In a change of lead, Marian Cunningham went from the hectic life of international dressage competition, including representing her home country Peru in the 1984 Olympics, to traveling the globe as a 4-star FEI (International Equestrian Federation) Judge.

Marian Cunningham

Marian Cunningham

These days instead of performing passage and piaffe aboard her beloved El Dorado, Marian sits comfortably in the judges’ box evaluating the performances of the world’s top dressage riders. Just this year Marion has judged in Australia, Peru, France, Guatemala, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica and up and down the East and West coasts of the United States. She figures she spends half her time traveling and working in this year-round sport. And loves it. “I’ve made good friends with my colleagues, competitors, owners and organizers,” she says.

Upon returning to Middleburg, the renown equestrian enjoys relaxing, riding her horse Rio, giving dressage lessons and walking her Jack Russels, Maude and Marnye around the neighborhood.
Rio is Marian’s third-generation homebred Warmblood that she boards on a nearby farm she recently relocated to. Some days she rides dressage in the ring and other days she goes out on a hack or rides on the farm’s track.

With her days of competition in the past, Rio is her pleasure horse, living a horse’s life. “He’s turned out all night and liking his new place,” says the former Olympian. “He’s not wrapped up in cotton wool.”
Born in Peru to an American father and a Canadian mother, young Marian first wanted to jump horses, but her pragmatic mother told her she must first learn dressage so she can best control a horse. In between attending boarding school in Massachusetts, attending Commercial School in Switzerland, and graduating from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Marian perfected her sport.
Upon completing her studies, Marian decided to get serious about competition and bought El Dorado. “He was supposed to be trained already, but it took me four years to know what buttons to push to get to L.A. (1984 Olympics).”

Marian is a dual citizen of Peru and the United States and is devoted to both her first and current homes. In competing in the ’84 Olympics, the local rider became the first person to represent Peru in Equestrian Sports. In her international travel she finds occasions to speak the four languages she is fluent in: Spanish, English, French and Italian. “And Barn German,” she adds. “I can swear at my horse in German.”

This Olympian has hopes of becoming a 5-star judge, the highest status in the FEI, which would allow her to return as a judge in the 2020 Olympics. She’s also hoping to judge in the Pan American Games which will be held next year in Peru. “By both competing in and judging in the Pan Ams and the Olympics, I will have come full circle,” declares Marian.


Story and photo by Kerry Phelps Dale.

This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue.