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February 24, 2011

Marilyn Little-Meredith Is Learning The Tricks Of A New Trade

Marilyn Little-Meredith gets a kick out of buying photos of herself and Udonna jumping into water. "For a show jumper, if we're in the water, something has gone wrong!" Photo by Xpress Foto.

This grand prix show jumper earned her first eventing blue at Rocking Horse Winter II Horse Trials.

A new job isn’t too hard if you’ve got the right tools in your toolbox. So while Marilyn Little-Meredith is a new face on the eventing scene and is rocketing up the levels aboard Udonna, rest assured—her toolbox is packed with a set of highly sophisticated tools to get the job done.

Rewind six months, and you’d find Little-Meredith and her flashy chestnut mare Udonna jumping around grand prix show jumping courses at venues like Spruce Meadows (Alta.). Little-Meredith is a veteran of the show jumping world, having followed in her mother, Lynne Little’s, grand prix-winning footsteps and represented the United States in Nations Cup competitions in Europe. Udonna was originally imported to show in the grand prix jumpers.

But Little-Meredith, 29, decided to spice things up a little last fall and got hooked on eventing. In just their eighth event start, Little-Meredith and Udonna won a division of preliminary rider at Rocking Horse Winter II Horse Trials in Altoona, Fla., on Feb. 18-20.

Since she’s taught eventers at her family’s Frederick, Md., farm for more than 10 years, Little-Meredith certainly knew what the sport was. But it was watching eventing at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games on FEI TV that lit the spark in her to give it a go herself. Two weeks later, she was gleefully galloping around the training level cross-country at the Maryland Horse Trials.

Three more training level completions followed quickly, at Waredaca (Md.), Rubicon (Va.) and Pine Top (Ga.), and Little-Meredith and Udonna placed fourth, fourth and sixth.

Even though she’d grown up at horse shows, she felt a bit like a fish out of water at her first few events. “I think I was more nervous for going into the dressage at Waredaca than I was riding on the team in Europe my first time,” Little-Meredith said.

“I literally came out of the ring after my three minutes of dressage test and realized that I didn’t make one circle that was round. I blew by a few letters and completely missed them, like: ‘Whoa, there they went!’ I didn’t breathe at all. We have a video, and I was white as a sheet. There was a lot of work to be done.”

Doing The Work

After November, Little-Meredith, her husband, Benjamin, and her mother and father all traveled to Wellington, Fla., for the winter show circuit. Little-Meredith decided she’d take advantage of the down time in December and January to further her education in her new sport, so she called Karen and David O’Connor.

“I realized that there were some definite gaps in my knowledge, and that if I’m going to take this seriously, I need someone who’s already very serious about it to help guide me,” she said.

The O’Connors took the already effective tools Little-Meredith had and helped her tailor their application to eventing. “She’s technically a superb rider,” said Karen. “And as far as the mare and Marilyn’s desire to do the cross-country, there’s no question! It’s remarkable. The mare seriously digs the questions, the banks and ditches, the water and the galloping.

“We discussed differences in technique, that there’s more of a range in the changes of balance in preparation for a fence on cross-country due to the speed and terrain. Marilyn understood that quickly and was able to implement that technique and just make her show jumping technique more profound for on cross-country,” continued Karen.

In addition to help from the O’Connors, Little-Meredith turned to dressage rider Dr. Michael Kohl for help in the little white ring. “He’s been hard at work taming the beast, so to speak,” Little-Meredith said. “Now Udonna realizes that when she goes in the dressage ring, that is actually what we’re doing that day, and it’s not just for 30 minutes before she jumps. Getting that message across was difficult.”

Little-Meredith has found dressage to be her biggest challenge and where she needed to alter her style the most. “The cross-country is show jumping questions with big gallops in between. They’re technical questions,” Little-Meredith said. And even though the preliminary jumps are more than a foot lower than grand prix jumps, Little-Meredith has a healthy respect for them.

“If you really understand the question behind the jump or the combination, you realize it’s not just about the height of the jump, and there’s so much that the horse has to understand about each jump to successfully negotiate it. It’s so much the same as show jumping that it’s surprising to me. Some of the things I think I don’t know, I actually do know, and Karen keeps saying to me, ‘Go on, you know this.’ ”

With her tools being honed to a fine edge, Little-Meredith tackled her first preliminary event in January, placing second in a division at Ocala Horse Properties Winter I Horse Trials (Fla.). She and Udonna then took sixth at Rocking Horse I, and  then third at Ocala II before their win at Rocking Horse II. 

She’s Putting On The Mileage

Little-Meredith splits her time between showing and teaching in the show jumping world in Wellington, and delving into her eventing career.

“I’m pretty much based out of my truck and trailer now!” she said. “In between my husband and my horses that are here in Wellington, and Udonna and the O’Connors in Ocala, [Fla.], then spending a few weekends at events in between, I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep. Luckily, I have a great support group, which has made this a lot easier.”

