By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Shawna Whitty
Ariana Marnell had a breakout year in 2022 with her partner Babylon in the Small Junior Hunters. After taking the reins from trainer John French, Ariana piloted Babylon to champion at Devon, Junior Hunter Finals, the Hampton Classic, Capital Challenge, the Washington International Horse Show and the National Horse Show.
If it weren’t for an unexpected moment at a dressage show as a child, Ariana may never have made the leap to the hunter and jumper rings. Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, Ariana was the only one in her immediate family with the horse bug. “We spent a lot of time in Montana during the summers growing up. I was always drawn to the horses and wanted to spend all my time with them. My mom and I went on a trail ride and I was hooked,” she said.
Thankfully, Ariana’s aunt and uncle shared her passion for horses. As they were both dressage riders, Ariana’s parents sought out a local dressage barn for her to start taking lessons when she was in kindergarten. It didn’t take long before Ariana made her way into the show ring aboard a pony that could cross over into the hunters.
“When I pointed him at the side of the arena, he thought I wanted to jump, so he did. I thought it was great; my parents had different feelings about it!” Ariana said. “My parents thought it was too dangerous and were really against it. I knew from that day that I wanted to jump. After that show, I would ask my dressage trainers if I could jump at almost every lesson.”
Fast forward a year and a half—which felt like forever to Ariana—to 2014, and she was riding at a hunter-jumper barn. By 2016, Ariana owned her own horse and her parents let her choose a handful of rated shows to attend each year.
“I was always very serious about riding, but my parents didn’t fully support me until the summer of 2019. We went to Mike McCormick’s MTM Farm in Flower Mound, Texas, to look at some horses,” Ariana said. “That trip was a huge turning point. I came home with a different caliber of horses than I had before and started a string.”
With an upgrade to her equine partners, Ariana started having more success in the show ring and quickly learned her parents were becoming as competitive as she was, which led to giving her more opportunities to enter the show ring. “For as long as I can remember, I wanted to show at WEF, Devon, Indoors and many of the major championships. My parents said once I started to find consistent success showing on the West Coast, we could try the East Coast,” Ariana said. “Looking back, I’m happy they had that stipulation. The first couple of seasons I wanted to try the East Coast circuit, I was absolutely not ready.”
In September 2020, Ariana began her partnership with Team KPF, consisting of Kent Farrington, John French and Alex Warriner, though she didn’t enter the barn in top form. “Going to John and Kent was intimidating at the beginning, as I went to the barn in a sling, with a broken collarbone and was moving to work with two of the all-time greats,” Ariana said. “Although my horses moved immediately, I was only halfway through my recovery. About four weeks later, I was back in the saddle.”
“John and Kent are great about pairing horses and riders; they’ve brought me the perfect horses at the perfect time,” Ariana said. “They’ve also showed me the importance of fitness. Living across the country from my horses, working out is what helps make it easier to rejoin my horses on the road.”
Ocean Road, aka Roady, came into Ariana’s life while John and Ariana were brainstorming about potential small Junior mounts for her. John mentioned Roady, a horse he had shown in the 2020 $100,000 WCHR Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular.
“Roady joining the team in December 2020 was a huge turning point. We clicked from our very first jump together and he became everything to me. Right off the bat, we accomplished some of the big goals I had—winning a derby and Junior Hunter Finals,” Ariana said. “We won a derby two months into our partnership and Junior Hunter Finals about five months later.”
In 2021, Ariana’s family partnered with Kent on another special horse, Babylon. Kent had bought Babylon as a 4-year-old and John showed him as a 5- and 6-year-old. “During the pandemic shutdown, John was able to devote a lot of time and attention to Babylon,” Ariana said. “Without that extra time John was able to put into him during his early years, he absolutely wouldn’t be the horse he is today.”
After Babylon had an amazing 3’6” Green year with John in 2021, the Marnell family fully bought Kent out at the end of the year. At the start of the 2022 show season, Ariana took the reins and began showing Babylon in the Small Junior Hunters. While it would end up being a season to remember, Ariana initially let the pressure of riding Babylon get into her head.
“Looking back now, the first few weeks showing him were better than I thought, but in my head, if I got below an 86, I felt like I was letting him down. Babylon and John were 90-scoring machines and that was an act I instantly wanted to follow. When I made a mistake, I was pretty embarrassed,” Ariana said. “Everyone knew what he was capable of, and I felt like I was letting him down when I didn’t have a perfect trip.”
Ariana realized that while she had an amazing support and training team behind her, she needed to focus on the mental aspect of the sport. “I knew that if I could get mentally tough and calm in high-pressure situations, with training from John and having a horse like Babylon, there was nothing he couldn’t win,” Ariana said.
To increase her mental strength, Ariana began reading books and watching documentaries that focused on sports psychology. “I think we don’t talk enough about the mental side of the sport, and it’s so important because it’s one of the few things in your control. There will always be other people with nicer horses, more opportunities, better trainers, the list goes on,” she said.
