Thursday, July 22, 2021

Eventing Volunteers Donated $700K Since 2017

For the love of the sport. 

The driving force behind the sport of eventing is the many amazing volunteers. In December 2016, the USEA launched the Volunteer Incentive Program (VIP) to increase the ease of participation, provide incentives, and recognize the tireless efforts of volunteers.

Eventing as a sport is unique among other equestrian disciplines in the manpower needed to successfully (and safely!) run a horse trial. There are often multiple dressage rings running concurrently with show jumping, plus the cross country tracks can expand beyond what is visible from a single vantage point. 

Each phase is managed by judges and event officials - overseen by the ground jury and technical delegate, and supported by various volunteer roles. Likewise, volunteers facilitate the smooth flow of competitors through each phase by stewarding warm up areas.

The most common volunteer positions by phase are:

- Scribe
- Score runner
- Bit check
- Warm up / ring steward

Show Jumping:
- Scribe
- Timer
- Jump crew
- In / Out gate
- Warm up steward

Cross Country:
- Starter
- Start and finish timers
- Score runner
- Jump judges (usually 15+)
- Warm up steward

Additionally, volunteers often assist with parking and/or traffic management, drive shuttles, and support much of the preparations leading up to the event, like painting and decorating fences, setting the dressage courts and show jumping courses, etc. Perhaps most importantly, volunteers (especially xc jump judges) are often the 'first responders' -- playing the critical safety role of eyes on the ground, armed with radios, in the event of an accident. 

Since its creation, the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program has invested in building out definitions, video guides, and training materials for all volunteer positions. You can find more information here

Overall, the program launch has been enormously successful, with strong year over year growth in volunteer participation in the first 3 years as platform adoption rapidly expanded. 

Nearly 2,500 individual volunteers have used the VIP Portal to sign up for positions this year alone as of July, and 7,225 have registered since the portal's inception. Furthermore, this online portal succeeds in creating easy participation by simplifying logistics for event organizers and coordinators, and connecting the new pipeline of potential volunteers with venues they might not otherwise know.

Total number of yearly volunteers, scraped from, July 2021
The 2021 season is not complete as of this analysis.
Notably, 2020 proved to be an outlier, with reduced participation due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Events were cancelled entirely during the early stages of the pandemic, and many scaled down even after the season resumed. 

Volunteer participation rates dropped in conjunction with the shortened events calendar, and were further suppressed by would-be volunteers opting out for personal reasons. This resulted in an extreme volunteer shortage felt at many events, proving the quip "Eventing runs on volunteers!" to be a little too true. 

Competition venues stood on the frontline of this contraction, with the greatest financial exposure to cancelled events. Budgets already diminished by the pandemic also had to contend with reduced volunteer availability. This forced many venues to offer increasingly valuable incentives to volunteers - especially in areas where higher densities of events on the calendar meant more competition between venues for a limited volunteer pool. 

Incentives paid for by hosting venues often include:
- T-shirts, hats, or other logo attire
- Schooling passes or entry fee credits
- Meals, drinks and snacks*

(*Case Study: An Area II volunteer coordinator estimated that the food costs for all volunteers and officials over a 2-day show with 300+ entries ran about $3,000.)

Overall, the 2020 impact on volunteer participation demonstrated that eventing's necessary infrastructure may be unsustainable without access to large unpaid labor forces, and showed that individual venues often face the greatest financial risks in the face of systemic disruption. Additionally, many officiating event TDs may be reluctant to force cancellation of an event when too few volunteers arrive. This reality creates heightened risks regarding the safe observation of all cross country fences; and potentially leads to inconsistent competitor experiences across different venues.

The USEA Volunteer Incentive Program has therefore continued to build out its national recognition and awards programs in support of this critical component of events infrastructure: 


On an annual basis, the top ten volunteers are awarded for their contribution to the sport with a certificate and ribbon. This represents less than 0.5% of overall participating volunteers. 

Of those Top 10 volunteers awarded each year: 

- Two thirds (66%) have been recognized in the Top 10 in four of the last five years (noting that 2021 data is as of July and may change by year end)
- Just four Top 10 awardees since 2017 have only been in the Top 10 once. 

