Grand Prix rides again Frederick woman among top entrants in horse event today

September 21, 1997|By Carolyn Melago | Carolyn Melago,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Charlie looks agitated. His busy weekend left him worn out, and now he's fighting off a cold. He restlessly paces. He stomps. He neighs.

"I think he'll be ready for [today]," says Lynne Little, watching her silver steed in his private paddock last week. She has a reason to be confident: Charlie has come through for her many times.

Little, a world-class equestrian from the Frederick area, will put Charlie, one of her champion horses, to the test again today. The partners will compete at the annual Columbia Classic Grand Prix at Howard Community College.

The popular tournament is in its 10th year and is expected to draw 4,000 to 5,000 spectators. It raises money for needy community college students and carries a $30,000 purse. About 35 riders -- including the top three in the U.S. rankings -- will compete in the Grand Prix. Its results help determine Olympic and international teams.

"The equestrian sport itself has a natural home here in Maryland, which is a state that has lots of horse farms and a strong equestrian industry," says Randy Bengfort, director of public relations at the community college and a member of the Grand Prix board of directors.

"We've found people not into horses enjoy the event because it's very impressive and very exciting to watch -- lots of suspense, lots of elegance," he says.

Little, 43, will be one of the favorites today. Ranked seventh in the country, she is a regular on the rigorous show-jumping circuit.

For two weeks, Grand Prix competitions in Devon, Pa., and Port Jervis, N.Y., have kept Little away from her home at Raylyn Farm south of Frederick, 75 acres of green meadows surrounded by mazes of black fencing. White stables are sprinkled around the tree-lined fields where Little trains and breeds more than 60 horses.

The farm has been Little's home and practice ground since she moved to Maryland from Florida 20 years ago. Though overseas training and nationwide competition often separate her from the farm and her family, she speaks wistfully about the sport. "I don't remember not riding," she says.

As a 2-year-old in Kentucky, Little received her first pony from her father. By 5, she was riding at local stables, and by 7, she was competing. After high school and college, she became a professional rider.

An athlete at Little's level -- the highest in the sport -- needs to love what she does. Courses are grueling, competition is fierce and hours of practice are essential.

In show jumping, a rider and horse hurdle 15 to 18 fences from 4 1/2 to 5 feet tall and as wide as 6 feet. The goal is to finish "clean" -- no fences knocked down, no falls, no refusals by the horse to jump.

Today's Columbia Classic also will feature water jumps (ditches filled with water) and combinations (quick successions of challenging jumps).

"To ride well at this level, you ride a lot of horses, and that in itself is exhausting," Little says. "At one show, you might ride 20 horses."

"The time that you put in is physically draining," she adds.

Little says she'll ride only two horses at the Columbia Classic: Charlie, also known as Special Memories, and Mangrove Mattie.

The cost of equestrian sports also can be daunting. For riders such as Little who compete on the Grand Prix circuit, sponsors usually pick up most of the bill. But having horses as a hobby can be pricey.

A survey for the American Horse Show Association found that in 1995, its 63,000 members spent more than $1 billion maintaining their horses and competing in shows. Members reported spending about $20,000 on each horse.

"Show jumping does get very expensive," Little says. "It's like having another child -- a very expensive child."

And Little mothers the horses. With the month-old foals, who are still wobbly on their lanky legs, she is gentle but stern, loving but strict. Stroking their manes and speaking soothingly, she tugs on each of their bridles, ensuring that the little ones aren't growing too big for the gear.

"It's a partnership," Little says. "You do become attached. But I don't have the attachment I did when I was a child. So many of the horses belong to other people."

Little is also raising two future equestrians. Last year, her daughter Marilyn, 16, won the Columbia Classic Junior Amateur Jumper competition. Marilyn defends that title today with her two horses: Dose of Reality and Pialotta.

Little's younger daughter, Ashlyn, received a pony for her eighth birthday Thursday.

Horses and great trainers are abundant in the Baltimore area, Little says. Television coverage on cable channels has helped the sport gain popularity across the country, especially on the East Coast and in California. In the next year, Little and other riders want to increase the sport's visibility by creating a professional tour that might attract live coverage.

"To develop the popularity with American people, it needs to be televised a lot more," she says. "They need to know the riders. It has to become more personalized."

Spectator support at the Columbia Classic has always been strong, says Little, who has competed there several times.

"It's a beautiful day," she says. "The crowds are great, and it's really a pleasure to ride there. Even with my schedule, I look forward to going, and I think a lot of riders do."

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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