By Britney Grover
To say Mary Knowlton’s life has revolved around horses is an understatement. She’s worked her way through the horse industry, including over 40 years running her Knightsbridge Farm, earning her “R” hunter and equitation judge’s card and “r” jumper judge’s card, and serving on governing boards. She’s been the USHJA President since 2016, now serving her second term, and is also the head of risk management and compliance for Princeton Show Jumping—a second full-time job she took on early this year, closing Knightsbridge Farm to do so.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., no one in Mary’s family was remotely associated with horses: Her father was head of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress, and her mother was the undergraduate dean of nursing at Catholic University. Her two sisters became a gerontologist and an attorney. “Clearly, I am the black sheep of my family,” Mary said with a smile. She now lives in Freehold, New Jersey, while being thoroughly involved in the entire horse world.
How did your horse career start?
Apparently my first word was horse. I have always wanted to work with horses, and I am lucky enough to get my wish. My childhood trainer taught me to teach and I never looked back.
What’s your best early memory of riding?
I remember struggling to learn to sit the canter. My instructor tried so many different strategies and it seemed that I would never get better. One day a lightbulb went on in my head and I could sit! It was the greatest feeling. Thank goodness for the patience of instructors and school horses.
Any favorite horses over the years? Why are they your favorites?
Two really come to mind: My first love was a 3-year-old Thoroughbred named Rhapsody. I had no place riding her—I was an untalented 12-year-old—but that horse was magical and kind. The second is my first really successful pony, Half Pint. I was a young trainer who had just moved from eventing to hunters. I had no idea that the deck was stacked against my conformationally incorrect pinto (way before pinto was cool) pony. Half Pint could jump but she got moved back in every conformation class and never got a good hack ribbon. But the kids and I loved her and believed in her, and we showed her at Pony Finals and Washington. She even had a song written about her. She taught many children to excel at riding.
What’s your favorite thing about being part of the horse world?
The sense of community
How did you get to where you are in your career now?
My parents taught me to never be afraid to ask questions or get my hands dirty. I started at the bottom of the horse industry and just kept working. Along the way, I discovered skills that I never suspected I possessed. I’ve managed to find jobs that use my analytical skills, my love of horses and my passion for teaching.
If you weren’t involved with the horse world, what career do you think you would have picked?
As a child, I was laser-focused on working with horses and so I wouldn’t consider any other job—much to my parents’ dismay. As an adult, I’ve run into so many jobs that I’d love to try. I would enjoy being a labor arbitrator, a physical therapist, an elementary school teacher or an investigator.
If you could tell every rider one thing, what would it be?
Believe in yourself, but listen to your horse
If you had a week off, what would you do?
Garden and read books
Where is your favorite place you have been? Where would you like to go but haven’t?
My favorite place is the Pacific Northwest. I would love to go to Greece.
Do you have a personal motto or catch phrase?
I have two: “Horsemanship and sportsmanship make you a winner in life,” and, “The only place hand comes before leg is in the dictionary.”
Who inspires you?
My students and my horses
What talents do you feel you have?
Listening, empathy, analysis and mentorship
What’s your favorite item of clothing to wear?
The most comfortable thing in my closet on any given day
What’s your favorite meal?
Breakfast, without a doubt
What three things can always be found in your refrigerator?
Carrots, water and club soda
Favorite type of pizza?
Fig, arugula, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar—I can’t eat regular pizza.
Something people don’t know about you?
I was in “Who’s Who Among American High School Students” for music.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
What would be the best gift in the world?
More time to be with those I love
Photo courtesy of the USHJA