Written by: Chris Stafford

The multi-talented, ‘multi-lingual’, multi-disciplined, Marilyn Little is a force to be reckoned with. Five-time Olympian Karen O’Connor predicts that with Marilyn’s ‘wonderful string of beautiful horses’ the sky’s the limit.

Thumbnail for Marilyn Little: All in a Day’s Work

Cealy Tetley photo

Marilyn Little does not do anything by halves. Her daily schedule is impressive for one sport, but to try succeeding in two simultaneously, presents a unique challenge. For this, one could say, Marilyn was born with the right genes. Her mother, Lynne, was an international show jumper and her father Ray is a lifelong horseman who has built a reputation for producing quality sport horses. So when Marilyn, a show jumper known for her fearless riding against the clock, decided while watching the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, that she wanted to try her hand at eventing, it created a stir, but was not a surprise.

And it was not that she was giving up show jumping to focus on the demands of eventing… au contraire… she not only manages two teams but succeeds at the highest level in both disciplines. With 15 horses showing at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida this season, in classes ranging from 1.35m to 1.60m World Cup qualifiers, Marilyn hardly has time to skip a beat before turning her attention to her stable of eight eventers. In between schooling dressage, galloping and training over show jumps, she’s zipping up the Florida turnpike to run across country at David and Karen O’Connor’s training center in Ocala.

Commitment Juggling

As the eventing season gets underway, Marilyn is juggling her commitments in the jumping ring with preparing for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. This will be her second appearance at the four star event in Lexington with the 11-year-old Oldenburg mare RF Demeter. In her four star debut last year, Marilyn finished in the top 10 after cross-country with both of her rides RF Rovano Rex and RF Demeter, and was named to the USEF High Performance List. There followed a tour with the eventers in England and Sweden before returning to the U.S. to resume work with the show jumpers. After drawing a line under the fall eventing season with second and fourth place finishes at the USEF Fall Championship at Fair Hill International, Marilyn began a three-week tour of the West Coast with eight show jumpers, winning the $50k Grand Prix of Los Angeles, and several other classes in Burbank, before heading to the Las Vegas National; her way of wrapping up 2012 before returning to Florida for the winter.

It’s a high octane lifestyle as a professional in any sport, but Marilyn is used to a demanding daily routine spent mostly in the saddle. Her parents, Ray and Lynne Little, started the family business at Raylyn Farms, Inc. in Frederick, Maryland in the mid ’70’s with a breeding operation and international syndication program. As such, Marilyn grew up in an environment that prepared her for a life that is now both demanding and satisfying. Aside from the competition horses that travel with Marilyn, Raylyn Farm currently has a selection of 40 mares, foals and youngstock in Maryland. Marilyn’s acquisition and near-obsessive selection of the bloodlines included in the breeding program is already paying off in the form of numerous titles on the BWP Keuring Approval Tour.

Typical Crazy Day

A typical day for Marilyn at the height of the WEF season would be to school and show the jumpers in the morning before training the eventers in the afternoon, likely followed by an evening show jumping class, including a featured Grand Prix. Marilyn’s operation is based at the Palm Beach Equine Sports Complex in Wellington, which gives her access to dressage arenas, show jumping rings, and a gallop track. But, for cross country schooling she has to travel to Ocala, which means that when the eventers start competing it becomes more logistically challenging so she rotates the competition schedule to two weeks “on” for jumpers, one week “on” for eventers.

“It takes a pretty fantastic staff and support team to make it all happen,” Marilyn explains. “Trying to accomplish all this might seem like “Mission Impossible,” but it does seem to work and I’ve found that one sport compliments the other. For example, these days, the show jumpers do their flatwork in dressage saddles and many are working on the eventing three or four star test. Certainly the elements of the test are not the issue, but the discipline and accuracy required gives them something different to think about…it becomes a new experience and makes them faster in the jump off, and more well- rounded in general.” As Marilyn was preparing for the Fair Hill International Three Day Event last fall, she was also taking her jumpers to gallop alongside her eventers on the hills of Virginia to improve their fitness work.

