May 21, 2024

Now On Course: Laury Marshall and Finley Have Learned The Sport Together

Laury Marshall and Finley. Photos courtesy of Laury Marshall

Sometimes, a kind word is all it takes to make someone’s day, says Laury Marshall.

Marshall and Finley, her 17-hand Thoroughbred mare, had just finished their dressage test at the 2023 USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Nutrena Feeds. They’d performed solidly, good for a 36.4 and middle-of-the-pack standing in the Beginner Novice Rider championship division at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

“It was such a thrill just to be there. I just wanted to finish all three phases and have a healthy, happy horse,” recalled Marshall, of Edgewater, Maryland. “I was like a 60-year-old little kid, just having a great time and just loving my horse.”

As she and Finley, affectionately known as “Big Brown Mare,” were headed back to the stabling area, a woman approached the pair. Marshall was basking in the glow of having performed at the Kentucky Horse Park for the first time in her long riding career, having only been there as a volunteer for the Retired Racehorse Project annual event. And she was also enjoying a respite from the nerves she’d been battling. She had argued with herself about whether to go to the AEC, as Finley had only recently recovered from EPM. Despite her vet telling her the mare was OK to go, Marshall was still questioning whether she’d made the right decision. And then that fateful moment with the stranger occurred.

“I had what I thought was a pretty good test for us,” Marshall said. “I was just so thrilled to be there and have my horse, who doesn’t usually travel that far for events and who was recovering from EPM, be OK with it all.

“This woman came up to us and she said, ‘I just watched your test, and I want you to know you have an incredible partnership.’ I just about burst into tears because it is how I feel about this horse and how I felt about that ride. I had a lot of anxiety about being there. It meant a lot to be there and have that happen, particularly on the first day.

Marshall and Finley meet a stranger who shared encouraging words at the 2023 AEC.

“Every now and then, especially when I’ve had a green horse, when I didn’t think things were going well or even when I did think things were going well, people would say something [supportive] out of the blue,” Marshall added, explaining how those kind words would bolster her. “I’d like to encourage others to do that. If you see something that you think is wonderful, say something. It’s so meaningful.”

When talking to Marshall, who is self-effacing and quick to laugh, one gets the sense that she never hesitates to share a positive word with people she meets. And it’s also very clear that she’s passionate about horses.

Janice Binkley agrees. A riding instructor and coach who runs Dovecote Equestrian in Davidsonville, Maryland, she’s been working with Marshall and Finley for three years.

“As a competitor, she’s not one of those cut-throat, hyper-competitive people,” Binkley said. “She’s just thrilled to be there and sharing it with her equine partner.

“She’s never willing to push a horse past what it should physically do,” Binkley added. “She wants her horse to go correctly, and she wants to make sure [the horse] is fit enough and supple enough to be in the best shape possible to live a long life. She really rides with selflessness. She’s not in it to bolster her ego or herself. She just wants to give her horse a long and happy life.”

If Finley is any indication, she does just that. Finley was given to Marshall as a 5-year-old after she spied the mare exiting a horse trailer at the barn where she and her daughter, Ainsley Parramore, 11 at the time, rode.

“This young woman had a horse getting off a trailer who I thought was one of the most beautiful horses I’d ever seen,” recalled Marshall, who owned an off-the-track Thoroughbred at the time. That horse was injured and laid up. Meanwhile, the young woman who owned Finley had another horse and didn’t have enough time to work Finley, so she offered to let Marshall ride the mare while Marshall’s horse recovered. It was the start to a long and happy partnership, Marshall said, although initially, there were some kinks to work out.

“She’d regularly take off with me,” she said with a laugh. “But I thought it was so fun, and we eventually developed an understanding.”

Laury Finley and Marshall at their first event, in 2011, at Loch Moy Farm.

When Finley’s owner enrolled in graduate school, “She asked if I’d like to have [Finley], and I almost fell over. Against my better judgement, I said yes, of course.”

That was in the fall of 2009. A year later, Marshall and Finley discovered the sport of eventing. They’d both competed in the show ring, but an offer to go cross-country schooling in 2010 at Steuart Pittman’s Dodon Farm in Davidsonville changed their trajectory. Pittman is a former eventer and founder of the Retired Racehorse Project.

“Finley knew how to jump in the ring, but she’d never seen a cross-country jump before,” Marshall said. “I fell off three times, but I couldn’t wait to do it again. It was so much fun. I’ve never loved a sport more. I love the people, and I love the sport.”

The duo started eventing in 2011, working their way up the levels to compete at the Training level in 2016. However, Finley, who vets and equine dentists believe is in her 20s currently, experienced a string of injuries, including a fractured cannon bone, splints, a capped hock, and a sesamoid ligament tear during their ride through the levels. It was the last injury, in 2016, that prompted Marshall to retire Finley to a giant green pasture. Or so she thought.

