Feral to Five-Star: Camarillo’s Ready to Step Up with Doug Payne

Doug Payne and Camarillo compete at the 2024 Grand-Prix Eventing Showcase (Aiken, SC). Photo by Sally Spickard.

Doug Payne isn’t a rider you often see hitting the deck, but when the now-10-year-old Camarillo (Chicardo – Rehobeth, by Riverman) was a developing youngster, this became somewhat of a daily occurrence. As the U.S.-bred DSP gelding, a product of longtime eventing supporter Elizabeth Callahan’s successful breeding program (this program also produced Doug’s current top event horse, Quantum Leap), learned the skills he would need to turn into an eventer, he certainly was not short on opinions.

Take a look at the early days of “Carl”:

“It was pretty much an every day thing,” Doug chuckles. I’m sure it’s much funnier now. “Every time you went into the canter, it would happen. Then he would do it when he first started jumping, he’d land off the first fence halted and you’d just go right over top.”

I asked Doug if he consulted his own Riding Horse Repair Manual book, and also if, in the thick of the toughest days, he questioned whether or not it was worth carrying on with a horse that had clearly demonstrated himself to be, well, “quirky”.

“Definitely it’s mostly patience,” he said, going on to describe the gray gelding as perhaps a bit misunderstood. And half of the battle when it comes to training horses is understanding them. “I think [the behavior] could have come off a little like he was angry or being belligerent, but that really wasn’t it. I’ve learned that he’s somewhat of an internalizer, and when he doesn’t quite understand something or he’s nervous, he becomes like a kid having an outburst at school.”

A staunch believer in the value of developing one’s own pipeline, Doug has learned to see potential in the prospects that come into his program, even if that involves working through some growing pains along the way. He and his wife and fellow 5* rider Jessica Payne have been vocal proponents of developing horses from a young age, making the decision to invest in babies with promise and developing them into professional rides across both eventing and show jumping. It was a decision borne of necessity — buying “going” horses is costly, and they wanted a string — but also out of a desire to retain a large share of ownership in their horses and have a hand in their development from day one. When they show potential for top sport, Doug and Jessica work to bring in part owners; Carl is co-owned with Darin and Patrice Jennings-Rado.

So the “baby horse” antics (well, as Doug tells it, Carl didn’t really begin to let go of his feral tendencies until about a year ago) are a part of the program at the Paynes, and anyway, everyone needs a bit of humbling now and then, don’t they?

Camarillo as a foal. Photo courtesy of Doug Payne.

“He certainly keeps us honest,” Doug laughs. “The biggest challenge was really learning how to stay on him, because if he learned he could dump you that creates a whole new set of challenges. And it was never about ‘getting after him’, it was just get back on, try again, set boundaries. But that is sort of what you can potentially come across when you’re developing a talented horse: the good ones are almost always weird and quirky. Fighting with them doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Fortunately for Doug, Camarillo has developed into a competitive eventing partner, aiming at his CCI5* debut at Defender Kentucky in just a few weeks’ time. Doug says it’s typical to be able to see a horse’s potential by the time they’re in their 5-year-old year, even more so once they’ve hit the CCI3* level. Carl ticked all the boxes, feral-ness forgiven.

He’s now got two solid seasons at the Advanced and 4* level in preparation for this next step up. Doug believes in the system he’s set up to produce eventers, opting to target “tougher” 4* options (“generally you’re going to get the best education, conditions, and organization when you target those bigger events. The horses learn much more when they’re presented with challenging, quality questions, and a green horse can always do the option on cross country.”) as a part of their education and preparation. His results tend to speak for themselves: he’s a rider you can generally count on for a clear round, and oftentimes one that’s up on the clock.

Doug also credits the time he splits in the show jumping arena with helping Carl mature and slow things down. “We took him to Wellington with our jumping horses this winter, and I would flat him in every arena I could when I had the chance,” he explained. “It was really good for a horse like him to be in a more ‘chaotic’ environment. I think it worked really well for him.”

Doug Payne and Camarillo. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

In terms of goal-setting for a first-time horse at a 5*, Doug says a mid-to-low 30s dressage mark, a handful of time on cross country, and at max one or two rails down would make for a great debut in his eyes. This first attempt is less about competitiveness and more about education to set a horse up for a long term career. “I would say I’m going to go as fast as I can feel comfortable [on cross country], that he is comprehending everything fully. With Quantum, now he’s done six five-stars, you can go flying into everything and he reads everything – for Carl, the most important thing is approaching a new complex that he feels he has an infinite amount of time to understand what’s being asked. So if he feels like he’s getting buzzy, I’ll slow down and give him more time.”

“Slow down and give him more time” was the mindset that got Doug to this point with this young rising star. When he posted the video of Carl dumping him on social media, he was flooded with questions: “How did you fix this?”

“Persistence is key,” he wrote back to one commenter. “Kept hopping back on. Got ready as best I could! Unfortunately no real tricks.”

It’s a demonstration in sticking with it (literally), and while certainly the biggest test still looms, Doug’s feeling confident that the “feral to five-star” journey is nearly complete. “With a horse that’s sensitive like that, the number one thing is that they have to want to fight for you and you have to understand where they’re coming from. It’s our job to show it to them in a way that they can comprehend.”

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