Can volunteering make you a better rider?

If you ride with a club or compete with your horse, at some time you may be asked to donate your time by working at a show. While it can mean a large time commitment, you’ll probably find that working as a volunteer gives you experience you couldn’t get elsewhere and can even make you a better rider.



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If you’re interested in becoming more socially active or hosting a show yourself, there are many roles in a horse show that lend themselves well to that: food and hospitality manager, judges liaison, awards presenter, score tallyer, etc. When you do a variety of jobs during the show, you get a real feel for how the show is put together. The more you are willing to take on any task show management requests of you, the happier they will be and the more smoothly the show will run. Some shows offer small thank-you prizes to their volunteers, such as horse treats, t-shirts, and free tickets to paid evening events. However, if you want to improve your riding technique, here are a couple of roles that will definitely help you.




Working as a runner is an ideal way to ease into horse show volunteer work. It’s a low-pressure gig that affords you lots of time to watch the events and get a little exercise in the process. Show runners are most often used in dressage shows to ferry score sheets between the judges’ boxes and the show office for tallying. Other types of shows use runners to do similar tasks, like post scores, bring coffee and snacks to officiators, hand out water bottles, and the like.


While waiting for each round of scores to be ready, or in between running jobs, you can usually watch all the rides, which is a luxury if you’re normally a competitor who is busy with horse prep during  shows. Being able to watch a show in your discipline without the pressure of competing allows you to see other riders at your class level and observe both gaffes and great performances.


Ring Steward


Being a ring steward takes organization, diplomacy, and the ability to multitask. You will be responsible for either managing a warm-up ring or checking riders into a show ring. This can entail:


  • performing equipment checks for regulation bits, whips, spurs, etc.
  • communicating with announcers and show officials via radio when riders enter the ring
  • keeping judges up to speed on ride changes
  • issuing safety reminders to riders
  • checking rider numbers and ensuring that riders enter the ring in the proper order
  • answering questions for riders
  • putting up safety barriers or calling emergency medical personnel in the event of an accident
  • providing information for trainers and audience members who have come to watch the show

Between all those tasks, though, you will have plenty of time to observe rides from a close distance. From your position at the gate you can see how easy it is to fall out of alignment on your center line dressage salute or observe a skilled rider quickly get a horse back on the correct lead after a momentary mistake. You’ll also see how many riders enter the ring a jangled bundle of nerves, which is a good reminder about perfecting your own pre-show relaxation routine and learning the art of stage presence.


Working as a ring steward gives you great exposure to different breeds of horses—ideal if you’re thinking about purchasing or leasing a new horse. In addition, you’ll be able to observe all the rides at different classes and make a better assessment if you are ready to move up a level or if perhaps you should work on your technique more first. This is a very common issue that judges bring up behind the scenes. Some riders need to be pushing themselves more, whilst others may have advanced too quickly, putting unnecessary pressure on themselves and their horses.




Show volunteers usually have to work their way up to scribing, or pencilling, at dressage shows. Pencilling is the act of writing down all the numerical scores and comments dictated by a judge, so the judge can focus on watching the test without having to look away.


It can be very demanding on advanced tests or with judges who have difficult personalities or speak very quickly. However, some judges are wonderful, and pencilling is one of the very best ways to improve your dressage skills, so if you can handle the pressure, it’s definitely worth it.


You won’t be watching as many uninterrupted rides as you would in the ring steward role, but you will have to glance up every now and then to make sure you (and the judge) are on the right part of the test. Meanwhile, you’ll be hearing everything the judge says, and it’s quite instructional.


About the 100th time you hear your judge whisper, “More uphill,” you’ll think, Hmmm… am I riding too much on the forehand myself? Likewise, when you resume training after the show, you’ll correct things like pivoting when you should be pirouetting or not coming to a full, square stop before the rein back.


The higher the tests you scribe for, the more you’ll see that even Olympians get marked down for not executing all their piaffes or miscounting tempi. It’s actually inspiring to know that elite level riders still run into problems on their tests. And when you see someone perform a breathtakingly perfect extended trot or passage, that’s equally motivational as well.


Some quick tips for pencilling:


  • Talk to the judge before you commence to inquire about their preferences, such as whether they prefer to give a number or a comment first.
  • Make sure you have the right test for each rider and that the rider number is correct.
  • Take care to place numerical marks in the proper column if there is a coefficient that is also to be applied.
  • Ask ahead of the test if there are any complicated scoring issues, like with musical freestyles.
  • Have a red pen handy for rider errors. Put a single line through any mistakes you make.
  • If you’re not sure of something, quickly and quietly ask the judge to confirm (e.g., “Was that for the half-pass?”). Sometimes judges do miss discrete elements of a test. If you get behind on one element, you will be off for the entire test.
  • Always make numerical scores a priority over comments if the test is going very rapidly.
  • Always complete a score with the decimal point score, ie 7.0, not 7
  • Use any abbreviations your show management allows (e.g., a drawn box for “square” or an up-arrow for “increase” or “more.”)
  • Use the best penmanship you can as the test will likely be read by the competitor afterward for the feedback.
  • If you think you have made a mistake, just keep going, as a good judge can usually fix anything right after the ride whilst the memory is fresh.
  • Make sure the judge has signed the test before it is handed off to the runner


For your first few jobs as a scribe, ask show management to pair you with a forgiving judge at low-level tests. Once you get some experience, you can move up to more challenging scenarios. Pencilling can lead to paid work, travel, and exclusive opportunities to sribe at high-level shows. It’s also a great way to get some of the required experience for a technical delegate’s certification.


The more you volunteer for different shows in a variety of roles, the more you will get to observe and learn. You can even keep a show journal in which you make notes of tips and points to work on. Your riding is bound to improve, and you will have performed a great service to your club in the process!


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