“She lived in a field not doing much more than some occasional flatwork,” recalled Marshall, who worked with other horses during what would be a five-year break for Finley. That ended after Marshall took the mare for a flat lesson with Binkley, who encouraged her to consider bringing Finley back into regular work.

“She came back into work in 2021, and that’s how we got to the Beginner Novice at the AEC,” Marshall said. “I thought, ‘Even if this is all we do together, this will make me very happy.’ This horse has seen me through a lot of personal stuff. She really didn’t like me at first and it took about three years before our partnership formed. Somewhere along the way, I think she decided ‘Well, you’ll do.’

“She didn’t know how to event, and I didn’t know how to event. It was hairy there for a while. She’s a very, very big, athletic horse, and she can go, but if she doesn’t want to do something, she’s not going to do it. She taught me how to ride better and taught me what she needed,” Marshall said. “It paid off in my relationship with her and with horses in general, to learn to really listen to them. I’m a lot more thoughtful rider now because of the experience I’ve had with her. We’re like an old married couple now.”

Marshall, who is the Assistant Chief of Public Affairs for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C., was always horse-crazy, she said.

“I was the little girl who pestered the heck out of her parents, who knew nothing about horses,” she said of her childhood growing up in western Pennsylvania. At the age of 9, she started mowing lawns and doing chores in her quest to own a horse. “I earned $50 and bought my first pony.”

Marshall learned to ride on Snickers, that pony, thanks to a school friend’s older sister longing Marshall on the pony. Marshall eventually made her way to the farm of her mother’s friend, where she mucked stalls in exchange for lessons, learning the fundamentals of dressage. But she longed to jump.

“I was the classic backyard kid [jumping] lawn chairs and any obstacle you could create on your own, and you’d fly around,” she said. “I was very lucky that I had horses that were really patient and didn’t put me on the ground too many times.”

Marshall rode through high school, hanging up her stirrups after her high-school graduation. “I put myself through college, so there was no way to fund horses.” After graduating from Allegheny College (Pennsylvania), she got married, built her career, had Ainsley, and sailed competitively for 15 years.

When Ainsley was 9, Marshall took her for riding lessons. Marshall was 40 at the time. “Almost by accident, I got back into riding,” she said, explaining how the trainer sensed that not only did Ainsley want to ride, but mom did, too.

“She figured me out right away and said, ‘Who are you going to ride today.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m here for my daughter to ride.’ And she said, ‘Yes, but who are you going to ride?’ ” Marshall recalled with a hearty laugh. “I got on this ancient old Morgan gelding, and that was it. I thought, ‘OK, here we go!’ ”

Mother and daughter rode together for two years, eventually competing in the National Capitol Equitation League (NCEL).

Laury Marshall's two favorite girls; daughter Ainsley and Finley.

“It’s one of the best things you can do,” Marshall said. “They treat it like the college [format] where you’re getting on a horse you don’t know, and you have two minutes to get going, and then you go into the ring. It’s the best thing we could have done because we were going from horse to horse to horse to horse.”

Ainsley eventually opted to stop riding, instead pursuing sailing. Now 25, she an assistant sailing coach at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mom, however, kept riding, owning various horses before fate brought her together with Finley 15 years ago and eventually to a debut at the AEC last year, where they finished 27th overall after tacking on 3.6 cross-country time faults to their dressage score.

“Everything that happened to use was because of rider error,” Marshall said with a chuckle about their AEC showing. “I can be really stupid sometimes, but she was great. She surprised the heck out of me. She was such a beast [in the cross-country warmup]. My young horse came out to play that day, but I rode her poorly, and we ended up with time faults.”

Finley is now back in the pasture, and Marshall says she doesn’t know if she’ll compete with her Big Brown Mare again. Right now, she’s focused on Dancing Rosalie, a 5-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred she’s bringing along.

“I’m trying to create another wonderful partnership before I get too old to do that with another green horse,” she said of “Rosalie.” However, she’s not totally discounting potentially riding, and maybe even showing, Finley again.

“Every time I say I’m not going to compete Finley, I have a great ride on her and think, ‘Hmm…’ ” Marshall said. “It was really amazing when I brought her back from being out in the field for five years. I thought, ‘I don’t know how this is going to go.’ But she got her motor back pretty quickly. At first, I thought it was a mistake, but with a lot of incredible help from coaches, instructors, and clinicians, we got to a place where I never thought we’d get to.”

Do you know a horse or rider with a cool story? Email Lindsay at [email protected] for a chance to be featured.

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Quick Links: June 15-16

Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered! Check out the USEA’s Weekend Quick Links for links to information including the prize list, ride times, live scores, and more for all the events running this weekend.

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