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Atalya Boytner

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From Chore to Community: The Evolution of Galway Downs’ Volunteer Program

There aren’t many better views! Photo by Sally Spickard.

In competitive eventing, there is one unexpected element that can keep a show from running. Officials may be in place, there could be plenty of entries, the grounds can be prepared, but without volunteers, the whole thing can come to a stand still.

In 2015, the United States Eventing Association (USEA) created the Volunteer Incentive Program in order to give nationwide recognition to the individuals who donate their time to the sport. Volunteers can log hours and rank on leaderboards for annual awards, among other ways to earn recognition. Additionally, each venue has its own ways of giving back to those who help their events come to life.

It remains a perennial struggle, however, to find and retain enough volunteers to comfortably run a full event. It’s a dilemma that leaves many an organizer scratching their head, wondering how to drum up more vital support.

One venue in sunny California has managed to find a way to keep its volunteer rosters full, time after time.

Galway Downs (Temecula, CA) plays host to many different eventing competition throughout the year, run by Robert Kellerhouse and Del Mar Eventing. From international eventing and dressage competitions to schooling shows and cross country clinics, there’s always a need for boots on the ground to help keep things rolling.

Bernie Low, Jerri Lance & Laura Jaeger, part of the Volunteer Committee at Galway Downs.

Rather than this responsibility all falling on the shoulders of one person, the “Volunteer Coordinator” at Galway Downs is a committee.

The idea stemmed from longtime Volunteer Coordinator Jerri Lance who has, over the past 20 years, come in and out of the volunteer wings at Galway. “No matter what you’re doing in the show, it takes a village,” she said. “When you have five, six, seven shows a year, you can wear your coordinators thin if you have them at every single one. So one of the things that I really wanted to do is to get a team together that would be just coordinators. This way, we may be working two or three shows a year versus five or six shows a year. It helps everyone enjoy it more without putting too much burden on any one person.”

Jerri reached out to the volunteer community Galway had built over the years in search of fellow leaders, and the coordinator team is now made up of seven members who donate their time to help: Jerri herself, Bernie Low, Laura Jaeger, Danielle Trynoski, Thamar Draper, Nancy Chamberlain, and Sue Spencer. At any given competition, three or four of these members are present.

At a dressage competition, the committee assigns scribing shifts and ensure volunteers are in place for the right times. At eventing competitions, someone manages all the dressage volunteers, someone manages show jumping, and one or two are out on cross country.

“Usually one or two people will focus on cross country because you’ve got to not only work the show but you also work prior to the show, setting up the jump assignments, trying to figure out where everyone’s going to be and what they’re going to have for the full day,” Jerri explained. “You coordinate all of the jump assignments, get those set up, and then when your volunteers start signing up, you start plugging in things to which jumps they’re going to get.”

There is an art to managing volunteers on cross country. Bernie Low has also been volunteering at Galway for over 20 years and came on as a coordinator last year when Jerri was revamping the program. Bernie often manages the volunteers on cross country with her husband.

Carol Christiansan, one of the amazing regular volunteers at Galway Downs.

“[We] really let people know what’s available, be friendly and willing to train and help,” Bernie commented. “It’s getting to know your volunteers. Really listening to them, and then trying to find things that they will enjoy.”

The smashing success of the Galway Volunteer Incentive Program means that they have begun to draw in not only riders and their families but also non-horse people with their popular e-voucher system. Depending on the amount of hours worked, volunteers can earn up to $90 a day to go towards entries or cross country schooling. But those non-riding friends also have something they can use their vouchers on.

“They can use it for Galway gear. A lot of my volunteers will go in at the end of the day and spend their money there,” Jerri said. “I have two friends that got involved last year and they come and they have a blast shopping after the show. You can use them also to get a ticket to go eat in the VIP tent if you want. So there’s a lot of different ways that [Robert Kellerhouse] is offering up for utilizing the vouchers if you earn them.”

In addition, twice a year Galway Downs hosts a volunteer-only giveaway; prizes include wine tastings (Galway is located in the heart of southern California’s wine country, after all!), golf experiences, stays at the casitas on the grounds, and gift certificates to local restaurants in town.
There are also two awards given away at the end of the year: one for the volunteer who worked the most shows and the other for the volunteer who worked the most hours. Trainers can also receive free entries by having volunteers claim their barn in order, which enters them into a drawing for entries.

