This past weekend, I volunteered for multiple days at the Maryland Horse Trials’ last rated show of the year. And I learned a lot!

Since last time I volunteered for cross country duty, this time, it was all about the show jumping. It started Friday with setting up the course. Competitors were scheduled to run on Saturday and Sunday, beginning with those at the Preliminary level. Our course designer and judge was Kathy White. She indulged my following her around like a puppy, hanging on her every work, and asking a ton of questions.

Her objective was for the course to ask questions of horse and rider — tough questions, but fair ones. So, for instance, she took special care not to put solid white poles on jumps facing the white fence surrounding the arena, which would have blended together, and been confusing for the horse. She saved the white poles for the stone wall in the middle of the arena, where there was good contrast against the dark gray footing. She built her triple for the Training level riders as vertical-oxer-vertical to show that the rider could really adjust the horse’s stride. What a challenge! Everywhere else, bright colors and contrast were the order of the day — reds, yellows, blues, and black.

We began by laying poles to roughly match her scale drawing of the course. Then came pacing things off. Then measuring. And finally, we drove the tractor into the arena to drop off the standards near each jump. I could see where Kathy was consumed with getting a particular jump positioned just right, so I took the initiative to handle some of the details. I put up the red/white directional flags, and numbers on each jump. I made sure the ground pole was in front. I measured the height of the verticals. I turned all the pins on the jump cups in the same direction, providing a finished presentation. Yes, they were small details. But to a professional like Kathy, they were a big deal. She noticed the initiative, and she appreciated it. I know because she said so. Having never volunteered for show jumping duty, that was a great boost.

It took four of us the better part of the day to set up the course. And it was illuminating to see how adding or removing a “B” or “C” element brought the course to an appropriate level for a different level of competitor. That would make our job for the next two days much easier, as we transitioned between the levels. It was an elegant course, with changes of direction, varying looks to the jumps, and reasonable challenges for both horse and rider. I must have walked the 10 obstacle course a dozen times, and I learned something new every time.

  • LESSON #1: Volunteer for set up days, not just the competition days. Be prepared to absorb all you can from the set-up experience. Its often not a glamorous gig, but there’s less of a time constraint, and there is certainly a lot to gain. I now have a new appreciation for the effort required to both design and build a show jumping course. Use your volunteer experience as a way to get first-hand insight from a qualified course designer, and judge. Ask questions. Keep a notebook to remind yourself of the details you have picked up. The judge will appreciate your interest in what they’re doing. Take initiative. It will be noticed and rewarded.
  • LESSON #2: Judges, when your volunteers are particularly helpful, let them know. It’s a great shot of confidence for a volunteer to hear that they’re doing something right. It’s also appreciated if we can get some insight into what you’re asking with a particular jump or combination. Finding out that kind of information is part of why we volunteered in the first place.

The day of competition, because of my initiative in helping with course construction, I was put in charge of show jumping warm-up. It was a tall order, but Kathy had confidence in my abilities because of my performance the day before. She told me clearly that she wanted to take riders in order as much as possible, but that her preference was to keep one rider in the arena, and the cue with two riders waiting, even if that meant going out of order. That way we could run an efficient show jumping round, and keep the competition on time. With my marching orders clear, I set off up the hill to tackle the warm-up arena.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well things ran. My bright red logo t-shirt, badge, radio, and clipboard made me easy to spot. Most of my upper-level riders checked-in with me to let me know they were there, and set off to warm up. They were pleasant and polite, offering a smile, a “Good morning,” and a “Please” or “Thank you.” I even got a “Ma’am” out of Boyd Martin, so I reciprocated by calling him “Sir.” Several riders told me they had multiple rides, and asked to be worked in early where possible. Many of the professional riders had students whose schedules they were trying to integrate with their own ride times. Sometimes it was the student who remembered to tell me. Trainers with multiple students asked if I could send them together. I was more than willing to help out where I could, and thanked them for communicating with me.

Not everyone was trying to go early. There were a few riders who had some kinks to work out in warm-up, who needed more time. When they were polite about it, again, I was happy to spot them some extra time to get into the groove so they could have a successful go at the show jumping course.

