Matt Payne, with his easy smile and ready sense of humor, is undoubtedly a calming influence in the nerve-wracking realm of collegiate competitive riding.
“I try not to take anything too seriously,” says Payne, Sweet Briar’s newest riding instructor and coach, having joined the faculty this fall. That said, he describes himself as “very competitive and serious about quality.”
“I do try to break the tension at horse shows with my students because I think they will perform better if they are relaxed,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean they get a pass on their quality of performance — he’s always paying attention.
Payne and sophomore Olivia Smith began a running joke at one of the season’s first open shows, which offered a class called “USEF Talent Search.” The notion tickled Smith, who wondered if those who competed in the class found the talent they were looking for on the course.
Now, says Smith, “he is always telling me to ‘search for talent in the ring,’ ”
Smith, who took home the U.S. Equestrian Federation Adult Medal and Ariat Medal from that show, is new to the jumper team and says Payne has helped her make the transition. “I have already learned a lot from Matt. He has helped my horse and I improve as a team. He challenges us with difficult exercises in our lessons, while having a great sense of humor.”
Payne knows what it’s like to be in the ring as a college student: In his senior year at Clemson University, he was the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Open Equitation Over Fences national champion. He also taught while at Clemson and since then has trained students of all levels, many of whom have qualified for prestigious competitions.
During his 24 years as a professional trainer he has managed and taught at his own farm and at the University of Findlay in Ohio. He is active in the hunter/jumper community, including serving on several association boards and committees.
Riding director Mimi Wroten says in addition to his positive disposition and well-rounded resume, Payne is a good fit for Sweet Briar because he teaches in the same forward system of riding used at the College.
Payne doesn’t believe in a strict “totalitarian” approach. “I try to keep my lessons and instruction comfortable for my students, offering them the chance to discuss the principles we are practicing, ask questions and give feedback,” he says.
“I was attracted to Sweet Briar’s program because it shares many of the same principles in horsemanship with which I was trained. It was immediately comfortable. It has an amazing reputation in the horse industry, and I was excited to be invited to become part of that.”