From the other side of the fence

So, where are you off to this weekend? Whether you and your horse are flying over fences, heading down a centre line or strutting your stuff in a showing class, one thing is certain – the competition wouldn’t run without volunteers.

Take the recent British Show Horse Association’s national championships, for example. This comprised two days of competition, starting at 7.45am and carrying on until the last partygoers decided they needed their sleep.

Without unpaid volunteers, some of whom had taken leave from work to be there on the first day, it wouldn’t have happened. There are the judges, of course, but there are also the stewards, the people in charge of the rosettes and trophies, and many more.

Where would dressage be without the judges and their writers? How would showjumping survive without judges, stewards and those who pick up the poles? What about the cross-country fence judges who sit around for hours, often at the same fence?

Some people make a point of thanking volunteers who help them enjoy their sport. A few forget; and a minority behave badly when asked to stick to the rules.

Organisers vary in their attitudes, too. One eventing centre in my part of the world offers fence judges the choice of a bottle of wine or a free schooling session. Another is famed for its packed lunches, delivered by quad bike.

On the other hand, there was the hunter trial organiser who expected fence judges to be in place all day, without factoring in lunch or – more importantly – loo breaks. After a few hours, there was mass mutiny, the event was put on hold and there were very long queues at the blue boxes.

So why do people volunteer – and why should you? For many, it’s a chance to be part of a sport and a world they love and perhaps don’t compete in any more. For others, like me, it’s because it gives you a different perspective.

As an example, it’s easy to be intimidated when you’re on a cob or hairy pony in a dressage warm-up and people on posh warmbloods are bouncing off the walls at you. However, when you’re writing for a judge who murmurs “All the gear and no idea” as she watches a woman dressed up to the nines, but obviously terrified of her fire-breathing colossus – who is tacked up to the nines – you feel better.

You feel even better when the judge enthuses about an ‘ordinary’ little horse who performs an accurate, rhythmic test with a smile on his face. Sometimes, it’s encouraging to know that the ordinary can be extraordinary.

When you’re competing, you may think everyone notices your mistakes. When you’re writing/stewarding/fence-judging you realise that everyone makes mistakes; it’s how you recover from them that matters.

If you haven’t tried helping out, give it a go. You’ll get more from it than you think. If you have, tell us what you do and why you do it!