“There’s [the] credits and there’s gifts and rewards but also there’s genuinely saying thank you to people, really making them feel appreciated,” Bernie Low added. “It’s so nice as a volunteer when a rider goes past you, especially some of the upper level ones, and they go ‘hey, thanks for volunteering today.’ I’ve had upper level riders, judges, and TDs say ‘thanks so much for your help today.’ It makes such a difference when the [cross country] controller is like ‘hey, guys, you’re doing a great job. Hang in there. We’ve only got one more division to go.’”

For those volunteers who only come once a year, it has been a challenge in the past to use the vouchers before they expire as hours had to be entered manually after the show’s completion due to the busy nature of the actual days of competition. But Thamar Draper, a former IT executive, helped come up with a solution.

One perk of volunteering or riding at Galway Downs: the views!

“For the volunteers who are not using the e-vouchers for show entries, they want to be able to use them before they leave on the weekend,” Thamar commented. “Say, I’ve been scribing on Saturday and I’ve been jump-judging on Sunday and now I want to buy a jacket and a hat or something, using my e-vouchers in the office. I couldn’t do that because I didn’t know how many e-vouchers I had until the following week.”

Putting her computer wizardry hat on, Thamar helped create a spreadsheet that connected the show office with the volunteer coordinators in real time. Rather than having to manually calculate voucher value from recorded hours worked, Thamar input complex formulas into the document to not only calculate the amount but also its expiration. At the event’s completion, she also automated an email send out so each volunteer would receive a detailed description of their balance and the expiration of the amount.

“Robert and everybody takes really good care of volunteers but that was just one of the holes,” she said. “It can be quite tough. You check in at 6:30 in the morning and you don’t get home until after dark so although it’s not hard work, it’s a long day. But in the summertime, they bring around popsicles and you get hot chocolate in the winter time, and sandwiches all the time. You’re just very well appreciated.”

Finding a solution to incentivizing non competing or riding members of the community and streamlining their ability to use those incentives has created a glut of volunteers for the coordinations to draw on. But also making sure the volunteers return time and again is something the team of coordinators along with the management team have capitalized on by taking care of them.

“If it’s too hard or too uncomfortable, it doesn’t really matter how motivated they were to volunteer in the first place, they are going to be discouraged from returning,” Danielle “Dani” Trynoski pointed out. “Recruitment is one thing but retention is another thing and by keeping your volunteers comfortable, that really helps with the retention piece.”

As she points out, eventing has traditionally relied on riders, rider support teams, and family members for filling the volunteer shifts. But that stream has started to slow down to the point where venues everywhere are struggling to find enough bodies.

Joan of Barks accompanies Danielle Trynoski on a volunteer shift.

“One of the perks of having a few more people on that coordinator level is that you’ve got potential for extra hands and the additional bandwidth to take in some of those outsiders from the equestrian world and help bring them in; to have somebody there to explain to them what’s going on and what they can expect.” Dani continued. “Simple things like if you assigned a high school student to be a score runner; making sure that they understand that they need to wait until a rider is finished with their test and then they’re going to go up to the judge to get the test. That is something that can be taught, but you need to make sure you have somebody that has five or ten minutes to walk them through that process.”

So if you or someone you know wants to begin volunteering but has been intimidated by knowing the rules, worry not!

“You get a firsthand visit with the TD and you know they go through all of the rules!” Lance laughs. “I know when [my daughter] Courtney was younger and I was able to go in and learn the rules a lot better by jump judging than I did reading the rulebook.”

If you are interested in volunteering at Galway Downs, or becoming a coordinator, you can contact [email protected] or (951) 303-0405 with questions about signing up! You can also always find volunteering openings near you by visiting EventingVolunteers.com.

Breeding Spotlight: Leigh-ping Forward with OTTBs

Jeff Goodwin and Exactleigh compete at Galway Downs’ Eventing Championships in 2023. Photo by Sherry Stewart.

