Marilyn Little grew up with horses.
"Horses were my playmates in the afternoon," said the Frederick native. "I was really lucky to have that. … It's served me well."
As a competitor on the international equestrian scene, Little is making the most of her experience.
She's compiled a formidable resume: first-place Grand Prix finishes, a European tour as the youngest rider to represent the U.S. Equestrian Team and appearances at competitions around the world. The latest addition is a second-place finish for Little, 32, and RF Demeter, a 12-year-old Oldenburg mare owned by Raylyn Farms and Team Demeter, at The Fork International Horse Trials CIC3*, a three-day event in Norwood, N.C., last weekend.
Little was quick to credit RF Demeter and the other horses on her team.
"I really couldn't be happier with them," she said. "They're performing beautifully."
Little is down to the final weeks before the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event on April 24-27. The Rolex Kentucky, at which Little rode RF Demeter to a ninth-place finish in 2012, is one of six four-star events in the world and a qualifying event for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.
Little has been competing in and winning show jumping competitions, in which horses leap over obstacles, since she was 19. But it was the World Equestrian Games that inspired her to take on three-day eventing.
"Four years ago I was watching television and I saw the World Equestrian Games … and I watched and I thought, 'Wouldn't that be fun to try — wouldn't that be cool?' And one week later I entered in my first event," she said. "I fell in love with the sport; I fell in love with the horses ... the equine athletes that play that sport."
Three-day eventing, the most popular equestrian sport in the United States, is a triathlon descended from military tradition. The first day is dressage — "like ballet for horses," Little said — a test of the horse's discipline, fluidity and accuracy in executing patterns.
The second day is for cross country, a several-minute timed course with obstacles such as logs, walls, ditches and water hazards.
"That's the fun part," she said. "That's what draws people to the sport, and it is the hardest … both for horse and for rider."
"On that cross country day, it can be absolutely great, but it's also a very hard day for parents," said Lynne Little, Marilyn's mother. "A lot happens out there … and I like being there. I like being there when she's running through, jumping that last jump and running through the finish line."
Lynne Little was a world-class show jumper in her own right, riding with the U.S. team and winning Grand Prix events. She and her husband, Ray — Marilyn's father — run Raylyn Farms and its breeding program of "RF"-appended horses on more than 75acres in Frederick. Lynne said she had to stay home during The Fork, but Ray traveled to Norwood to watch the competition.
Little and RF Demeter had the fastest cross country time at The Fork, completing the run in 6 minutes, 12 seconds, seven seconds faster than the "optimum time." They placed second to the other rider who finished in less than 6:19 because the winner's time was closer to the ideal mark.
The last day features show jumping, but at heights closer to 4 feet than 6. Many eventing horses could make the high jumps, Little said, but by the third day they're tired from cross country.
Eventing horses “have to be true athletes physically and mentally, able to wear three different hats and able to take pressure of competitions in three areas and all that that entails,” Little said. “Training is rigorous, it is demanding. ... They have a huge amount of pressure put on them, and those horses have to be able to mentally cope with the stress of that, and the ones that become good at that truly do love it.”
The demands and schedules of eventing and show jumping require horses with "strikingly different" personalities, Little said.
"Eventers, they're exposed to a lot, so because they're doing three different sports … the horses on a day-to-day basis are more easygoing. … It's like a very worldly person."
But eventers also have a lot of thoroughbred in their lineage, Little said, so "at competition times they can get a little frisky."
Eventing takes place outside and so has more of a season than show jumping, which requires less space and can be performed indoors during winter. While an eventer might compete once every three weeks — and less often before a big four-star event — show jumpers can participate in multiple competitions in a week and travel to arenas such as Verizon Center in Washington or Madison Square Garden in New York.
"These horses can unload into a city street, be put in an elevator and taken up 20 stories," Little said. “They’re used to the crowds, they’re used to competing at night, so these horses are used to the flashbulbs and it doesn’t bother them, whereas eventers never see that ‘cause their events are held in the countryside, so different things will set each one off."
'Think like a horse'
Marilyn learned horsemanship from her parents and her mother's professional equestrian friends, Lynne Little said, especially Daniel "Mikey" Smithwick, a famous Hydes-based steeplechase rider and thoroughbred trainer who died in 2006.
"One of her greatest assets is her ability to read a horse and understand a horse and think like a horse, and a lot of that came from Mikey," Lynne Little said of her daughter. "I think it's really made her a great horseman."
Besides managing her own team, Marilyn Little has followed in her parents' footsteps as sort of a matchmaker, importing horses from Europe for investors or riders. She also helps sell horses from the family farm.
She may choose a horse in Europe and send it back to the United States, or bring potential buyers with her to find a good pairing.
Little also helps sell horses from the family farm.
"There are tens of RF eventers out there and there are hundreds of jumpers out there, from the beginners through the international level, that have been partnerships that we helped decide," she said. "Their success is a real testament to the program, to the legacy that is Raylyn Farms."
Little's team consists of 16 or 17 horses. RFDemeter was the U.S. Eventing Association's Horse of the Year in 2013 and has competed in three four-star events: the Kentucky Rolex and competitions in Germany and France.
Little rode RF Smoke on the Water, an 8-year-old Wurttemberg gelding owned by Raylyn Farms and Michael and Phoebe Manders, to an eighth-place finish at The Fork CIC3*. She also won with RF West Indie, a 7-year-old Holsteiner VB mare owned by Raylyn Farms, in the Preliminary-B Division.
On the jumping side, Little is building her team back up after selling her top horses.
"They're my competitive partners; they're also the way I support … so it's a sad necessity to sell them," she said. “I have a fantastic, very strong group of young ones that are about to step into the spotlight, that are about to be competing at the highest level.”
Her new top jumper is Nightfire 25, an 8-year-old Holsteiner gelding owned by Raylyn Farms and Betsy Smith. Little said Nightfire 25 is about to begin competing at the international level.
She's also training Cantacorda, a 7-year-old Holsteiner mare owned by Raylyn Farms and Signature Farm.
"She's the child genius," Little said. "She's skipped a few grades and will continue to skip a few grades."
“They really reach their prime between the ages of 12 to 14,” she said. “Physically, they may reach their prime around 8 or 9. However ... both show jumping and eventing are such mental sports, they require such aptitude and competitiveness on the part of the horse, they have to learn to play the game, you have to teach them the game.
"Like people, the ones that are good at that ... they do it because they love it and because it is their skill.”
'We need some luck'
After The Fork, Little is back at her winter residence in Wellington, Fla., preparing her team for the Kentucky Rolex. If all goes well there, she and the horses will fly across the Atlantic to get ready for the World Equestrian Games.
She said equestrianism in Europe is a model American riders should look to.
“Their youth have a greater understanding and exhibit a higher level of professionalism than much of our youth population,” she said. “Our younger generation, they are show kids. ... That’s very, very different from horsemanship of old, both in this country and the horsemanship as it exists in Europe today. The days of the complete rider who really understands everything about this, wants to know everything about their horses.”
Lynne Little said Marilyn has a shot at competing in Normandy.
"The selectors [for the World Equestrian Games] know who they're looking at; they've been watching 'em," she said. "It depends on how they come out of Rolex.
"Demi looks, she looks great, and so does Marilyn, so hopefully … we have some luck. We need some luck."
Said Marilyn Little: "There is such an element with luck. But if you're consistently at the top, that's the goal."