Unlike many Junior exhibitors, Ariana made her arrival on the big stage much later than her peers. While many other Juniors have been doing big shows since they were on ponies, Ariana competed at Indoors for the first time at age 15. “I always thought that starting later was my biggest downfall; however, now I realize that it doesn’t always matter if you’ve been to Indoors once or 10 times. Being physically and mentally prepared will help you more than anything,” Ariana said.
Figuring out the mental side of riding was a game changer for Ariana. She saw the results of the work she put in studying sports psychology before Devon and it has continued ever since. “While my riding hadn’t changed drastically from April to November last year, the good momentum and zone of focus I could bring myself to brought so much confidence. I realized my nerves could bring me to another level of focus,” Ariana said.
Having John on the ground and at the in-gate brings Ariana a secondhand confidence that helps keep her calm. So, when John was sidelined with an injury that required a hip replacement, preventing him from being at Devon in 2022, Ariana knew she’d have to dig deep to conquer her worries.
“I knew without John, with a horse like Babylon, at a show like Devon, I would be nervous. Alex, who is my equitation and jumper trainer, stepped in and really helped me. I tried to remember the expectations I have for myself are often higher than what others expect from me—well, besides John,” Ariana chuckled.
With Alex at the show grounds and John just a phone call away, Ariana was able to conquer her nerves and achieve the ambitious goal she and John had of being champion at her first Devon with Babylon. “Devon was a massive week for me. Not because it was successful, but because it showed me that I have the power to control the mental side of the sport,” she said.
While Ariana has many memorable moments with both Roady and Babylon, what she values most is the relationships she’s created with each horse. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Roady on the ground and we’ve developed a really strong bond. Thus far in my life, the connection I have with him is unlike any I’ve had with any other person or animal,” she said. “He’s beyond intelligent and understands how loved he is. I think that’s why he tries so hard for me.”
Roady is a family favorite. “My mom taught him how to give kisses and she likes to take him on hand walks. He’s really kind and a lot of fun to be around,” Ariana said.
As Roady and Babylon spend a lot of time on the road together, they’ve become best friends. Perfect gentlemen in the show ring, they each have a fun and goofy side. “Babylon is more mischievous and loves to eat fencing, and ‘helps’ himself and others take off shoes, boots, blankets and fly masks. One year at Capital Challenge, he somehow took off other horses’ blankets. I think he had three in his stall by the time we caught him,” Ariana said.
Prior to fully embracing the equestrian lifestyle, Ariana played volleyball competitively for a few years. “I loved being on the team and bonding with the other players, but it took me away from horses,” she said. Missing the sense of family that comes from a team sport, Ariana is looking forward to riding on the Auburn Equestrian Team when she starts school in the fall of 2024.
“I was on the fence about riding in college until I went on my visit to Auburn. What sold me on Auburn was its commitment to winning; riding there is not a hobby. There is such a fun, competitive atmosphere there,” Ariana said. “Coaches Williams, Braswell and Kurtz have created such a great team, and I couldn’t be more excited to join it.”
Before Ariana makes the move to Alabama, she’s ready to make the most of her time with Team KPF. A consistent presence in the hunter ring, she’s also been focusing on the equitation and jumper rings lately. “I dabbled in the jumpers in 2019 and 2020. Kent suggested I do equitation for a year and then return to jumpers. In 2022, I stepped back into the jumper ring on two great horses I leased from Kent. They took me from the High Children’s to the High Junior Jumpers in six months,” she said.
Ariana did her first two-star Grand Prix on the beach in Miami back in April. “Showing on the beach was such a great experience. To me, the best part was watching five-star classes each day and seeing the top riders from all over the world compete in person,” she said.
Since then, Ariana has kept checking goals off her bucket list. In August, Ariana won a Grand Prix with Kent Farrington’s Away Semilly at the Princeton Classic Finale. Back in the hunter ring, as Ariana concluded her Junior career at the Washington International Horse Show in October, she didn’t get a score lower than 93 on either Babylon or Ocean Road. Once again, she ended up Grand Junior Hunter Champion with Babylon.
Together, the duo has been Grand Junior Hunter Champion at all four indoors shows—Capital Challenge, Pennsylvania National, Washington International and The National. “Some of the things we accomplished I never thought were in the cards for me. I’m so grateful and proud of my boys for making my dreams come true,” Ariana said. “We won a lot, but undeniably, the best part was the journey.”
With her own ambitious goals and a world-class team behind her, the sky’s the limit for Ariana. “I hope the future consists of winning some SEC and NCAA Championships with Auburn and then riding for the USA at the senior level,” she said.
Follow Ariana on Instagram @arianalmarnell
Photos by Shawna Whitty/SAS Equestrian
Ocean Road grey