Taking a glance at any entry list these days, there are quite a few prefixes and suffixes that we have come to know. The ever popular Irish Cooley, Ardeo, and Fernhill, the Belgian Zangersheide Z, the up-and-coming FE, Excel, HSH and Global, and even the Argentinian Solaguayre is on the rise. One could be forgiven for missing a lone “Leigh” here and there.

But not anymore.

In the 2023 edition of the annual Event at Rebecca Farm (Kalispell, MT) — one of the top destination events on the West Coast — there were more “Leigh” horses than any other breeder, trainer, or seller. There were 14 Cooley horses, 10 Fernhill, 7 Ardeo, 6 Z, 4 Excel, 3 FE, and 1 Global.

Squeaking past them all, “Leigh” horses had 15 representatives, from CCI3*-L all the way to Beginner Novice.

Humor abounds in the names of these salwart partners: Pridefulleigh, Mixologeigh, Bankseigh, My Leighona, Casualleigh, Agatha Christeigh, and my personal favorite: Drunk & Disorderleigh.

Where do they come from?

Jil Walton operates JARBA Farms out of Rebecca Farm in Kailspell, MT where she breeds and trains her own homebreds and off the track thoroughbreds. A representative of the 1992 US Olympic Eventing team, she helped USA to a top 10 finish and finished 17th individually as the highest placed American on a self made mare called Patrona.

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Patrona herself was an off-the-tracker who Jil, in partnership with her parents, sourced in Southern California where she grew up. Walton calls her “the beginning of it all.”

“My dad, my mom, and I would pick the ones that didn’t run and turn them into event horses and event them so I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Jil said. “Then I met one of my clients, Leigh Gray. [She] brought a horse to me to event for her [while] she worked at a vet hospital and had access to lots of Thoroughbreds. So [we] started developing a relationship with trainers, and good owners, that wanted them to go on to do something other than just sit in the field.”

Most of the horses carrying the “Leigh” in their name are former racers sourced by Jil herself, and her friend Gray. But it didn’t begin that way.

Among the horses Leigh sent to Jil to be retrained and homed was Truly Triton. A 1992 chestnut gelding out of Coastal Breeze and With Approval, it began as a rehabbing project when he came to Walton with a tendon injury. Over time however, the partnership competed to the highest levels, completing the Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2004 and multiple top 10 finishes at the 4* level. As success came not only to Jil but with the horses Leigh was helping source, Jil felt a touch of inspiration.

“I decided I needed to give Leigh a little bit of credit,” she explains. “So then we started putting the Leigh on the end. I mean, it just kind of caught fire because there’s so many possibilities.”

The name options are pretty excellent (see above!). Indeed, Jil often gets messages with suggestions for Leigh names for future horses down the line.

She credits Leigh with an incredible eye for temperament and her own eye for confirmation, gleaned at her parents’ knees and her own 30+ years of experience. For soundness, she feels nothing can beat a good war horse — Thoroughbreds who have run for many years. Together, she and Leigh work in tandem to not only source successful sport horses but also to find the horse’s own passion.

“I tried to be responsible to the racehorses,” Jil says. “Some of them don’t want to jump. They don’t want to go eventing so we have one barrel racing, we have a couple that are ski-jouring.”

While Jil also breeds some of her own prospects (with the prefix JB for JARBA), her heart is firmly with the Thoroughbreds. The feeling of riding cross country on a horse with a high foundational level of fitness and forward training from their racing careers instills confidence and security. And she feels there is cause to be optimistic for the future of OTTBs in eventing.

“Before I felt like it was an uphill battle, 100%,” she says. “Thoroughbreds are getting so much more attention with the Thoroughbred Makeover and all of that. So I feel like people are more open to them now, which, for a long time, they haven’t been — so that’s rewarding to me.”

Leigh is winding down the non-profit that helped source these fine partners — the Thoroughbred Rehab Center — so there may not be a whole lot more “Leigh” horses coming through the pipeline. Jil herself is still trucking on with her part, having formed new connections and contacts in the racing industry to help retrain and rehome those horses who no longer can or want to race.

In an increasingly global sport where more and more often we see both professional and amateur members sourcing horses from outside our borders, we are seeing less and less of our own American Thoroughbred. While there is nothing wrong with finding quality wherever it may be, by casting a spotlight on our American professionals and trainers, our domestically bred horses can shine as well.

