Sunday, February 7, 2021

robbing peter to pay paul

In the spirit of membership renewal season, I want to talk about something that's been buggin me this past year: Is the eventing horse show and membership association model.... actually broken?

Covid was a game changer across the board, for people in every single walk of life. Confronting the realities of a global pandemic exposed some pretty stark vulnerabilities across how our society functions (or, uh, doesn't).

In the case of eventing, it completely upended what now appears to be a very fragile and tenuous structure. We always hear that volunteers make events possible.... But, this proved a little too true - at the expense of possibly unacceptable risk.

pics today are a random stroll down memory lane from past events -- recognized and unrecognized
So. Story Time:

A friend jump judged at a recognized event last year, where they were so short on volunteers that a single individual handled xc warm up, start box, timer, and fence 1 judging. At a RECOGNIZED event. 

That’s.... too much, even for an experienced volunteer. I don't know this person's experience (frankly it doesn't even matter). But the result was that a Novice horse was accidentally sent out on xc while Training was still running.

Some background:

Most Area II events are one day formats with show jumping and xc run back to back. Riders can pause after SJ if they need to change boots, put on a vest, whatever, but most proceed directly from one phase to the next. SJ courses usually run in ~2min, then riders can jump xc warm up fences before spending roughly 4-6min per horse once on course, with riders sent out every 2-3min. So a level will typically conclude in show jumping while there’s still horses left to run xc.

It works best when the show jumping ring waits to start the next level until the previous level finishes xc. This allows smoother flow from phase to phase, and avoids having riders piling up at the xc start while jump judges relocate to the new level's track, pee, do their radio checks etc. Naturally, tho, this requires coordination between stewards in each phase. 

just in case y'all forgot: charlie is f*ing magnificent  
So idk what happened at this show above, whether they did or didn't follow that scheduling practice, or whether they communicated between rings and stewards or whatever. I do know the rider in question had multiple horses and was likely trying to squeeze in as early as possible with one horse to save time for the next. Ultimately, tho, it’s the rider's responsibility to not do anything dangerous, and she was unfortunately eliminated after being stopped on course.

If I were her, tho, I would have been pissed. Bc the people in charge of stewardship failed to realize what was happening. Usually there is a series of people with orders of go, who aren’t so frazzled that they wouldn't see this rider was in the next division. But obvi when one volunteer has to cover 4+ distinct jobs, things get missed.

So. This Novice pair was released from the xc start box while Training level was still in progress. 

Why was that so dangerous, anyway? A couple reasons: First, each level follows different tracks. Jump judges were positioned for the Training track, and so possibly obstructing or dangerously close to N jumps. There were also ropes in the way unbeknownst to the galloping rider. 

More importantly tho - jump judges serve a critical but often underappreciated role in that they're the collective set of eyes on the rider in the event of an accident - esp at key moments like jumps. They are the first responders, armed with radios. A rider on a path not under observation by jump judges is at an increased risk that an accident wouldn't be immediately known.

For a sport so deeply invested in rider and horse safety, it's unacceptable that the weakest link in the event of a critical accident could be that there simply wasn't anybody to see it happen.

Another example from the past year- this time at an unrecognized (and therefore unregulated) event. I signed up to steward but ended up being the starter (no timer since unrec isn’t timed), warm up steward, jump 1 judge, AND volunteer coordinator. Meaning, I had to give the jump judge orientation training and then position volunteers across the course. Ooh but I didn’t have maps or know the courses. 

Not only was I not expecting or prepared for this level of responsibility - but I had grossly insufficient resources to get it done. And also, there were only something like 5 volunteers in the early morning for our first division - Modified (3'5 / 1.05m for the unfamiliar).

Now sure we only had a single entrant in that division, an experienced rider who was based at the farm. But dammit. No. That’s fucking unacceptable to send a rider out on a full Modified course without guaranteed eyes on her the whole way around. I don’t give a fuck about whether they know how to report on penalties. I want to know if she falls, and I want to know immediately. THAT is the ultimate role of these volunteer positions.

Obviously this second example falls well outside the purview of the USEA in that it was unrecognized and not subject to rules and regulations (beyond what is required by insurance). But, in this area, we have an enormous density of events recognized and unrecognized each weekend -- and they're all vying for the same limited volunteer pool.

So, this all begs the question, how on earth did we get to this place where this burden of responsibility falls on a volunteer base that may or may not have much experience or really understand the implications of their role?

And, more importantly how THE FUCK is it possible for a regulated recognized licensed event to run with such limited oversight that dangerous mistakes like sending a horse of the wrong level out on xc become possible?

In that instance, the rider paid the penalty bc ultimately we as riders must be responsible for following the rules and regulations. But it shouldn’t have happened. And arguably wouldn’t have happened if there had been sufficient warm bodies to conduct the necessary checks.

Again, tho, is it acceptable that all these tasks fall to volunteers? That we are expected to do this work as a labor of love for the sport we're passionate about? 

