Marilyn Little - Legitimate Questions or Witch Hunt?

Marilyn Little at Boekelo 2015 Credit : Thomas Koppers

Friday 28 October - 14h40 | Lulu Kyriacou

Marilyn Little - Legitimate Questions or Witch Hunt?

Much has been written recently about Marilyn Little and blood over the last year and perhaps the facts need clarifying because the term 'witch hunt' has been flying about rather too readily. This article looks at whether there are legitimate questions to be asked or if the social media has created a witch hunt over nothing.   

 - Marilyn Little - Legitimate Questions or Witch Hunt?

There is debate whether this photo shows the blood appearing but it was seen at subsequent fences Credit : Thomas Koppers

Horses cut themselves in paddocks, without any assistance from humans, most horse owners can attest to that. Competition horses are particularly expensive to keep and on the whole may not be medicated to recover with lengthy weeks away from the ring letting the treating drugs leave their systems or else risk incurring a positive test. So most competitive riders go to a lot of time and trouble to make sure their horses stay in the best possible shape. They wear protective boots, have rolled toes on their shoes, bridles are padded and bits are well finished to be smooth and unbreakable. Riders do wear spurs and carry whips but misuse of either, even by accident carries heavy penalties and can be applied after the rider has completed their competition. Cross country riding does provide some particular challenges. The horse is working at maximum exertion,  as well as jumping solid fences on variable going. It is very easy for them to clip a heel with their own opposite leg, nip their tongues in excitement or when the varmints think they know best approaching a fence at speed and grab hold of the bit. Sometimes, one of the tiny blood vessels lining the membrane of the nose bursts which is just bad luck and the horse does not even feel any more than a human does. A serious pulmonary haemorrhage is not the same deal at all; those provide so much blood in such a short space of time it covers the riders in bloody spray and they pull the horse up without being asked!

 - Marilyn Little - Legitimate Questions or Witch Hunt?

Galway International, RF Demeter Credit : Supplied via Facebook

So there are many occasions when some blood might be seen and it is not down to any sort of abuse. Many riders have had a near miss cross country and saved themselves by grabbing the reins, not ideal but entirely accidental and it does not happen often. Ruthie Meyer has recently said than in 30 years with husband Joe, she has never seen one bloody mouth. I have worked as a freelance groom for twenty years and only seen one or two. It is not a common problem and if you discount incidents as mentioned in the causes above, a blleding mouth is really quite a rare thing. The problem has arisen with Ms Little because she has clearly been seen and photographed on three different horses at four different events, within the last year. That is some record. She has not been penalised for it once, despite their being more emphasis on horse welfare and despite the rule saying that these cases must be investigated. 

What then can possibly be the reason one rider is so often caught on camera falling foul of this occurrence? Marilyn Little was an experienced show jumper before turning to eventing. That discipline requires more precision in jumping but the horses travel slower and generally, if they have a jumping bridle with a stronger bit, they only wear it for a few minutes in the ring where the courses are shorter and there is less chance of the rider losing their balance and using the reins to save themselves. Ms Little has risen through the ranks of eventing in the USA in spectacular fashion, in less than five years getting a reserve team spot at a World Championship and perhaps it is this rise that is part of the problem.  Her preference for bits that give her  complete control is documented in several interviews in the USA which is not surprising in many ways considering her show jumping background and the specific control required for that discipline. The best cross country riders though, tend to ride on longer reins and jump out of a natural rhythm attained by good schooling, often in a totally different tack set up to that which they use to show jump. Watch Michael Jung, or Mark Todd or Pippa Funnell, all of whom have also show-jumped to international level and it is easy to see the completely different way they go about jumping cross country fences. 

 - Marilyn Little - Legitimate Questions or Witch Hunt?

Fair Hill 2016 Credit : Michelle Beck

Although Little has a string of younger horses, in international competition through the last two years according to the FEI data base, she has competed internationally on six, three of which have been photographed with bleeding mouths. It must be said that one of those horses has recently been re-bitted in a much milder looking pelham combination but the mouth once again bled at Fair Hill. Whether this horse is a habitual tongue biter or whether this bleeding is the result of an old injury reoccurring has never been investigated as per the FEI rule. Little has also not helped herself by dismounting from her second horse at Fair Hill, immediately after the finish in the chute leading up to the wash off area, with her crew  waiting there ready to remove tack well before she reached the veterinary officials. Although there is nothing in the rules to prevent this, in the 21st century where everyone has a camera within reach, video of this happening did nothing to help her cause. Although as already mentioned, there is no rule anymore that says you must dismount and un-tack in the wash down area and it is an assumption left from the days of long format when there was a box to check horses between phases, perhaps this is a issue that does need looking at from a welfare point of view and if nothing else, the current debate has highlighted a loop hole which could be closed for everyone's benefit.
To conclude then,  despite other notable occasions where horses have been stopped, investigated and then disqualified, on four occasions (2 x Fair Hill, Galway and Boekelo) and  within a twelve month period, with three different horses RF West Indie, Scandalous and Demeter), Marilyn Little has received none of these things. To be fair, she did retire on RF Demeter at Galway but not because of the blood but because she said she had a control issue. Despite this, the fact is that of her internationally registered event horses in that period, 50% of them have demonstrated  blood in the mouth.  One would hope that this would at least flag up some extra observation and some extra speed in dealing with the issue ON COURSE and not afterwards, in private, which does nothing to increase public confidence. The debate is not a witch hunt as no other rider seems to have such a repeated issue on multiple horses. There are questions about why this is, and more questions about why it has not yet been dealt with openly. Until those questions are answered, expect the debate to continue.

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