Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes

By Nicole Miller

The incredibly busy competition schedule in the first half of the year offers a variety of opportunities to both compete and volunteer. I’d like to say I’ve done both this year, but unfortunately, I’ve had to focus on unmounted participation. (It’s less stressful, I have to admit, and I don’t need to bring nearly as much equipment with me. Heck, sometimes the show organizers even feed me – they definitely know how to keep me coming back!) But, I don’t mind being ‘behind the scenes’.

Everyone who participates in, or volunteers at, a show is integral to making it happen. Let’s be honest, show organizers would be a bit frustrated if no one showed up to ride or volunteer! I like to do both, for different reasons of course. But, circumstances being what they are this year, I have had a good time working the ‘back side’ of the shows. As competitors, I’m not sure how much attention we pay to the volunteers running around because we’re kind of preoccupied with, well, calming nerves (horse and rider), memorizing tests or courses at the last minute … or just trying to stay ON.

But, the volunteers see you, the competitor. Especially, the ring steward! Just about every show needs a ring steward, and this is one of my favorite volunteer positions.

To start with, if I’m monitoring the warmup area, I’m integral in making sure that the show runs on time. I check to make sure riders are showing up for their scheduled ride times, let them know when they should be ready to go into the arena, and keep an eye on safety and sportsmanship. These are all important things that help keep everyone happy. (Well, no one is happy if it’s raining and sloppy, freezing cold with a lusty gale, or a million degrees in the sun… but at least we’re all miserable together. Misery loves company, right?)

Being a ring steward also gives me an opportunity to learn. Since most people don’t use headsets, I get to listen to many mini-training sessions as coaches work with their students a short distance away from me. If I pay attention, I can learn something to take home with me and try: it’s like auditing a bunch of clinics for free! Who doesn’t like that?! 

One of my favorite things about being a ring steward is the people. I really enjoy watching the interaction between horses and riders, between ‘support people’ and those they are there supporting, spectators and family. I have gotten to witness some really tender moments and many ‘firsts’: first shows for a rider or a horse; first shows after a really long period of time; first blue ribbon; first time the horse didn’t buck (ok, that was mine and I wasn’t ring steward at the time, but I’m sure others have had the same experience); first clear round; first show after an injury; first Century Club ride. There are also many ‘lasts’: last show for a horse or rider or combination; last ride of a grueling weekend in the heat; last ride before heading off to college for several years; last ride before moving away…and a few “I’m never doing this again” (although, almost without fail, I see them again at the next show). These are special times and, as ring steward, I get to hear the commentary at the edge of the arena and so appreciate more fully what’s going on in front of me. There’s a story behind each horse and rider combination and some of them are pretty incredible. (Actually, every story is pretty incredible when you think about it: we’re riding 1,000 animals that could kill us, but they give us their hearts, accommodate our idea of ‘fun’…and allow us to live to tell the tale.)

Often, I have the opportunity to capture these moments with my camera. There’s a lot of flexibility as a ring steward, and I can take pictures around my responsibilities. Now, I’m not a professional photographer by any stretch, but I really enjoy taking pictures of what I see at the shows. It’s a creative outlet for me, and sometimes I get a special one that is meaningful to someone. That is my reward. (Plus, it gives me some photos to put up on the club website and Facebook page – our members do like seeing themselves in pictures!)

I absolutely love it when the rider exits the arena and just hugs the horse, so happy that they ‘did it’, regardless of whether it was their best ride ever or not. Just being there together is an accomplishment. The horse usually has the typical horse attitude of ‘Whatever. Can I eat now?’ … but occasionally I swear the horse is wearing a grin and exiting with a bit of a ‘Did you see THAT?’ attitude. Those always make me smile. 

It’s also fun to admire the different horses and breeds. Being ring steward, I’m afforded an opportunity to talk to people about their mounts – if there’s one thing horse people like to do, it’s talk about their horses! (Guilty!!) As time has passed, I’m starting to see a trend in our area away from a majority of Warmblood breeds. There are still plenty of those magnificent creatures in competition, but there are more and more ‘alternative’ breeds showing up, especially as we’ve been offering Western and Gaited Dressage. Just this year, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to the owners of Saddlebreds, Dutch Harness Horses, Haflingers, Connemaras, lots of Thoroughbreds (it’s great to see them making a comeback), Irish horses, Quarter Horses, ponies (!!), Arabians, National Show Horses, mules, and Draft crosses, to name a few. What a splendid representation of the diversity of the horse world! (Not to mention great subject matter for photos!)

Last but not least, being ring steward also is an opportunity to be a bit of a cheerleader. When I compete, it’s really appreciated that someone wishes me a ‘good ride’ – it helps me remember why I’m there. It’s supposed to be fun, right? So, offering a ‘Have a good ride!’ or ‘Have fun!’ or ‘Remember to breathe!’ to the riders before they enter the arena is a pleasure. Who doesn’t like a little encouragement? Congratulating them, letting them know it wasn’t ‘that bad’, or remarking on how well they handled an awkward situation when they are on the way out the arena is appreciated, too. Just getting out there takes guts, and sometimes we need to be reminded of that. Even when we have our worst ride ever, have humiliated ourselves in front of everyone (in my experience of this, my mind tells me EVERYone was watching when, in reality, it was hardly anyone) … it’s nice to walk out on a positive note. The ring steward can do that.

So, remember the next time a volunteer opportunity comes up … the role you take is important. It may be ‘behind the scenes’, but it’s a chance for you to learn, spread a little joy, or maybe even witness something special.

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