These numbers suggest that the same (deserving) volunteers are recognized each year for their contribution and service to the sport, while the remaining 99.5% of participating individuals do not receive national recognition from the USEA. The ten geographic membership-based Areas are encouraged to fill this gap, despite many volunteers not being themselves members.

The USEA Volunteer Incentive Program, however, also recently launched the Volunteer Medal Program as a means to report and appreciate lifetime contributions to the sport:


It is important to interpret these recognition thresholds within the context of standardized units of time. The Bronze Medal 500 hours is equal to roughly 12.5 standard 40-hour work weeks. The Silver Medal recognizes those who spent 25 standard 40-hour work weeks volunteering; and the Gold Medal recognizes those who gave 50 weeks of their time. 

Notably, this unit of time necessary to receive a Gold Medal by the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program is roughly equivalent to one year spent in a typical full time job. The US Census Bureau lists the annual real median personal income at $35,977 (as of 2019). 

We can therefore roughly estimate that this is the value of the typical American's working year, and that an individual paid to accomplish these jobs at USEA horse trials would earn a roughly equivalent income. Although, the federal minimum wage is lower, at $7.25 per hour. An individual paid the minimum wage would earn $14,500 for the 2,000 hours needed to receive a Gold Medal, which awards an embroidered jacket, pin and certificate. 

Currently, there are no recognized Gold Medalists among the 7,225 registered volunteer participants since 2017. 

If we continue using the US Census Bureau's 2019 annual real median personal income value, we can estimate that the Top 100 USEA volunteers each year since 2017 would have earned the following sums if they acted as paid employees. 

Estimated Value Calculation: Total Hours / 40 is standardized # working weeks; x($35,977* / 52) 
*The US Census Bureau lists the annual real median personal income at $35,977 in 2019.
The 2021 season is not complete as of this analysis.

Instead, this time (and its inherent value) has been donated to the USEA, its Areas, competition venues, and, ultimately, to the athletes themselves. For the love of the sport. 

It is important to note: This annual estimated value only reflects the hours recorded by the top 100 volunteers each year, however we see in the earlier chart that the volunteer base is expanding rapidly -- tipping upwards of 3,000 individual participants in 2019. Of these, more than 99.5% go unrecognized by the USEA each year for their contribution to the sport -- with the onus for more valuable awards and incentives placed on individual Areas and venues. 

Naturally, in the instances where individual venues address shortfalls in volunteer coverage by hiring staff, those salaries or wages would be paid directly by the venue rather than the USEA overall. This truth might suggest that it is outside the USEA's direct purview or mission to invest further in volunteer pipeline development.
The national organization is in a unique position, however, to put positive pressure on the volunteer pipeline as a means to further standardize eventing competitions and facilitate consistent competitor experiences. The asymmetry in value and investment uncovered by this analysis suggests that the USEA (Form 990s here and here) should continue to broaden its investment in the volunteer community by expanding recognition levels to better reflect the true value of volunteer service and scope of participation. 

Driving this program at the national level likewise reduces the burden on individual venues to budget for costly incentive programs, especially in dense geographic regions where many venues share the same volunteer pool. This is important to ensure all events in an area have equal access to sufficient volunteers to safely run events..

There are many ways to accomplish this expansion, including the following suggestions:

- Broaden annual recognition programs to reach a greater percentage of overall participants. Suggested reach of 10% of yearly participants. On average, the top 10% of volunteers each year log between 27 and 30 hours.

- Reduce the lifetime recognition thresholds, or add new categories. Suggested entry level to start at 100 hours, a level currently met by approximately 3% of all volunteer program participants.

- Offer randomized participation prize drawings, and consider special attention for volunteers who give time to multiple venues. 

- Consider creating a volunteer requirement for current competing members. 

A survey conducted on existing volunteers, organizers, officials, members, and/or competitors may offer more clarity and creative thinking in addressing the overall disparities uncovered above. 

Ultimately, the sport of eventing has managed to keep costs of access and entry relatively low compared to other equestrian disciplines -- due in large part to networks of dedicated volunteers. It is incumbent on the national governing agencies to recognize volunteers for their efforts and ensure the continued sustainability of our wonderful sport and community. 


  1. This is a great article. Love how you set out the data in graphs!

  2. Great research and findings, this should definitely be shared with the wider world.


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