The Joy of Volunteering at Dressage Competitions

A long-time Kentucky Dressage Association volunteer shares her meaningful experience.

Judy Nagy (right) and Lynn O’Connor volunteering at a competition. (

Five or six years ago, volunteering for the Festival of Champions (FOC) scheduled for the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP) seemed like a fun idea. I had many fond memories of organizing teams of riders with disabilities in the past at FOC at Gladstone, New Jersey, but this time I really wanted to just be a “peon” volunteer. Through USDF, I found Sheila Woerth, the driving force behind the Kentucky Dressage Association (KDA), emailed her and signed on to work the event.

Driving into KHP for the first time was surreal—acres of pastures in every shade of green, full of gleaming horses, tidy buildings and lush landscaping. The place is magic for a horse lover. I was thrilled to be assigned to the Rolex Stadium warm-up. Meeting many riders, horses, trainers, officials and Kentucky locals made my first week in Lexington memorable.

The following year, KDA was hosting the USDF Region 2 Championships, so I happily flew to Lexington. It was a huge event, spread over the Rolex Stadium and the Dressage Complex at KHP, with complicated logistics. I was at the warm-up about an hour before the first ride, and it soon became apparent that nobody was joining me. My warm-up fed three competition rings, a bit of a challenge for a lone steward. About 10 a.m., a tall blonde in an Aussie hat and duster came striding up to my little tent and announced that her name was Patty Walter and that she was there to help—all day, all weekend. It was music to my frazzled ears. We bonded instantly, and Patty figured everything out in three minutes. However, she had promised Show Manager Anne Kuhns that she would also do the awards. When she told me this, I just stared at her and asked “Are you out of your mind?”

Awards are notoriously difficult to orchestrate, so I began keeping an eye out for more help. New KDA volunteer Marie Keel, another nimble mind, was next to appear. I began to have hope. Getting the riders pinned and down the ramp on time is top priority. One of my best memories is Anne on the radio softly asking “Is the next class ready?” while announcer Nicho Meredith filled in the airwaves.

Anne’s involvement really reflects the KDA story, I think. She was asked to manage awards for a KDA championship at KHP. On their way home to Oklahoma from a family reunion early that summer, Anne and husband Bill drove through Lexington. They met Sheila, toured the Horse Park and fell in love with the area. In March 2012, complete with three Great Danes, they took up residence in Paris, Kentucky. Region 9 has not given her up, though, as Anne still manages two Oklahoma shows and is in charge of awards for the Region 9 Championships.

Last summer, my Kentucky visit was scheduled for KDA’s Summer Classic in July. The competition was huge: 300-plus horses, more than 1,000 rides, 13 breed registries, 20 pony registries and the National Dressage Pony Cup (NDPC), and many special awards with five rings going for three days.

When I arrived, Anne told me that my favorite job of warm-up steward was waiting for me at Ring 5, which would see many of the NDPC riders over the weekend. Some had little show experience, so I was more than happy to have an opportunity to guide them along. I also enjoy teaching the horses good behavior, such as gently convincing a horse that a ring steward sticking her hand in his mouth is a good idea.

KDA’s Lynn O’Connor ran Ring 4, and we shared day sheets and a tent full of chairs, ice water and supplies. At one point, we watched multi-discipline technical delegate Susan Moran defuse a coach/parent/rider situation with such grace that everyone walked away happy. Lynn said, “I love working these shows. The people are great, the horses are beautiful and the Kentucky Horse Park is gorgeous. It’s always a special feeling to turn into the driveway as the sun comes up.”

The volunteer coordinator’s office is the hub of a smooth-running show. We always laugh if we can’t find Volunteer Coordinator Sandy Kraatz—we know that she’s out there filling a job, sometimes at the very last minute. Like me, Sandy feels that all riders and trainers should volunteer at shows for greater understanding when they compete. As an example, my favorite plea is, “Please check in with the Ring Steward” when riders enter the warm-up. If a rider volunteered half a day in a warm-up arena, he or she would understand why that is so important. And if they knew how much KDA appreciates them, they’d be lining up to volunteer. Perks abound at KDA: prize drawings, special dinners, gift cards—but most valued are the countless thanks we receive. Priceless.

There were lots of Kentucky riders, of course, as well as participants from the surrounding states. I was impressed that riders from as far as Texas and Canada had traveled to compete. I also noticed a rider from New Jersey on a horse from Washington State. Bill Solyntjes’ lovely liver chestnut German Riding Pony from Minnesota had the most enthusiastic rider I’ve ever met. Nothing brings joy to a volunteer’s heart like a competitor who’s having the time of her life.

Managing a volunteer organization is a complex task. Sheila is an amazing human being and the driving force behind KDA. Under her leadership as show chair, KDA has grown from two to seven annual shows since 2005. In 2010, Sheila formed a committee to transform the Dressage Complex at KHP. KDA has made some great improvements and is now working on a huge project—a proposed multi-purpose pad 110 by 95 meters. It will accommodate dressage, jumping and driving with two competition arenas and two warm-ups and more. Sheila makes it all look easy and there’s little doubt in my mind that everything will magically appear over the coming years, seemingly without effort. KDA will be hosting regionals again in 2018, and I’m looking forward to a return to Kentucky.

No matter where I travel or for whom I work, working a dressage show is a pleasant experience. But a KDA show is way beyond pleasant. There are so many factors that make a great event, but I have to think that managing by committee, where KDA members have their own proven sets of skills, has to be the best. Most of us know exactly what Sandy means when she says, “I feel a great sense of satisfaction when the show has run smoothly for everyone involved.”  

This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of Dressage Today






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