By Robyn Armer
To put it mildly, I’ve been a lifelong lover of the horse, since before I could barely walk (according to my mother, anyway). When I was young, I was a western rider, and competitor in games and team roping. As an adult, I became interested in the hunter-jumper world. There were also cross country jumps where I took lessons, so I soon harbored a passion for eventing. As you may know, the first phase of an eventing competition is dressage. For several years, my horses and I suffered through the dressage grudgingly, just to get to the fun part of eventing…the cross country jumping! However, slowly but surely, I grew to enjoy the challenge of dressage and appreciate how it helps both horse and rider develop to be the best they can be. While I struggle to master the lower levels of dressage, I truly admire the horses and riders who manage to advance further up the training scale, and I love to watch them compete.
I’ve volunteered many times at the local level. There is a lot to be said for volunteering. Almost all shows, at every level of competition, depend on a fairly significant number of hardworking volunteers. Without these volunteers, many shows would not be as successful, and many would not even exist. They are vital to the horse industry as a whole. Volunteers have many opportunities to help friends and other competitors, all while enjoying the added benefit of being able to watch and learn, in an effort to improve their own riding skills.
My first experience with volunteering, away from home, was the 2010 World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park, in Lexington, KY. That was one of the most exciting experiences of my life, and definitely opened my eyes to the opportunities available, in return for a little of my time. Yes, I had a job there, but every day I got to interact with horse enthusiasts from all over the world, and every day I got to watch some of the best horses, riders, and drivers in the world compete.
A few years later, in 2014, I was browsing an e-mail from USDF when a sentence, asking for volunteers for the US Dressage Finals, caught my eye. Not only was it being held at the wonderful Kentucky Horse Park, but USDF offered three meals a day, attire, including a US Dressage Finals jacket and ball cap, for all volunteers, and free lodging for those traveling from a great distance. Wow! I didn’t have to think twice. I called a friend and we signed up right away.
Riders and horses (or should I say “equines”, because mules have also qualified) must compete in their regions, do well enough to qualify for the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships , and then qualify at the regionals to make it to the US Dressage Finals. Top qualifiers from all over the United States come to the Finals to compete, from Training Level through Grand Prix, as well as freestyles, in either Adult Amateur or Open Divisions. Volunteers get to experience the event from the inside, helping each other, and spending the days and nights watching amazing animals and excellent horsemanship. We are greeted each morning by the smiling faces of the organizers and show management, as we get our assignments and proceed to the dining area for a nice hot breakfast. Then, off we go to our assigned positions, either in the Alltech Arena or outside, where tests are being ridden in multiple outdoor arenas. Later, after breaking for lunch, back to work we go, and then we break again for dinner. Mealtimes are great, food is excellent, and we all get to know each other while laughing and talking about the competition, and our horses and ponies back home.
In between job assignments, volunteers are free to watch competition or to visit the barns and look at all the horses, ponies, and maybe even a mule or two. Various breeds can be found there, and exhibitors are happy to discuss their journeys and share their experiences. Then, there are always the vendors to visit, offering a wide array of saddles, equipment, boots, and fashions from the practical to the luxurious. And last but not least, there is the ability to explore the Kentucky Horse Park, with more than 1200 acres in the heart of Kentucky Bluegrass country. It features the International Museum of the Horse, Hall of Champions, and many other attractions worth seeing.
I love seeing all the different breeds of horses, ponies, and, yes, even mules from all over our country. There are imported horses, homebred horses, half bred horses, and horses off Craigslist. In 2013, Laura Graves showed Verdades in the US Dressage Finals, and the very next year she skyrocketed to a fourth place finish at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in France! In 2014, at the US Dressage Finals, North Fork Cardi, a Welsh Cob stallion, 14’3 hands tall and ridden with a snaffle, wowed the crowd and officials and won the Grand Prix Freestyle. These are just a few examples of the competitors that have come from all over and inspired those in attendance.
It’s an amazing experience every year, and I leave full of positive emotions, from the sense of camaraderie and laughter shared with friends old and new, to the visions of performances witnessed, to the feelings of inspiration to develop a better partnership with my own horse. I’ve volunteered every year since, and plan to keep going each year as long as they’ll have me. Each year, when the US Dressage Finals competition is over, I am already looking forward to the next one.