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Equestrian Coach Featured in Practical Horseman

The following profile on Sue Payne, senior coach of riding at Smith, is reprinted from Practical Horseman magazine, December 2007.

My Life: The Joy of Working at What You Love

By Marcheterre Fluet

Sue Payne has owned Fox Meadow Farm in Northampton, Massachusetts, and directed the Smith College equestrian program since 1974.  Did she plan this career path? Yes and no.

When Sue told her eighth-grade guidance counselor she wanted to have her own business in the horse industry, she recalls, “It was not the ‘right’ answer! He actually told my mother.” But although Sue was headed for horses from the moment she patted a roadside horse at age 2, she didn’t dream of an entirely equestrian career.  “I envisioned a ‘real job’ teaching in the public schools, and my own barn at home where I could teach riding.”

As it turned out, her preparation for that “real” job—a master’s degree in remedial reading and humanistic education, then three years of classroom teaching—became an excellent foundation for Sue’s lifelong career as an educator at Fox Meadow Farm and Smith. “Humanistic education is all about value clarification and why people learn, and why they fail to learn. It’s about motivating in an appropriate way and having a teaching style that encourages and inspires rather than devastates—it is the basis of my teaching, training and coaching to this day.” 

Fox Meadow Farm provides instruction for both a public community riding program and the Smith equestrian program. Smith students take equitation and jumping lessons and have the opportunity to try out for the school’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team. Sue began coaching Smith’s IHSA team in 1981 and terms IHSA’s growth “mind-boggling,” with the formerly college-hosted IHSA National Championship Show now requiring venues on the scale of Atlanta’s Olympic facilities, the Kentucky Horse Park and the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. Sue has been IHSA Region III President for 19 years, and in 2000 she received the highest tribute of her peers—the IHSA Lifetime Achievement Award. 

College students naturally come and go, but “many of my Smith students stay in touch forever,” Sue says, “and some of my community riders have been with me for years.” June Wilby, a math teacher from nearby Amherst, has ridden with Sue since 1984. “Sue is very knowledgeable, and she has a great eye,” June says. “She can see exactly what a rider is doing and how it affects the horse, and can easily communicate what to change to make a difference. She’s a very kind instructor. Her style of teaching makes the students feel respected.” 

Sue’s own equestrian training began with Captain T. Frederick Marsman, director of Dana Hall Riding School in Weston Massachusetts. “I showed in equitation, and I worked at the barn from dawn to dusk to pay my way. Captain Marsman, classically trained in Europe, would tell us that he ‘brought dressage to this country,” Sue recalls. “He also ‘gave Billy Steinkraus his first blue ribbon!' Although we rode in hunter seat tack, he started us all with dressage. Until we could do renvers, travers, flying changes and leg-yields, we didn’t jump. 

“As an adult, I showed my own horse in hunter classes all over New England. Those were the day of outside hunter courses. You jumped out of the ring over a brush box, jumped a field of natural obstacles and came back in over a coop. I love hunters, but I’ve also shown in jumpers for fun and quite a lot in dressage—but more for schooling than competition. Having an extensive background in dressage from those early years is certainly reflected in my teaching, especially in starting young horses.”

At Smith, a love of teaching and training gradually replaced Sue’s love of showing. “I started working with young horses and found that, to me, nothing is more rewarding.  I’ll never forget [Show Jumping Hall of Fame member] Gordon Wright’s words: ‘You haven’t made a horse until your students can ride it.'” 

Sue takes pride in the supportive “family environment” created by a diverse group of Smith students, faculty, staff and community riders of all ages at Fox Meadow Farm.  “I encourage even the smallest ones to watch the older ones, and I let the older ones know they are role models.” Sue’s methods have advanced the skills of hundreds of students, and she has consistently coached Smith riders to a long list of Regional, Zone and National IHSA awards. 

“Intercollegiate riding can be very stressful, and I remind students that when we’re gearing up for a show, then yes, the focus is on the competition and the skills needed to adjust to a new horse, literally in a heartbeat. But it’s about fun, not just competition. A horse show is a homework assignment. Find out what you need to work on and improve, whether it’s for the next horse show or some other challenge.  For many, riding is a lifelong sport. In the long run, students want to develop the skills to continue to enjoy it, whether competitively, or just for sanity.”

As for Sue, she continues to enjoy the work with horses and students for which she’s so uniquely qualified. “I’ll continue as long as I can, and as long as I love it like I do.” 

“I love horses, I love people, I love to teach. I love to ride! I feel eternally grateful that I’ve been able to build a career on what I love.”

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