‘Why not?’ and sent an email.”
That email turned into a short gig as a groom for Courtney, who leased her Intermediate horse, Bird Is The Word, to a younger rider for the time being. After finishing that job, Courtney thought long and hard about her involvement in the sport she loved. She came across a social media post from Doug and Jessica Payne, and a conversation quickly turned into a job offer as the head groom for Payne Equestrian in Aiken, South Carolina.
While this position was not a riding position, Courtney always thought her path would return to competitive riding. “When I first started, I wanted to go to the two-star at Fair Hill that fall,” Courtney said. “I thought maybe I’d go and make some money, lease my horse out, and then go back to it after I was done.”
After a few months working for the Paynes, though, Courtney began to look at things differently. She didn’t want to leave the riders who had become her family and the horses who had become like her own. It was a mental transition for Courtney, who had always been competitive in her own right.
“It was a hard decision for sure. I came to terms a long time ago with knowing that to really thrive at the top of the sport you have to have ridiculous natural talent or a lot of money, neither of which I had,” she said. “I’d like to think I am a competent adult amateur, but I was never going to be able to produce enough horses to make others want to put horses under me. I am too competitive to do anything mediocre, and I just found my focus was changing.”
So Courtney found a perfect forever, lower-level home for her beloved “Goose,” and hasn’t looked back since. At the Kentucky CCI4* earlier this year, Courtney groomed for Doug and Debi Crowley’s Vandiver, and she wouldn’t trade experiences like that for the world.
“When Doug goes down the center line at Rolex and people are ooh-ing and ahh-ing over his braids and his quarter marks or his coat, I know I did that,” she said. “To me, that’s how I know I’ve succeeded in this sport. At Pine Top in the winter, I met Chris Burton in the show jumping warm-up, and he told me I had the best braids all weekend. This has been such a great way for me to be involved at the top of the sport.”
“Sure, there are days when I wish I was riding,” she continued. “There are days when I wish I was out jumping with everyone else instead of standing in the barn. But I’ve done it that way; I’ve pushed myself past the point of exhaustion and starvation, and that wasn’t fair to a horse who always gave 110% to me. It’s just about finding a different path.”
As for the future, Courtney has no immediate plans to vacate her post with the Paynes, but she’s storing away the things she learns for use in the future. “Every time I watch Doug or Jess ride or teach, I store things away in the bank to maybe use later. I hope that when I can put these things to use I can be a better rider than I was last year.”
“I just realize that I didn’t need anything to ride. For me, I want to be the best at what I do, and this is where I can really be effective and know that I am making a difference. It’s definitely not where I saw myself being even a year ago, but I couldn’t be any happier where I am now.”