Unless you’ve been following three-day eventing in the last five years, you may not be familiar with the name Marilyn Little at all.
Then again, even if you are not an eventing fan, it’s difficult to have not come across the 34-year-old rider who’s been labeled everything from a phenom to a disrupter, to a talent and one big question mark.
Little represented the USA in show jumping Nations Cups, and won at the grand prix level, while still a teenager. In 2010 she became fascinated with eventing and threw herself into the discipline. In an unheard of ascent through the sport, she rode her first four star at Rolex Kentucky in 2012 and in 2015 earned the Pan American Individual and Team Gold in three day eventing, becoming used to answering questions by way of her international results. All the same, it was a surprise to see her name show up on WEF Week 4, FEI CSI4* entry lists this past week. She may have been competing at eventing level four stars, but it had been years since she jumped a show jumping grand prix of any size.
However, as Little describes it herself, “I think I’m mostly known for – you never know what’s coming next.”
And that rang true during a breakneck weekend in Wellington, in which Little jumped the WEF Challenge Cup on Thursday, competed in the highly popular $75,000 Wellington Eventing Showcase on Friday and Saturday, and entered the $216,000 Ariat Grand Prix CSI4* on Sunday afternoon.
Early in the Round 1 order of the grand prix, she posted the first clear and later, moved temporarily into the lead after another clear jumpoff ride with Corona 91. She would eventually finish 3rd behind veterans Eric Lamaze and Nick Skelton. The day prior, she rode her seasoned eventing partner RF Demeter to 7th place in the highly popular Eventing Showcase held at the Global Dressage showgrounds.
Little was the only rider who pulled off such a feat, and on Sunday afternoon, it was with a sense of homecoming that she described what keeps pulling her back to show jumping.
“I have so much support here and so many people that are happy to see me be back over here,” she said. “That makes it a lot of fun when your sport is behind you, and it’s something that I’ve really missed for awhile. I’m really happy to be back here and I’m really happy that they’re glad to see me.”
Little was hinting at the backlash that dogged her over the last several years – it seems that event riders don’t appreciate it when an “outsider” steps into their sport and begins soundly beating them at their own game. Through the years Little has held her head high and continued to excel, but being snubbed took its toll.
“Eventing is –I don’t even really know where to start– I suppose what I love most about eventing is the horses,” Little said with a slight catch in her voice. “What we do every day, whether you’re show jumping or eventing, is just games on horses. And if you’re riding the horse, not just playing the sport, you can feel at home in almost every arena.”
Corona 91 is a 12-year-old mare that Little’s mother Lynne Little, and a network of show jumping professionals brought her along over the last year while Marilyn was busy focusing on eventing. So her partnership with the scopey grey is a new –and now successful– one. She looks for the same qualities in both her eventing horses and show jumpers: horses with a lot of heart with a desire to want to play the game. On the cross country course on Saturday afternoon, and in the jumpoff on Sunday, it was clear that both of her mounts were with her every step of the way.
“Six years ago I could never imagine myself eventing. And two years ago I couldn’t imagine myself show jumping again, and now I can’t imagine being without either,” she expressed. “Both sports have changed me so much and the horses and the people I’ve met in both sports have changed me so much. I’m different now, and I don’t know how you go back. I hope that out there [in show jumping] they say ‘you know what, she’s a seat of the pants rider’, and I hope that when I’m over there [in eventing] they say ‘you know what, she’s polished enough, that was a show jumping turn out there on cross country.
“Having access to the tools that I’ve learned in both will hopefully benefit my horses and the training in the future and I’m really excited to see where it goes.”