It’s not like there’s tons of cash just overflowing - every venue I know is on a shoestring budget precariously balanced over needing to maintain and upgrade facilities (a conservative estimate for buying a new xc fence is damn near $500-$1K, with pricing increasing fast up the levels just due to materials), meet all the necessary regulations, officials and rules etc, and still be reasonably affordable for competitors - plus maybe have cool prizes. 

And let's be real. Most barn owners are already spread thin with the whole "managing a horse farm" situation to also be doing extensive event sponsorship cultivation.

It should be noted - I’m just talking about run of the mill national horse trials, here. None of this even gets close to what it takes to run an FEI event - for which there are entirely separate components, not least of which is spectators and the related revenue stream.

So.... how did we get here? This past year, Covid created an acute volunteer shortage. Many would-be volunteers reasonably felt it wasn't worth the risk even with safety precautions, and ya know... an entire other segment stopped volunteering in retaliation against mask mandates. Whatever the underlying reasons, tho, the result was the same: Too few volunteers made it suddenly clear that many events operate in an unsustainable fashion. But why?

As a member of USEA, competing in events sanctioned by USEA, is it unreasonable to think USEA bears responsibility in creating sustainable operating requirements that aren't so heavily dependent on an unpaid untrained work force? Doesn't this fall under the governing body's responsibility to ensure event quality and safety standards?

Or, alternatively, should there be mandatory volunteer quotas for competitors and/or members? 

Individual venues fill some gaps by offering volunteer incentives and rewards. Here’s the thing, tho - high value rewards systems are costly and vulnerable to abuse. Plus, that's just one more thing to manage for venues already tasked with so much. 

Local and area membership associations also offer incentive and rewards programs. For instance the MCTA has a volunteer quota to be eligible for year end awards, and a minimum number of those hours must be earned at MCTA-run events. But again. This is a small association, and they're incentivized toward cultivating volunteers for their own events -- not necessarily the broader community. 

It seems like the USEA should have a role here. And, to their credit, they have invested in resources. The volunteer dashboard and portal created a universal system for posting volunteer positions at events nationally -- recognized or unrecognized, other disciplines are also welcomed. It also connects venues with volunteers who might not otherwise have any relationship. 

There's also the national volunteer incentive program, where hours earned from recognized events are counted toward yearly and lifetime recognition awards. Tho, like I've said before, the actual thresholds for recognition are laughably unattainable for the average volunteer haha. 

So.... Clearly there's more the USEA could do here. Either by improving the incentives or creating a mandate for competitors. But... It's not clear that it's a priority. The USEA is maybe kinda pulled in too many other directions with too many competing priorities. The young riders pipeline. The young horses pipeline. The high performing teams aimed to compete at the highest levels and represent us internationally.

That’s all well and good for the sport, but it doesn’t mean much for me as a rider if I pay to enter a competition that’s so severely under-resourced that my Novice horse and I get eliminated after leaving the start box while Training is still running. Like. Where is the advocacy for the little guys making up the lion's share of membership?

shockingly difficult to photograph a mirrored and engraved picture frame -- but this was my 2020 Volunteer of the Year prize from the MCTA <3 featuring pictures from Sara's volunteer challenge prize a couple years back
And how does this tie into the swirling controversy about "To Run or Not To Run" Kentucky? All this conversation about how much it costs, and how pro riders face a ticking clock with top level horses before it’s too late for the qualifications and selection opportunities... Those are important topics too, of course. But whether or not certain horses get in front of the right selectors at the right moments within the right time frame really has no bearing on my corner of this sport. 

It’s almost like comparing the Super Bowl to high school football games. And it makes me wonder why the same governing bodies are administering BOTH of these categories of sport -- that are not even close to being in the same league. 

Tho ya know. We can probably answer that question ourselves: memberships and fees from the base support the top. But.... maybe I’d rather my money go farther in my own area to ensure the events I myself ride in are safely administered.

pc Austen Gage
I honestly don't know the solution to this issue on event sustainability and the burden on volunteers. And maybe some would argue that I don't understand enough of the inner workings of the USEA or other area associations to even pass judgment here. As a member, rider, and frequent volunteer, tho, it all makes me wonder -- I'm curious. 

Do you think the USEA should play a bigger role in local horse trial administration, especially as it relates to the reliance on volunteers? Should shows be allowed to run if they don't have sufficient job coverage, volunteer or otherwise? Would you support volunteer quotas for competitors? 

Or, maybe you think I'm reading too much into a couple limited experiences, and maybe there isn't really a problem at all? Do concerns like this make you more or less likely to renew your USEA membership? 

Obvi I'm focused heavily on eventing in this post, since this sport is unique in the sheer volume of people needed to run a show. But are there parallels in other disciplines? Are you, personally, likely to sign up for volunteer roles this year? What would incentivize you to do so?


