There's No End to the Top for Shawn Casady

Fresh off a fourth place finish overall and Tier II reserve champion at the USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals on August 16, catching up with 19-year-old, barely turned professional Shawn Casady means finding him on the go, in between rings and rounds during summer shows at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Versatile and in-demand, this young rider’s Derby Finals performance was flanked by sucessful rides in the USHJA Pre-Green Incentive Championship and the Bluegrass Festival Grand Prix, all in the same week. Currently based a rider for Ashland Farms with Ken and Emily Smith, Casady has consistently put in top finishes in both the hunter and jumper divisions these past few months during the Kentucky Summer Series.

Casady in the ring at Kentucky. Photo courtesy Rachel Mausser

His ride at Derby Finals only affirmed what a lot of industry insiders have already noticed – that Casady is one to watch. A young rider who got his start catch riding, Casady continues to impress – and this show season is only his first year as a pro.

Pressure's On
With a long list of top pros and hungry junior riders, Casady knew the pressure was on for top accolades during Derby Finals. But despite his own greenness to the derbies, he consistently nailed the courses. (With the new format, riders were placed into either Tier I or Tier II based on their derby winnings and Casady fell into the latter. His solid performances meant a greater payout in the end than some of the more experienced Tier I riders.) 

As congratulations flew his way from fellow riders after the final results, Casady took it all in with contagious excitement. Pumping his helmet for the crowd during the victory lap, it was clear that he’s having a lot of fun with this line of work.

Victory galloping at Derby Finals. Photo courtesy Rachel Mausser

That busy week was directly followed by more hectic weeks of showing. But Casady was happy to pause as he waited for his next leg up, taking a seat on a ringside straw bale. With a steely look in his blue eyes, tousled helmet hair and his coat still buttoned, he spoke with fervor about the sport. With all the seriousness of a seasoned professional, he hasn’t yet lost the wide-eyed wonder of a kid.

“It was a lot of fun, I mean it’s the Derby Finals after all,” he smiled. “Everybody was there, and management does a good job of making it an important event.”

His mount was Ascot, a 10-year-old bay warmblood owned by HJ Group, LLC, a relatively new ride for Casady as the duo only came together in May. But, they immediately clicked and have cruised to top placings all summer. “He’s a boy just as much as I am. He’s cheeky and a smarty pants,” Casady tells.

Despite only doing a handful of derbies before the finals, Casady knew Ascot was up to the task. “He’s really confident, and the course was great. It was challenging, but it wasn’t a bloodbath.”

With a lot of singles in the course, Casady approached the ride with a soft effectiveness and style; an approving crowd and final score of 549.85 reflected his proficiency. But, there was one thing that was lacking when he entered the ring – no “lucky” socks, no charm of any kind. His superstition is not to be superstitious.

“If I find myself washing a certain pair of pants or underwear, I just have to stop myself,” he says in his usual witty way.

As soon as Derby Finals wrapped up and the barns went dark, Casady was already looking to the next day and rides ahead.

Learning Lessons Along the Way
In 2001, at the age of seven, Casady started taking lessons and begged to keep at it. With an airline-pilot father, he spent a lot of his childhood around planes, but Casady preferred the barn life. The challenge of riding was appealing to his self-admitted competitive personality from the get go and the thrill remains in figuring out every ride and every detail of the sport. “There’s not too much turning around now, is there?” he poses. Not that he ever thought to.

With a group of supportive trainers and owners, Casady’s hard work and talent is being polished to a shine. Rising through the ranks the old-fashioned way, Casady hopped on as many ponies and horses as he could – and still catch rides as often as he can. “I’ve never had the luxury of owning my own, and I want to get to the top, so you can’t really say no to a ride,” he explains. It’s easy to forget that he’s still a teenager; he’s got a handle on the realities of the world that most can’t grasp. 

He also knows the importance of immersing himself in the sport beyond just riding. “You have to be able to do it all if you’re starting from the bottom up,” he explains. For him, talking to everyone and spending hours watching from ringside has given him a pretty good idea of how he wants to approach his career for himself. “You learn both how you want to do it and how you don’t.”

But if you ask if it’s been a sacrifice, he’ll look up with furrowed brow. “I mean, you could call it a sacrifice,” he tells with a pause. “Or it’s just freakish determination,” he adds with a laugh. “Some people like to have a ‘life,’ and I’m like ‘what’s that’?”

This July, Shawn won both the $10,000 Welcome and the $30,000 Cleveland Valley Grand Prix at Chagrin Valley with Twister. Photo courtesy Rachel Mausser

Now that he’s reached that goal of being an in-demand rider, Casady couldn’t be happier with the way things are shaking out. He’s quick to point out that “it’s taken a village” to get him to where he is. He also will candidly tell you it’s not an easy transition to make the leap from junior to professional. But, in his short year of being a pro, he has tried not to over think it or change his approach too much. A tough order since just last year his junior career included a silver medal finish for individual show jumping at NAJYRC and a sixth place award at the George Morris Excellence in Equitation Championships. So far, though, it’s working.

His crazy big dream? “To see and travel the world through the horses. There’s no end to the top,” he says with a conviction that makes you easily believe it’s only a matter of time for this young rider. As he’s moved up in the order of go, Casady brushes off his breeches and goes over his last-minute game plan. This time it’s the handy round in a national derby; business as usual for this young industry professional.

Casady and Ascot. Photo courtesy Mandy Su