Monday, October 26, 2020

volunteering in 2020

So anybody who's been reading for a while knows that I've gotten heavily into volunteering at events over the last couple of years. It started early with my entrĂ©e into the eventing scene, as a way to familiarize myself with this new-to-me sport. But kicked into overdrive in 2018 with Sara's Volunteer Challenge

volunteering takes on a new meaning when it's your only ticket in to spectating at the big FEI events! picture from when i helped clean up at Great Meadow
And ever since then, I've utilized the USEA Volunteer Dashboard (no membership or prior experience required!) to seek out new fun exciting and intriguing volunteer opportunities. 

Because, it turns out, there are literally countless ways to get involved with the sport, should you be so inclined. (hint: you should!!!! it's fun!! and a great stepping stone to improving access!!!)

pro tip: setting up dressage courts well is 100% harder than you might expect
This year 2020, tho.... Well. Everything kinda got turned upside down this year, right? Especially when it comes to interfacing with group activities like horse shows. 

Turns out, the coronavirus pandemic had a pretty big impact on my volunteer habit too -- in two very distinct ways. The result has been that I've played very different volunteer roles this year compared to literally any other year. 

this wire-based kit was ingenious. it was a very long set of continuous wires with various tags and rings secured at fixed distances, and a very dense little packet of instructions for how to use it to set up perfectly square small and large courts. see the little tag indicating where the letter should be?
Like, sure. I've still spent some time stewarding warm up rings --- bc let's be real, that's one of my all time favorite volunteer positions. But I've also shown up to events only to be shuffled around to the areas of greatest need (like bit check --- one of my least favorite positions**). 

Because.... It turns out, in the Time of Corona, volunteers are in extremely short supply, and event organizers are pretty desperate for whatever they can get.

(**mostly bc this is an area where amateurs and pros are treated differently and I straight up refuse to hassle an ammy about something pros are routinely let off the hook for -- like skipping bit check. no thank you very much, I'm not into that)

learned a lot about the realities of square on this day lol, and i say that as a friggin mathematician
And events are hard up for volunteers at basically every stage of the game. For me, this year, this has meant getting more involved in the earlier stages -- particularly the behind the scenes and administrative type roles. 

The biggest example is in event preparations. This is frequently a task you can find on the USEA Volunteer Dashboard, tho it's typically very very vague and scheduled during weekdays. 

I've given it a few shots this year, tho, and have thus gotten to learn more about the finer points of setting up dressage courts (hint: it's actually pretty fucking infuriatingly precise work, best done with a large group) and decorating xc courses.

did you know: fence decorations take up a shit ton of space??
I'm getting ahead of myself tho -- bc, like I said before, there have been *two* distinct ways in which my volunteer roles have changed. And those can be pretty well divided by whether the events were recognized, or smaller local schooling fandangos.  

So let's talk about the small schooling stuff first. It's worth saying straight up at the outset that I don't ever necessarily see myself as an event organizer. For various reasons. But.... I *am* interested in learning how to use every part of the buffalo. Or, in other words, I want to understand the entire show administration operation. 

virtual cookies to whoever can guess the number of straw bales dedicated to this single fence
This year's limited volunteer coverage has proved useful for testing deeper waters. As such, I signed up to be "Secretary" for the first time, at a very small local schooling dressage show. 

We had ~30 total entries for a single day show. Due to coronavirus concerns, we kept the ring sized to a large court all day -- which allowed running any test at any time (vs scheduling lower and higher level tests according to ring size) so we could keep people moving in and out.  

however long you think it takes to flag a course, double it lol
That made for easier ride time calculations (hint: excel is your friend), tho feedback from the judge was that Intro riders needed longer time intervals since it took literally forever for them to get around that enormous ring haha. 

Other roles and responsibilities included keeping tabs of entries, payments, signatures, forms, and on the day of, scoring tests and awarding ribbons. For some reason, I kinda love scoring dressage tests -- there's something super satisfying about punching all those numbers into the calculator haha. 

So.... on that note, dressage scoring is another volunteer role you could pursue too -- if overall secretary sounds like a bit much at first blush.

the orderliness of this picture pleases me intensely. see that clever flag cart??? wish i got more pictures of it, it was so nicely designed
Other roles I've played for the first time this year at small local shows are cross country starter, and course designer. 

The event where I was xc starter was..... kiiiinda a hot mess, and way too big of a job for one person. It basically amounted to xc volunteer coordinator too, in that I had to give volunteers the orientation spiel, assign them to their fences for each level, and organize score collection.... Plus, ya know, actually start riders out on course (and jump judge the first two fences). 

Ugh. What a cluster fuck that day was haha... A perfect example of how this extreme shortage in volunteers can have a direct impact on overall event success and safety.

tho ya know, if your flags are just straight up sticks, maybe you can get away with less lol
On the flip side of all that, is the other way in which my volunteerism has been impacted by covid. Superficially, it might not look all that different since it still revolves around the activities before and after the event itself. But.... It turns out, operations tend to run quite a bit smoother at the larger more adequately funded recognized and FEI events. Who woulda thunk??

This part of my volunteerism in 2020 is less about organizers in urgent dire need of help, and more about.... Well.... I love spectating at the big events. And spectating just isn't allowed during the pandemic. So.... If you want in, ya gotta earn* it!

