A Horse That Owed Me Nothing Made My Career

After the announcement of the retirement of Vandiver, the Olympic partner of Doug Payne and best friend to #supergroom Courtney Carson, we asked both Courtney and Doug to write about the horse that took them around the world. We’ll kick things off with this must-read from Courtney.

Kentucky 2019. Photo by JJ Sillman.

It may sound a bit ridiculous to say that Vandiver made my career, considering I’ve only been doing this for six years and I hope my career extends way past this point. Hell, he may not have been the first horse that I went to a championship with, but there are some that you just have a feeling about.

In a weird way I knew the moment it was announced he was going to Doug for the ride, a full 15 months before I took the job, that Vandiver was destined to do amazing things. I am just lucky that I was a part of that ride. He took me on my first foreign adventure, he was my first 5* horse that I groomed for, I got to ride him at Burghley and Aachen. He made more dreams come true than what 10-year-old me could have ever dreamt.

Vandiver is a horse who seemed to always be the bridesmaid despite being one of the most consistent horses you’ve probably seen in this country. That may sound a bit insane to think of, but in the time I worked with him he was rarely out of the top-10. He may not have won anything massive, but he was the USEF National Reserve Champion in 2019 with a fifth place at Kentucky, he was the direct reserve for the Pan American Games that year, was top-15 at Blenheim 2017, and capped his career with a top-American finish at the Tokyo Olympics.

Courtney Carson puts the finishing touches on Vandiver. Photo by Abby Powell.

It takes a lot to keep a horse running at the top level, and the great thing about event horses is that they don’t all fit the same mold. The really great ones have a lot of heart though, and this particular horse has a heart even bigger than his giant, amazing ears.

His journey was not without bumps, some stops, and a lot of anxiety and emotion. He lived the career as an afterthought, it seemed. When I got to Doug’s in 2016 it was just exciting to have an Advanced horse. He was third at the American Eventing Championship in Tryon that year and followed that up with a second place in 2017.

He had other top placings which gave us hope that he would be placed on the 2018 World Equestrian Games team at Tryon. He was at home there; it is essentially home for us because we show jump there often in addition to eventing.

Quinn started 2018 incredibly strong, even winning the CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) at Carolina International in the pouring down rain as the only horse to finish on his dressage score. Then heartbreak struck when he was held at the first trot up two weeks later during the Fork/WEG Test event. We withdrew from the hold box and had a serious discussion about how we needed to get to the bottom of his chronic off-again-on-again lameness in the right hind. I spent an afternoon sitting on the barn floor with some good friends, a bag of Swedish fish, and a bottle of vodka. While we knew there was a chance we could get this turned around, he was already 14 years old and had done a lot in his career prior to that.

Hanging at Millbrook in 2017. Photo courtesy of Eliza Goldberg Photography.

Following a routine arthroscopy that didn’t show us more than what would be expected in a horse with his resume. We still gave it the ol’ college try and had them clean everything out, what did we really have to lose at that point? During this time Doug was campaigning Getaway at the Advanced/4* level and Quantum Leap was qualified for Le Lion d’Angers as a seven year old (both went on to represent the U.S. that fall at Boekelo and Le Lion), but no one was really ready to step into Quinn’s shoes.

Thus began a long several months of walking, and walking, and walking. I would get up at 4 a.m. to hand walk before work began. I would stay late and hang out with him while he ate grass. We built him a small turnout area at the bottom of the hill with good grass when he could finally go outside. By the time he was able to begin tack walking I had talked Doug into letting me do it. I spent more time with that horse in the next nine months than I’ve probably ever spent with one particular horse. I learned everything about his eating habits, something he was notoriously finicky about prior to this.

I created a monster. Sometimes I had to hold his grain bucket so he would eat a meal, occasionally I would even have to hand feed it to him. I learned to power walk in the dark by the moonlight so that we got an acceptable amount of time in by his watch. We had several arguments about how long he should be trotting once that was allowed. And I became even more obsessed with getting this horse back to the top. I just knew somewhere deep in my soul that he could, and that he deserved, to be on a team before he was through.

Courtney and Vandiver share a moment in the Kentucky vet box. Photo by Sally Spickard

2019 was a roller coaster of a year. Quinn had an incredibly strong spring season, finishing it off with a fifth place and Reserve USEF Championship at the Land Rover Kentucky 5*. We had talked about trying to take him to Aachen that summer, but being named as the direct reserve to Starr Witness for the Pan American Games kept him stateside that summer. Instead we tried our hand at a second trip to the UK and a canter around Burghley.

In the year that saw one of the most gruesome Saturday’s in the history of the sport, he fell victim to the statistics. This big, golden hearted gelding cantered up to the biggest white, open rail oxer on course and left the ground despite being a full half stride away from where he should be. 99% of other horses would have slammed on the brakes and said “hard pass”, not this guy.