Just Another Fence

For someone who has been riding eventers for less than two years, Marilyn’s success in the sport speaks to her exceptional ability as a horsewoman who can adapt to any horse she rides. Her position is flawless in the stillness of her lower leg, the quietness of her hand, the independence of her seat; she is always over the center of balance so whatever type of fence she is jumping is, as she would say, “just another fence,” whether it be a 5ft oxer or the water complex on a cross-country course. She acknowledges that, “Gaining an understanding of different methods of training and the practices used in different areas of competition is like learning more “languages”. If you have more “languages” in your head, as a horseman you will have more ways to communicate a given idea to your horse, and this means more ways to solve a training problem or work together more effectively in competition. In the end, horses are all horses and we’re all just people trying to find the “words” to help build a partnership with them, regardless of the sport you choose.”

Just like any professional rider, Marilyn knows that success is founded on identifying the right horse and her eye for selection is something that other riders have recognized in both sports. She is constantly asked to find horses with international potential, and her equine selections currently hold positions on both the U.S. Show Jumping and Eventing High Performance Lists. She brokered the deal that brought Mr Medicott from Germany to Karen O’Connor.

Development and Sales is at the core of Raylyn Farms so she learned from an early age how to match a horse to the right rider, but has also developed a serious intuition for what partnership will come given a rider’s individual program. Marilyn fits in shopping trips to Europe for both jumpers and eventers, and her current string includes two four star eventers; RF Rovano Rex and RF Demeter, who placed 9th at the 2012 Rolex CCI4*. RF Smoke on the Water won the 2012 Red Hills CIC2* and was runner -up in the CIC3*in March. The up and coming RF Azarah and RF Black Pearl ended up second and third respectively in the CIC2*at Red Hills this year. The talented stallion Claire de Lune SE has a number of wins at Preliminary level and was the five-year-old Young Event Horse Champion. There are also two exceptional six-year-olds in RF Chigoletta and RF West Indie. It is a stable that would be the envy of any event rider.

Then there’s the jumpers led by the Grand Prix mare Venus who was successfully shown last year by Kent Farrington while Marilyn was eventing. Nightfire 25, Vivawell, A Vaantje R, Viona, Quintana 26, Cita Z, H-Cassino and Cantacorda have recently been joined in the jumping barn by Smilla, owned by Jaqueline Mars, Quintus 54 owned by Team Rebecca LLC and RF Amber Eyes, owned by David and Karen O’Connor.

All In A Day’s Work

So what drives Marilyn to maintain such a demanding and challenging competition schedule? “I love the horses, I love the challenge, and I’m fascinated by the game. I am incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to walk a unique path, so I will make the most of it, every day.”

And before anyone starts to think, “hey, I could do that,” consider this for a day in the life of Marilyn Little who rode 12 horses on the day I spoke to her and “only fell off one”- an eventer at a quarantine station for jumpers, while wearing a dressage saddle. And she is all about being hands on in the barn too with her day starting at 6:30 by preparing Venus for the FEI Jog, schooling Vivawell, showing two horses before watching two more being tried by potential buyers then showing five more before galloping RF Demeter, dressage schooling with RF Rovano Rex and Mr Medicott (for an injured Karen O’Connor) then jump schooling three jumpers and riding four horses in quarantine that had just arrived from Europe. Then it’s back in the car to head home for at least an hour of office work, including editing videos of the sales horses and maintaining the website before touching base with the secretary… all in a day’s work!

I asked her if she slept at all and she confessed that there wasn’t much time for it. ‘I like to get eight hours at least one night a week but it seems to make me more tired the next day. This time of the year is the opposite of hibernating… it’s flat out.’

As her father Ray observed, “we need to clone her because she’s doing the work of four people.” But with ambitions to make the U.S. eventing team at the next World Equestrian Games and Olympics, and maintaining a winning string of jumpers, there is no slowing down for Marilyn anytime soon… resting is just not in her vocabulary.

In her four star debut last year at Rolex Kentucky, Marilyn finished in the top 10 after cross-country with both of her rides RF Demeter (pictured) and Rovano Rex. For someone who has been riding eventers for less than two years, Marilyn’s success in the sport speaks to her exceptional ability as a horsewoman who can adapt to any horse she rides.