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.