Were we there two years too late? Maybe. Was he ever destined to be a Burghley horse? Maybe not. He showed his resilience though and flew home to claim the win at Stable View in the CCI3*-S two weeks later, he didn’t look like he had missed a beat. He finished his year with a canter around at Fair Hill and another double clear show jumping. Maybe the Olympic dream was alive for this guy.

Doug Payne and Vandiver under the lights in Tokyo. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Covid hit. I’m not going to try and put into words how Covid affected others less fortunate than myself, and it seems unfair to say that my biggest worry throughout the 2020 year was that the Olympics were canceled and that we had missed our shot. It is incredibly selfish to even have had these thoughts, but while he still looked great and was working well, time was slipping away from us like sand in an hourglass. I didn’t know if we could keep him going at the top of the sport for an entire year — he was already 16 at this point. When we got back to competing he came out and won a 1.35m Welcome Stakes in Aiken, won the Advanced at Tryon, and then was fourth in the CCI4*-L that fall. Maybe if we played all of our cards correctly, we could do it.

Quinn just continued to impress us and step up. He ran well all spring, winning the CCI4*-S at the Fork, earned a top-12 finish at Kentucky, and jogged up afterward like a champion. My whole world now became keeping him as happy and sound as possible so that no one ever saw him in less than his best condition.

Being named initially as the reserve almost fueled my fire even more. I was not going to give anyone the chance to say that he did not deserve to be there if he was given the opportunity to compete. I found out as we were loading equipment at Gladstone to leave for Aachen that he was stepping into the team role and my world changed. He was in! Everything I had spent five years working towards, every feeling that I had, every heartbreak we had experienced along the way — Quinn was finally, officially, getting his shot to prove to the American eventing scene that he was not just a footnote at the bottom of the write-up for the weekend.

The best Dude – ears and all.

At the Olympics it was a bit difficult to not be starstruck. You’re standing in a field grazing your horse looking at the likes of Explosion W and Gio thinking that you’re surrounded by the best in the world. Then it hits you that you’re holding a horse at the Olympics as well, you’ve made it. Spending five weeks with only one horse to focus on can become difficult, but I tried to keep it in perspective and not get down his throat and upset him.

Quinn is notoriously antisocial, and even though it has been joked that I’m his emotional support person, even I get sick of myself so I can only imagine how he felt. Talk about a horse who gave it his all, though. At the ripe old age of 17 he galloped around and left it all on the floor for everyone there.

Finishing the Olympics was the most incredible experience, and finally being the top placed American horse was just the cherry on top. Erik Duvander told me at the beginning of cross country to take a moment and enjoy it, after jumping the individual round I told him through my tears that I was going to take more than one.

Quinn owed us nothing. We never expected to get what we did out of him. Coming into this year, we said we would always let him tell us. He was never going to be a horse to quit — it’s not in his nature — but we hoped he would let us know. At the 2022 Kentucky Three Day, he told us.

Most people won’t believe me when I say it, but I think in a weird way he knew it would be his last trip around the bluegrass. He was oddly calm and relaxed in the dressage ring. While he still demanded from the moment I showed up that he was taken out for grass, he was almost less fierce than ever before.

The morning of cross country he ate his breakfast, something that I can promise you has never happened before. Watching him gallop around the cross country, standing in the tent, I knew this would be the last time I met him at the finish line. While he continued to jump, it was never in his nature to not keep trying. Even walking down on Sunday he was slow, his warm-up lacked some of the spring off of the floor, but he went in and gave it his all.

Through the Tunnel at Tokyo. Photo by Bridget London.

I had silent tears going down my face as I walked him to the gate. One last trip down the ramp for the big guy. I began crying outright when he jumped the last fence. As he got his standing ovation, walking out of the ring on the buckle in front of the fans who loved him so, Doug wiped a tear from his own face and I cried even harder.

I enjoyed my last walk home with him, crying the whole way. I have a lot of memories coming up that ramp, one of my favorite photos is us coming up it in 2019 and it hangs in my house. I will never forget a single moment spent with this amazing horse.

Doug telling the world that I get to take him for a spin — my only bucket list competition item for myself has been to leave the start box on him one time — makes it even more emotional. It is weird to think he won’t get on the trailer to the big horse shows any more, that I won’t get to spend hours walking him to make sure he is fit enough, and that I won’t run to meet him at the finish line.

But he capped off an incredible career in style, giving it his all in front of a sold out crowd on a Kentucky Sunday, and I can’t think of a better way to have finished it.

I hope every horse in our barn knows that it’s nothing personal, but they will never fill his shoes. Mostly because no ears will ever be as large or as perfect as his, and I hope to God that no one else ever needs to go in just one glue on front shoe.

There just will never be another horse that touches my soul the way that he has done. It has been an honor and a privilege to chase him around the world and to be his person. I have loved watching him come alive over the last six years and I hope I’ve been able to convey to everyone just how special he truly is.