The big name riders were all lovely to deal with: smiles, manners, a little polite chatter, and letting you know they were ready and willing to go early without insisting you do them a favor. Lainey Ashker, just off a surgery for a broken humerus, was a sad sight in her sling. But she was professional, upbeat, and sweet, both to her students, and to the volunteers.

Several people stopped by just to say, “Hi.” Kate Chadderton was there with another student, and made a point to see me. That gave me the chance to mention that I was earning a cross country schooling pass for each day of my volunteer work, and that we needed to schedule a day to come out.

  • LESSON #3: Eventing is a small community. Be prepared to run into people you know. Also, make good use of the opportunity to meet people you want to meet. If you’re respectful and pleasant, you can meet just about anyone you want to know. Put your best efforts forward because just as you are watching others, they, in turn, are watching you.

Unfortunately, as the day wore on, not everyone was so friendly. Sometimes it was as simple as forgetting to check-in upon arrival. Sometimes it was more challenging. For instance, one trainer hijacked the warm-up cross rail to make a second oxer. Another trainer lowered the oxer to well below the height for the level that was competing at the time. One screamed at riders as they went over a particular jump because they wanted it just for their own students. I was occasionally bullied by those who demanded their own way. These weren’t our sport’s finest moments.

It was my warm-up ring, and it was up to me to set the tone. I kept things civil and professional. Order was mine to maintain or lose. The saving grace was knowing that my show organizer had my back. That made it easier to hold my ground when I needed to. While the occasional rider slid down to the in-gate when I was doing something else, we were pretty well organized. At the end of the day, we ran almost exactly on time. We were behind for a little while, but we sacrificed our break to get back on schedule.

  • LESSON #4: Riders, please always check in with the ring steward, and let them know of any special circumstances you have. It’s the polite and professional thing to do. We are trying to help keep you, and the competition, on schedule. Accommodating a competitor’s needs is part of a ring steward’s job. But we can’t help you if we don’t know what you need.
  • LESSON #5: Trainers, remember that this is a show, and not your home barn (even if you are hosting). All the jumps have to be shared with everyone else. Be nice to the ring steward, and respect the fact that it is their ring. Keep in mind that they are less likely to do you a favor if you’re nasty. Above all, set a good example for your students. They look up to you, and will emulate your behavior at every opportunity.
  • LESSON #6: Ring stewards, you are setting an example in your ring. Be pleasant and polite to everyone in your ring, but don’t put up with being bullied. If you are able to help a rider, then do so, because you understand how nerve-wracking competition can be. It is your job to maintain order, and communicate with your start gate attendant and show jump judge.

This isn’t a sport where spectators can zone out. Our show jumping arena was next to the cross country course. So when a loose horse came toward us, we had to communicate to the riders and others around us so they could respond accordingly. In one instance, our judge held a rider until after a loose horse was caught before she started her round.

  • LESSON #7: Everyone needs to maintain situational awareness. Stay on your toes!

Remember that volunteers go all out all day long, sometimes with long stretches between bathroom breaks, and just enough time to inhale half their lunch. As the day wears on, they’re tired, hungry, and probably a little sunburned, just like everyone else. They’ve been standing all day and their feet hurt. They’re been answering the same question repeatedly (how many more riders till I go?) while maintaining a positive demeanor. And they’re at your show, often doing multiple jobs, out of the goodness of their hearts and for the love of the sport. Cut them a little slack.

  • LESSON #8: It’s a long day for everyone.

If you think your day as a volunteer is long, think about what your show organizer has been doing. The amount of work it takes to put on an event, recognized or not, is staggering.

  • LESSON #9: Volunteers, remember to thank your show organizer.

Admittedly, my gig wasn’t totally pro bono. I got “paid” with a cross country schooling pass for each day I volunteered. But the lessons I learned were far more valuable. And I wouldn’t have had that chance without the show. And for that, I owe my show organizer a huge “Thank you!”

If there’s a show in your area, and you can’t compete for whatever reason, consider volunteering. It’s a great way to pay it forward for all the volunteers who make the shows you ride in possible. It’s a fabulous way to make new connections. It’s fun! You get to meet people you want to meet, and friends will stop by to say, “Hello.” Most importantly, it’s a great way to learn more about a different facet of your sport, including the nuance and detail from a different perspective. And that’s information you can’t get from the saddle.