There is no doubt that the equestrian industry relies heavily on volunteers, but do you know what makes an outstanding volunteer? Over the years I have volunteered my time for a number of causes that I feel passionate about – the Lions Foundation of Canada Foster Puppy Program, Profession to Profession Immigrant Mentoring Program, and this past summer at the show jumping events of the Pan American Games hosted at the Caledon Equestrian Park in Palgrave, ON. Each one of these positions required a very different skill set, but there are some key characteristics that have travelled with me throughout all of my volunteer experiences.

The Lifeblood of the Horse Industry

Ask anyone what they remember most about being at the 2015 Pan Am Games equestrian events and inevitably they will say how friendly and helpful all the volunteers were. The recruitment process for becoming part of that Pan Am volunteer team was extensive and began with an online interview, followed by several online training modules about customer service, accessibility, and health and safety, and then at least one venue training session.

Once your criminal background check was approved, you moved on to accreditation, which provided you with official Pan Am identification and the best uniform package I have ever received. Volunteers all over the Greater Toronto Area were easily identifiable with their bright orange shirts, jackets, hats, and backpacks.

Members of equestrian organizations will tell you that volunteers are the lifeblood of the horse industry. Can you imagine a horse show, equine fair, therapeutic riding or rescue business surviving without their dedicated volunteers?

Gayle Ecker is the director of Equine Guelph and a developer of the extremely popular EquiMania! program which travels to the Royal Winter Fair, the Can-Am All Breeds Expo, and was the only Canadian exhibit to be invited to the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. Gayle says, “We depend on volunteers for our EquiMania! program and we have had excellent people who have a real passion for making a difference, and a willingness to be generous with their skills, knowledge, and experience.”

Top Six Desirable Traits

If you are considering offering your time and passion to an equestrian event, here are some of the attributes that organizers will be looking for:

  1. Reliability – The first rule of volunteering is that if you say you are going to do something – do it! Turning up late, or not at all, can put the entire event or organization in jeopardy. Be honest with the time commitment you are able to provide.
  2. Flexibility – It’s so important for a volunteer to be able to jump in and help wherever they are needed. Your experience will be even more enjoyable if you try out new responsibilities and/or tasks. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
  3. Energy – Willa Gauthier is the owner of Someday Farm in Erin, ON, and an extraordinary organizer and fundraiser through the many events she has hosted or been a part of. I recently had the pleasure of working with Willa at the Pan Am Games as my supervisor, and her team affectionately referred to her as a “Velvet Steamroller with the wings of a Red Bull.” Her energy was infectious and you couldn’t help but be enthusiastic when around her. Great volunteers hit the ground running from dawn to dusk and sometimes beyond. Their positive spirit is motivating and inspiring to others.
  4. Team Player – Volunteering is not an individual sport. Amazing volunteers think less about what they can get from the experience of volunteering and more about what they can contribute. As Gayle put it, “a great volunteer is willing to leave the ‘I’ behind and work as a member of the team.”
  5. Attitude – As committee chair of the Erin Fair Equine Tent, Bridget Ryan worked with up to 45 different volunteers associated with the tent and another 30 people associated with the Erin Agricultural Society/Board and Fair. Bridget lists a positive attitude as the top characteristic that she values in a volunteer. A person with a positive attitude has a willingness to learn, to absorb new ideas and tackle new skills, and to listen to another’s point of view. Their volunteer experience will enrich them as well as the people they come into contact with, and they are more likely to continue with their volunteering involvement.
  6. Integrity – A truly great volunteer has the ability to live up to promises or commitments and to put the focus on the organization or event and not their own personal interests. As a volunteer, organizations are trusting you to represent them in a way that is conducive to their mission statement. It is a huge responsibility.

The Perks of Volunteering

With busy lives, it can be difficult for anyone to find the extra time required to volunteer. However, the benefits of volunteering are enormous once you make the plunge. The right experience can help you make new friends, learn new skills, and even advance a career.

The experience was so positive for those who volunteered at the Pan Am Games that a Facebook page was started so volunteers could share their experiences and keep in touch before, during, and after the Games. When asked what they enjoyed most about their Pan Am volunteer experience, the overwhelmingly popular answer was meeting the other volunteers, athletes, and spectators.

Gloria Dalton volunteered as a supervisor of print distribution at both Pan Am equestrian venues and really made the most of her experience. She remarked, “I think the most important thing that makes a great volunteer is attitude and enthusiasm. Every person I met, and definitely my team, were so amazing and dedicated. I most enjoyed the other volunteers – it was great to be a part of that team. There were smiles greeting you everywhere. As volunteers we were treated like royalty; at our very first meet-and-greet in Orangeville, we knew we were a part of something incredibly special. From the excellent training sessions, to meeting Pinball Clemons, going to the venues and the Rogers Centre, and having tea with the Lieutenant Governor, I couldn’t have had a better experience! As well, I had the honour of carrying the torch and that was a day that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Yvonne Busby, who has been competing in, and volunteering for, the Central West Trillium Zone since its inception more than 10 years ago, is a perfect example of a dedicated and enthusiastic volunteer. Acting in the role of administrative assistant to the board of directors, Yvonne brings her years of experience in public relations, marketing, and administration to each meeting. Her 22-plus years of announcing at horse shows makes being in front of a microphone as Mistress of Ceremonies at the year-end banquet a perfect fit.

If you have years of experience in the equestrian industry, or even if you just have a passion for horses and want to expand your involvement, volunteering might be a good fit for you. Consider what particular talents or skill set you can bring to the table, and make one of your New Year’s resolutions a commitment to get better invested in your local, regional, or national horse community. Passion, enthusiasm, and a willingness to work hard are all it takes to make a difference – and the rewards are endless.

Tips for Volunteers

  • Bring a snack/lunch and water if you’re not positive food and drinks will be provided.
  • Bring an umbrella, bug spray, and sunscreen if you will be outside for extended periods.
  • Bring extra socks and footwear if rain is called for.
  • Check in with your coordinator/supervisor when you arrive and before you leave.
  • Stay out of the way of horses and riders.
  • If you are given a radio, use it for official communication only.
  • Understand that you may be dealing with harried, nervous, or even angry people, but try to maintain a calm, professional demeanour.
  • Even though you may be wet, exhausted, cold, or hungry, resist complaining about it.
  • Do not gossip or talk to competitors or spectators about other riders, show organizers, etc.
  • Any situations you encounter during the day should be considered confidential and not posted on your Facebook page.
  • Be happy to pitch in even if it is not your assignment – such as if a rider needs assistance, a horse or dog is loose, some clutter needs to be picked up, etc.
  • Know the rules of your station if, for instance, you are working at a tack check, helping a ring steward, jump judging, etc.