by Katherine O. Rizzo (first published in the October 2019 Equiery)
Mary Helen Shaughnessy of Baltimore has been working behind the scenes at the Washington International Horse Show since 2015 when she was the show’s sponsorship coordinator. One thing led to another and her role with the show continued to grow. Shaughnessy is now WIHS’ newest executive director! The Equiery had a chance to chat with Shaughnessy to find out more about her WIHS roots and get a sneak peak at this year’s show.
Q: How did you first become interested in horseback riding?
A: I started riding at a summer camp in Hilton Head, South Carolina, when I was around 12 years old and fell in love with a little paint school horse that we bought and took home to Baltimore. It was very causal and fun and I don’t think either my parents or myself ever imagined that the fun summer hobby would turn into a year-round schedule of showing around the world.
Q: Did you compete in both show hunters and jumpers?
A: I rode primarily jumpers with my first “A” show experience being at WEF in the Children’s Jumpers when I was 15. I always had better success in the jumper ring, working over time to be successful in the Amateur Owner Jumpers. I had some great hunters but to be honest, I was never much of a hunter rider! My mentality is definitely better suited for the jumper ring.
Q: Did anyone else in your family ride?
A: My mother rode causally as a child and then took it up more seriously when I started to show competitively. She was an excellent hunter rider, twice being circuit champion at WEF in the Low Adult Amateur Hunters.
Q: When was your first WIHS experience?
A: I have memories of attending WIHS as a little kid as it was one of my mother’s favorite activities and it was absolutely a place that I fell in love with horses and where dreams of showing on a major level first were planted. My mother grew up in Washington, DC, and had a tradition of attending WIHS every year around her birthday, starting with the very first WIHS at the DC Armory in 1958.
Q: Did you ever dream of competing at WIHS yourself?
A: I remember WIHS at the Capital Centre, which was just a quick drive from our home in Baltimore. I loved watching the riders compete and absolutely dreamed I could one day be in the ring showing against them.
Q: You competed at WIHS in 2001 and 2002. How would you describe the experience to others?
A: Competing at WIHS was absolutely a goal of mine and the experience is memorable for me, but not necessarily how you might think. I have the distinction of having fallen off both times I showed at WIHS, once in the Children’s Jumpers and once in the Junior Hunters. Despite that, I have very fond memories of the show! I qualified for the Children’s Finals at the Regional Show, which was a great opportunity for someone like myself who lived locally and remains a very unique element of the show. In my memory, all the elements that make WIHS challenging… the late night schooling, the busy downtown stabling, the challenging courses… those are the things that I smile about the most when recalling my time showing there.
Q: How did you first become involved with the “behind the scenes” side of WIHS?
A: As I transitioned out of riding competitively, I realized that I still loved the sport and the equestrian world, so I wanted to find a way to keep one foot in the door as they say. I had been living in New York for 12 years and my husband and I decided we wanted a change and began looking at jobs that could bring us back to my hometown of Baltimore. I saw the role of Sponsorship Coordinator at WIHS and in 2015 I took that job and began my chapter at WIHS where I truly loved seeing one of my favorite shows from the inside out. From there, I moved into Sponsorship and Hospitality Director, then Development Director, and was very excited to be offered the rode of Executive Director this year.
Q: What would you consider the most rewarding part of being involved with WIHS?
A: Absolutely the most rewarding part is seeing all the pieces come together for that one week in October. We have a wonderful team, some of whom work year-round on the show, and hundreds more that just join us for the week. Seeing the efforts and goals of everyone come to fruition is a great feeling.
Q: What would you consider the most challenging aspect of WIHS?
A: The challenging part is two-fold for me. The first is making sure that WIHS stays relevant as a horse show and a destination in permanent ink on every equestrian’s calendar. The second is just the logistical challenge of executing this event in a major sporting arena, in a major downtown area, and the new challenges and surprises that seem to pop up every year!
Q: For this year’s show, what are you most excited about?
A: How can I choose! I am excited about Barn Night, which has a really fun theme of Halloween on Horseback this year, and believe me, we are taking that theme to heart! Not only will the riders and horses be in costume for an increased Best Costume prize, but we have a Trick or Treat presented by Snickers that will be giving candy at various horse trivia stops around the concourse. There are also great new prizes for barn contests and you might even see our mascot Major dressed up for the occasion.
I am also excited about our free ticketing programs this year, which are offering free tickets every day to members of the military, first responders, government employees, teachers, DC public school students, 4-H clubs and members of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Anyone in those groups can just go straight to the box office and redeem two tickets any session, any day!
Q: Can you talk a bit about MARS Equestrian being named presenting sponsor?
A: We are thrilled to welcome MARS Equestrian as our presenting sponsor. They have been a supporter of our show for 13 years and have a major presence in the DC community, so we are excited to expand our partnership this year to highlight their mission and unrivaled commitment to horses, pets and people at our event.
You can look for MARS to be featured in many ways at our show, including Tuesday’s Hunt Night presented by Buckeye Nutrition, where tickets are only $2, our Trick or Treat presented by Snickers on Barn Night, exhibition gifts from Ethel M… and a whole lot more! We are thrilled to have a partner like MARS Equestrian that can help our show shine both behind the scenes as well as for our spectators and fans.
Q: What exhibitions will spectators get to see at this year’s WIHS?
A: Friday night is Military Night and we are excited to announce the return of the popular Army v. Navy Celebrity Barrel Racing exhibition. Representatives of Army and Navy will partner with show jumpers for a race around the barrels.
Thursday and Saturday we are featuring our popular Shetland Pony Steeplechase presented by Charles Owen. And we are adding another exhibition for Saturday… stay tuned!
Tuesday’s Hunt Night will also feature a Sidesaddle and Hunt Team exhibition in celebration of the history of the sport.