  1. Really good insight. I am likely to volunteer more this year, since I now live closer and volunteering no longer means a complete miss of riding my own horses or taking care of my own life. That said, there's always been a bit of an appalling lack of standardized training for jump judges and other volunteers. It's critical the volunteers know the rules, but frequently they just haven't read them. 🤦🏻‍♀️

  2. Really good questions here. The only discipline I've seen that doesn't struggle with volunteers is h/j, and that's because (around here at least), they don't rely on volunteers at rated shows or the nicer schooling shows. They pay people to run the show office, set courses, adjust jumps, run the warmup ring. These costs get passed along to the consumer (riders), but the shows always run smoothly and are usually well attended. Is this a realistic solution for eventing? I'm not sure; relative affordability is a big draw for the sport. But maybe some paid positions would be beneficial?

  3. Really good post! I hope USEA reads it. Excellent food for thought.

  4. There is much t9 think about. I know first hand the sheer amount of work, begging and beating the bushes to fill volunteer positions at dressage show. I can sympathize with the issues facing shows now. I doubt there will be any rated dressage shows here this year because of the need to bring judges in and we can’t do that without a 14 day quarantine. But recently there have been some provincial shows listed so that is good.

  5. Wow. On the one hand, I'm amazingly comforted by the fact that other rated events have snafus like I do. And can honestly understand how you end up with a huge backlog at the XC in gate - some officials run a FAST ship.

    But more to your greater point, you bring up many things here that need to be addressed by both USEA and our riders. I hear never-ending bitching about the cost of eventing and the quality of footing and the variety of cross country courses and fences and I just wonder what riders really want - an affordable event or a mini land rover with turndown service? Riders, in my area at least, are willing to turn the cold shoulder to a rated event at the drop of a hat, making the idea of offering fun, cheap, low key shows a joke out here.

    No good suggestions here just a lot of commiseration and thinking.

  6. Here we have to supply a volunteer or complete a duty ourselves to compete. No helper no ride, and if you're helper doesn't show you risk elimination. it's a small community though, so we all just get it done generally. Someone started up a paid position register where you can pay someone to do your duty and that has been well received. It's affordable and the people getting paid can do 2 duties in a day which makes it worth while.

    it probably doesn't solve your problem, but it works for us and makes the weekend what it is. Plus it's how my hubby got into judging!

  7. Interesting idea: an association for the high performance riders and one for the base. The base foundation would fun itself and the high performance would have to find funding through sponsorships. Your membership money would go directly to the events you attend. But then, that does present a different set of problems of course.

  8. Volunteering was a big topic brought up in our GMO's year end discussion. To get your year end award, you have to have 10 hours of volunteering for the season, but it turns out a lot of people (myself included!) were struggling to get even that little amount of time in because jobs were being given to the barn kids of the show organizers, or the SO was waiting until last minute to announce they were in "desperate need" of volunteers. I was really glad to see this issue addressed and our new board members taking it seriously and tossing around ideas on how to smooth things out--like the volunteer dashboard USEA has to sign up for shows/events.

    I guess at the heart of it, I don't understand why such a simple thing is so hard. Show up and be a body! And

  9. I think this explains the cost differential between h/j and eventing. H/J shows hire staff and don't rely on volunteers. (At least all the ones I've been to, can't speak for every part of the country.) I think the separate governing bodies is what USEF and USHJA attempted to do: USEF for the big stuff USHJA for the smaller stuff. But so far, it hasn't worked.
    I hope someone, somewhere figures it all out because I think horse showing is evolving but the governing bodies aren't following suit.

  10. Reading this all I can think is that USEA/Events is going to opposite direction operations wise from USHJA and we are both complaining about it. USEA being mostly volunteer run and therefore reducing costs and USHJA having literally everything cost something, and our costs skyrocketing. There has to be a middle ground somewhere!

  11. Shouldn't they have a minimum staffing/volunteer requirement before they can run the event or send anyone out on course? Agree with you, it's incredibly dangerous not to have enough bodies there organizing and running things. One of the local organizations I belong to has a minimum volunteer hour requirement. If you put the hours in, you pay the normal membership fee. If you don't and you still want to ride, I think the fee is double and you aren't eligible for year end awards. Could something like that work? Your entries are normal price if you volunteered in the past calendar year, there is a surcharge you pay(that they could use to pay for some positions and/or fund training and incentives to volunteers) if you didn't?

    1. I can speak to rated events and yes - the TD should be in control of deciding whether or not the are enough staff/volunteers to justify running the cross country phase. I know a lot of compromises were made this year, though, and this year "being what it was" was heartily blamed for it.

  12. This was a really interesting post... being in H/J land this is something I'm not familiar with, and I'm really surprised that the rider was eliminated after the volunteer's mistake. The only equivilent I could think of in jumpers would be if you started your course before the judge was ready and you were buzzed to start your round. Otherwise, if you were told to start and did I don't imagine how you could be eliminated.

    I can imagine given the scope of the events and the various phases how many more people are needed to run the show though!


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