So next time you see that humor filled “Leigh” name, have a chuckle to yourself and maybe, just maybe, find your local OTTB trainer and see if you can find your next partner close to home.

Drop us a line if you know of another deserving barn, breeder, or trainer we can shine a light on!

Area VI Lifts All Boats in A Rising Tide of Change

Photo by Tina Fitch Photography.

More than a year of debate surrounded the December 2022 announcement of Area VI’s calendar revisions (For more context from Area VI’s perspective, click here). A new process for the creation of the U.S. eventing calendar had broken ground in April of 2021, the aim of which was to bring “critical structure and overdue stability.” Additionally it would “facilitate a healthy calendar to the benefit of the U.S. Eventing athletes, their horses, stakeholders within the sport, and the U.S. Eventing Pathway as a whole,” Amber Braun, Managing Director of Eventing at USEF, explained.

The creation of three week breaks in Advanced competition came from a new policy from the USEF Strategic Task Force Committee for the new Eventing Calendar Process Proposal: “The Task Force recommends that preparation for all CCI5*-L and CCI4*-L competitions, Games, and Championships should be placed in three-week intervals leading up to the competition in order to ensure optimal preparation and welfare of the horse.”

With concerns that upper level horses were running too often, horse welfare became a top priority. On the East coast, with more than 20 venues across different Areas offering 72+ upper level competitions in one calendar year, that was possible; difficult but possible.

When word came to the Area VI Committee in late 2021, the new calendar seemed possible too. “Honestly I liked it for my upper level FEI horses initially,” said Bec Braitling, member of the Area VI Committee. “The more it went on…the realization of how deep it would impact our national calendar became apparent.”

As the 2023 Area VI calendar began to take shape, committee members realized there were two snags: The Area would have back to back horse shows in order to accommodate the breaks in upper level competition and lose a CCI3*-L in the spring.

A policy that prioritizes horse welfare and strategic planning is something to be lauded and emulated, not condemned. But for Area VI, the consequences of adhering to the new schedule and its resulting loss of international competition had the potential to challenge the health of the sport financially and its ability to hold elite level eventing.

For Bec Braitling, Christina Gray, Teresa Harcourt, and Andrea Pfieffer, members of the Area VI Committee, this meant an intervention was needed.

Bec Braitling and Caravaggio II. Photo by Ride On Photo.

The National Calendar

At first glance, it would be feasible to accommodate three week breaks by extending the California eventing season into the winter. But as Bec pointed out, “We HAVE to run on a two week schedule here, due to weather mostly. The winter is wet and the footing doesn’t allow ‘year round eventing’, the summer is DARN hot in most areas, so we cluster Feb through May and Sept through November — and it’s busy! Once you switch to three weeks, you squeeze out competitions and force some to run back to back weekends. We cannot support this schedule. There just aren’t enough entries to split.”

Mitigating the loss of FEI competition in the spring remained a serious obstacle, but the national calendar ranked higher in the concerns of the committee members and organizers of Area VI. As a whole, they decided that it was more important to keep eventing viable rather than allow any single event to fall away.

“Ram Tap was going to be severely impacted,” Andrea Pfieffer, chair of the Area VI Committee, explained. “Terry [Hilst] last year, she stepped up. She pulled that Advanced together for the Area when we really needed an Advanced at the end of the year… [Terry] did it for the area and did an amazing job.” Terry Hilst, organizer at Ram Tap Horse Park, had also loaned an enormous amount of equipment to the Horse Park at Woodside so that they could run their October horse trials after parting ways with former organizer Robert Kellerhouse. Creating direct competition between any venues was not an option for the committee.

Christina Gray, secretary to many horse shows across the U.S. including Area VI staple Twin Rivers Horse Park, commented that many of Area VI competing members are not professionals. “When we were going to put events back to back and you’re an adult amateur and you’re working or you’re a kid in school, you can’t be gone two or three days out of every week. It’s people enjoying the sport and this is their vacation that they’re taking.”

Olympic rider for Puerto Rico Lauren Billys turns and burns with Can Be Sweet. Photo by Sherry Stewart.

“In fairness to USEF, these proposals were open for comment from riders and there was little to no feedback,” Bec added.

