I hate to admit it, but up until recently, I ignored a lot of emails and Facebook posts that pleaded for horse show volunteers. Those emails were something I scanned over in my inbox, paused for a moment, then thought Nah, I don’t have time, and then went on with my day.
One weekend this Spring, I competed at a show hosted by the Potomac Valley Dressage Association (PVDA) at Morven Park in Virginia. It was a particularly nasty day and it poured rain the whole time. It was one of those that makes you wonder why you actually spend money to go to shows because it feels so downright unpleasant that someone should really be paying you to endure that misery.
Just as I was starting to feel sorry for my horse and myself during warm-up, I grimaced and glanced over at the ring steward who was standing at the gate, zipped up in a rain jacket with a hood. Much to my surprise, my grimace was met by a giant smile peeking out from under the hood. Whoever this kind volunteer was, I was sure that she probably had more fun things to do on a Saturday besides stand in the rain and help stressed, grumpy riders like myself. Yet here she was. Smiling.
It struck me how, unlike her, I had done absolutely nothing to contribute to this community besides just paying my money, showing up for competitions and then leaving. It’s especially ironic considering that this was the very same community that literally made it possible for me to achieve some of my most meaningful riding goals.
My dad has this great saying that I find myself repeating more and more often as I get older: “Not enough time is merely a euphemism for not enough priority.” Pretty good, isn’t it? While his clever saying has applications in all areas of life, I find that it’s particularly true in the case of volunteering. Hardly anybody, especially among us horse people, has an abundance of spare time and is just sitting around eating bonbons and watching soap operas. We all have responsibilities and we all have things that need our attention. It’s just a matter of priority. In this particular case, I had put myself and my own goals first on so many occasions. It was finally time to put volunteering first.
Since then, I’ve helped out on a few occasions. I’ve scribed, served as a ring steward and bit check and have set up dressage arenas. In the grand scheme of things, my contribution is small, but it’s a good start. I’m really the last person who has a right to be preachy about volunteering, but in case any of you have been scrolling past those volunteer-plea emails like I did, I want to offer you a few reasons to put it up higher on your busy to-do list:
1. It’s an opportunity for free, valuable education. We’re always complaining about how expensive it is to get an education in dressage. I get it. Lessons and clinics cost a lot of money. But, nearly every volunteer position at a show gives you important insights into dressage. And all it costs you is your time. For example, scribing is basically like getting a one-on-one session with a judge, when you get to learn exactly how movements should—or shouldn’t—be ridden. You get to see common mistakes in tests and learn more about the judge’s perspective. When you’re a ring steward or the bit check, you learn a heck of a lot about competition rules. Or, when you set up a dressage arena, you get a great lesson in figures and geometry!
2. You’ll meet new people and make friends.
3. The chance to network. Are you horse shopping? Or looking for a trainer? Just go chat up some people milling around the show grounds and you’ll be sure to make some connections!
4. There is a huge need for help. I live in the Mid-Atlantic and we’re generally pretty lucky to have a variety of competition opportunities and well-managed shows. But even these shows are often short-handed. The phrase “many hands make light work” couldn’t be more true when it comes to running shows. The more volunteers a show has, the more pleasant of an experience it tends to be for competitors, judges, spectators and other volunteers alike. I have a new motto: don’t complain about how a show is managed until you’ve actually worked behind the scenes yourself.
5. It’s great exercise. The last time I volunteered (for only a portion of a day, mind you) my FitBit tracked 20,000 steps. That’s nearly 10 miles! Plus, I got a great big dose of Vitamin D during my time out in the sun. Ok, it was more like a sunburn, but at least I’m no longer mistaken for Casper the friendly ghost.
6. You might snag some cool swag or free food! When I recently volunteered at the PVDA Ride 4 Life event, volunteers had access to a lunch buffet and we each got a nifty moisture-wicking sport shirt to wear. We were also stocked with plenty of drinks to keep us cool throughout the day and we got a coupon for a discount at one of the tack vendors! Those might sound like small things, but when our own horses force us to live off of Ramen noodles, free lunches are always welcomed!
7. Volunteer hours are important when applying for scholarships and grants. Many Group Member Organizations and other organizations like The Dressage Foundation offer grants and scholarships for dedicated riders. Some of these grants are even for pretty significant amounts of money. A history of volunteerism is often part of the criteria for award recipients.
8. Spending time at a show is great inspiration. If you’re looking for a little motivation to get into the ring yourself, spending time at a show can be a great kick in the pants. After seeing so many people head down centerline, you might be itching to get in there yourself.
9. You’ll get a different perspective on showing. After working as a ring steward, I have a newfound appreciation for people who check in with the ring steward and are ready to enter the ring at their assigned time. Not only is it important to avoid elimination, but it makes everyone’s jobs easier if you are where you are supposed to be, when you are supposed to be there.
10. Your help is truly appreciated. Every time you offer to volunteer at a show, an actual person on the other end of the computer or phone does a happy dance. Not only is show management thankful, but the competitors are appreciative, too. Even though they might not think to say it as they’re catching their breath coming out of the ring, they’re glad you’re helping make it all happen.
11. You can help other people achieve their goals! Doesn’t it give you a warm, fuzzy feeling to think of sending a cute kid on her pony in to ride her first dressage test—or giving a smile of assurance to an adult rider heading in to ride her first FEI test? I just recently earned my USDF bronze medal, which was a goal that I’ve had for a while now. It meant a lot to me to finally get it done—but I know that it wasn’t all my doing. There were many other people involved in making that possible for me besides just my horse and my trainer. There were scribes and test runners and score calculators and stewards and a volunteer coordinator and many, many other people who had to come together to help me check that off my bucket list. I think that in this case, the best way for me to say “thank you” is for me to roll up my sleeves (or zip up my rain jacket) and return the favor.