(*or pay for it. cash money works too, apparently!).

i'm sure i took this picture for a reason. probably something to do with fence repair on the fly. this type of screw is called a timber lock
So, as a means of granting myself access to some of the biggest local FEI events -- including Fair Hill, Great Meadow, and Plantation Field -- I've signed up for volunteer roles such as course decorating and clean up. 

And.... Wow it turns out, I actually really like these jobs! So far I've had the privilege of being paired up with people who know, intimately, inside and out, the job at hand and/or the venue itself. And most of them have been pretty open to questioning about the whats and the whys of setting things up a certain way. 

staking fences is kinda an enormous subject, it turns out. these are spirafix ground anchors, i think. most fences are fine with just cement form stakes tho. the 2' length allows 18" below ground, with 6"exposed to screw in to the fence itself
I already wrote a bit about the 'art and science' of course decoration from Fair Hill, but there's so much more than just that. Often times the people working on these days are the same folks who designed the course (or even built the actual fences), and they're actually pretty open to discuss details and explain their methods. 

Like why a fence is shaped the way it is, or what goes into building a frangible table, how different styles of fence require different types of ground stakes, and even the rules governing what types of flags must be used in different circumstances. 

oooh i learned how to stuff brush fences!! 
Which, ya know, is fascinating stuff, it turns out. One of the highlights from this particular experience was being allowed to tag along for the ground jury course walks at Plantation Field on the 3* and 2* courses. 

Like... can you imagine? Here was this group of 5-6 massively experienced and accomplished horse professionals, walking along the course and commenting on it as they went, giving feedback to the course designer with every step. And, along the way, happily explaining their thoughts when I asked. 

this jump literally looks like a gallows when naked, but hang some cedar and *boom* gorgeous crescent wedge!!
Obvi those level courses are well beyond my ken, so a lot of their feedback was not particularly applicable to anything I'm personally likely to experience or work on, lol, but.... It was a pretty cool experience.

Which... Is just sort of another reason why these "preparation" type volunteer roles can end up being so different from your standard fare "day-of" jobs. On the event day itself, everyone operates within their narrowly defined roles against a relentless clock, to facilitate the smooth operation of the overall event. 

But on the prep days? It's a smaller group of people and an entirely different type of schedule that somehow seems to lend itself better to those sort of "in between" moments and glimpses into how the sausage is actually made. Does that make sense?

more words for the wise: takes a shit ton of cedar to make something like this
So. Overall, it didn't end up being a banner year in terms of hours logged against the USEA Volunteers of the Year leaderboard. But... Honestly, I'm pretty excited and energized by some of the experiences I've gotten. And even more so by the connections made and people met. 

For my own personal long term goals --- it's not particularly realistic that I'll ever ride at the top of the sport or anything like that. But I do love horse shows, particularly the small local stuff that can attract and be accessible to larger swaths of the horsey population. Right now, all this volunteerism kinda feels a little bit like doing my homework for some sort of future plan. 

I guess we'll see tho, haha. If 2020 showed us anything, it's that plans are.... ehhhhhhh, best written in pencil lol. All the same tho, it's also shown us the importance of being involved and active in the activities we love the most. Have you volunteered at all this year?


  1. Great that you still got some volunteer hours in this year. I think show secretary is one of my favourite jobs. I like doing entries and preparing forms. (nerd alert!) Show management can be stressful though - we always had a heck of a time finding volunteers. I think this is the first year in the last 5-6 yrs I haven't done any volunteering. I got a bit burnt out after some bad experiences.

    1. lol you and i might be kindred spirits in enjoying that type of work haha. it helped that the dressage association i worked with had a reasonably organized process that was easy enough to pick up and run with. tho for real, i hear ya on the burn out. aside from the secretary gig, i've mostly stuck with more "transactional" type roles that i can sign up for online, and just show up on the designated day to do a specific job. actually getting into the mgmt stuff (esp the human side of things) tho.... i've been slightly reluctant to jump in too far yet haha

  2. Show secretary was always my favorite roll for volunteer at our local schooling show (which bit the dust around the time I started blogging). My least favorite roll was back gate.

    Glad you are still getting opportunities to get out there and learn

    1. aw bummer about the local show going the way of the dodo.... those are my favorite types of shows!

  3. I volunteered this summer at our area eventing finals (or something like that) as a jump judge. I thought of you ( It was crazy hot, but I got to see some incredible riding and learn more about a sport that I am not as familiar with. I will definitely do more volunteering next year.

    1. i love jump judging!! definitely a fun way to spend the day, and an area where events are seriously feeling the pinch right now with not enough help.

  4. Dressage rings are hard...especially at Fair Hill. Setting those up is an entirely different beast (no wire kit used there)...

    1. yea i'm sure there's a million approaches to setting up a perfectly squared rectangle! no matter which way ya slice it, it's kinda a PITA lol

  5. Dressage rings are a major PITA! In our last few moves, its been a pain to try to set it up, I cant even imagine doing it to legal standards! I was really hoping to do a scribing clinic this year to help out more at dressage shows in my area and get more involved locally, but Covid dereailed it :/.


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