But don’t let her hectic schedule fool you into thinking Little-Meredith isn’t fully focused on her eventing education. At home in the evenings, she’s burning up FEI TV and YouTube watching cross-country rounds. She walks the cross-country courses at every level at the events she attends, then watches intently as the upper-level riders go.

“When she’s here for lessons, she stays and watches us ride, and she watches us gallop; she really studies it. She’s read every book she can get her hands on. She’s not doing this as some sort of short-term exercise. She’s studying the entire sport, and she remembers everything,” said Karen.

Running and jumping on cross-country might be the main attraction for Little-Meredith, but she’s found some other unexpected benefits in her new sport. “The people have been amazing. The chance to get to know new people is one of the most refreshing things about this experience,” she said. “Horse people in general are all similar, but what a fun group of people the eventers are! They take it so seriously, but they have a great sense of humor and are so humble. It’s been a pretty welcoming atmosphere.”

She’s met some interesting reactions from her show jumping brethren, however. Many question her sanity and claim they’d never consider giving eventing a go. But a few have been intrigued and threatened to join her.

Little-Meredith planned to run her first intermediate at Pine Top Spring (Ga.) on Feb. 25-27, then tackle the intermediate at Red Hills (Fla.). “Red Hills being my first intermediate would probably not be a wise decision, so I’m told. And from what I can tell from YouTube videos, they’re right!” she said.

Udonna’s Having Fun

Udonna, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare (Madison—Primadonna, Cavalier), has taken to her new job with gusto. “I think she loves it!” Little-Meredith said.

“She’s got all the scope she needs, she’s got great movement, and she’s unbelievably brave. She just lacks the experience and the training. That’s my job now, to present it to her in a way that she can absorb it,” she continued.

Udonna was successful in the grand prix ring at the 1.50-meter (4’9”) level, and even jumped more than 6’ and placed fifth in the puissance class at the Washington International Horse Show (D.C.) with Little-Meredith’s husband.

“She’s clever, and she can’t wait to get it right, which worked against her a bit in show jumping,” Little-Meredith said. “She was in such a hurry to do it right that you wished she’d slow down, think for a moment, and have another look at the jump. With a ditch on the other side of the jump, or a drop into the water, she’s really started to take a good look at the fences. Her ability to process things has really improved.”

Karen has no worries about Udonna’s abilty to handle eventing at the upper levels. “She could do anything. She’s a beautiful mover, and she’s got a huge gallop. She’s a super talented horse,” said Karen.

Little-Meredith and Udonna need to complete four intermediate horse trials with national qualifying results at three of them (a dressage score under 50, a cross-country round with no jump and less than 36 time penalties, and no more than 16 show jumping penalties) to compete at advanced.

Big Goals Ahead

When Little-Meredith first started eventing Udonna in October, she made a video of their new adventures to help Udonna’s owners, Raylyn Farms and Team Udonna, understand and share their new venture. The video—also posted on her website—concluded with the stated goal of: “From first start to Fair Hill in one year.” The video raised a few eyebrows in the eventing community, as people questioned the wisdom of aiming for a CCI*** just 12 months after debuting in the sport.

Little-Meredith definitely has the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.) as a goal for 2011. But she’s not going about it in a foolhardy manner.

She’d heard of “Fair Hill” from the eventers she taught. “I knew it was big deal, and I knew it was close by, but when I was first starting to event, I didn’t know exactly what it was. I thought, 'What a cool thing to do a year from now—that would be such a great goal.’ Then I started to get into it, and I realized ‘OK, so, that’s a really serious goal!’

“For right now, this far out, I’m bound and determined to get there. But I also have a very healthy respect for what is out there in terms of jumps and the level of competition. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you have to do what’s in the best interest of the horse, and the horse will tell me as we’re getting closer what my goals should be. If all the pieces come together, what a neat thing that would be. But only if it’s doable and it’s the right thing for the horse and our skill set. If it doesn’t happen, well, she can do the two-star, and if that doesn’t happen, we can do a one-star.”

Little-Meredith made her goals known the O’Connors right off the bat. “One of the first things she said to us was, ‘Is it possible?’ She didn’t want to risk herself, the horse or the sport,” said Karen. “That’s been our No. 1 priority—to be able to have her going at a level safely. She already knows how to ride, so the learning the sport part of it is where she’s being fast-tracked, and she’s doing it as safely as possible.

“The mare will go up the levels as she and Marilyn are ready. Whether she reaches her dream of getting to the Fair Hill CCI*** is an open-ended question. There’s no answer to that yet,” Karen continued.

For more from the Rocking Horse Winter II Horse Trials, be sure to check out the Feb. 28 edition of the Chronicle.

 
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