So the work began to try communicating the gravity of the situation. “The people that could make a change jumped onboard,” Andrea said. “We were able to hit it on all sides… Bec being on the [USEF Calendar Working Group] made a huge impact, Teresa Harcourt on the Board of Governors made a big impact, and…I [talked] directly to Rob [Burk], [talked] directly to Jonathan Elliot up at Aspen because he’s on the [USEF Calendar Working Group]…it was a collective group who absolutely made the changes happen.”

Bec stressed the importance of getting involved: “One key point I want to get across is how we perceive governing bodies and how we complain about things that happen, but not many step up to take positive action. I’ve actually never been much of an ‘activist’ type and am usually guilty of being a complainer and not a doer myself! This time…I was able to sit across from Bill Maroney (USEF) himself and with the help of members of the Strategic Calendar Task Force present the facts, the struggles associated with the revised schedule and ultimately develop a solution. That’s so important going forward, we HAVE to be a part of our sport, be advocates for our sport, be INTERESTED in what’s going on and participate…Not nearly enough riders help shape the sport at the governance level, but then complain about things we don’t like. That’s why the newly established USEF Calendar Review Task Force is so important. But riders, organizers and supporters need to give feedback so those concerns can be addressed. Fill out questionnaires, respond to emails asking for feedback. Without it, we can’t change the things we don’t agree with.”

Photo by Sherry Stewart.

The International Calendar 

Twin Rivers Horse Park (Paso Robles, CA) had previously held a CCI3*-L division at their April Horse Trials. Without it, the only other option for a run prior to Rebecca Farms in July meant a 3.000 mile trek (one way) east to Tryon.

For those not well versed in upper level eventing, the absence of a spring CCI3*-L created a challenge. Horses and riders need to complete a national Advanced in addition to two CCI3*-L and one CCI4*-S or one CCI3*-L and two CCI4*-S in order to achieve qualification for a CCI4*-L. No matter which route a rider took, it would have meant either a trip to Tryon in the spring for the first and Rebecca Farms in July for the second OR taking a full year or more to achieve CCI4*-L qualification.

Area VI members are used to driving far. “If you grew up in California, you grew up in a vehicle,” Andrea pointed out. “On the West Coast, you do have to be willing to get in the truck and travel a bit. So getting in the trailer, driving 10 hours to get to Galway? To me, it’s a jaunt.” Rebecca Farms in Kalispell, MT is a 20 hour drive without stops from Galway Downs in Temecula, CA while Tryon is a full 34 hours without taking into account rest and food breaks.

So if an option existed and competitors are used to driving, why was there a problem?

Within the whole Area, just six venues offer 19 competitions, both upper and lower levels, in the calendar year. If you are willing to go farther, three venues outside Area VI in Washington and Montana offer an additional four upper level competitions. Even when taking Tryon into consideration, the proposed calendar operated under the assumption that competition plans would go perfectly.

Amber Biracial and Cinzano. Photo by Tina Fitch Photography.

“If your horse had an abscess and missed an Advanced, there’s not half a dozen in different Areas that I can drive to and go, ‘no big deal we missed this one’. I can drive to Virginia or Kentucky or Florida or Maryland,” Andrea Pfeiffer remarked, a concern echoed by Bec. “Back east, there’s a lot of Advanced events. You can pick and choose. But out here, if your horse missed one, you’re making it so these horses are essentially going to be an entire year behind where you wanted to be.” As we have learned with the recent covid pandemic, losing a year is not an ideal situation for horse or rider.

Enough time remained to make adjustments before the 2023 season was confirmed. Bec explained that, “during 2022, some of the Area VI competitions petitioned for date changes but those were denied…”

One of those denied competitions was the Twin Rivers Horse Park. As secretary for Twin Rivers, Christina Gray put together the modification request for the date change.

According to the 2023-2027 U.S. Eventing Calendar CCI4*-L, CCI4*-S, CCI3*-L, Advanced Policies and Procedures, the request needed to address four primary criteria: high performance sport impact, technical aspects (footing/stabling/management/etc), U..S Eventing team plans, and the growth of equestrian sport in the U.S. Additional criteria can include the organization’s experience, volunteer engagement, benefits for U.S. eventing, participation, local community engagement, media/sponsorship/donor opportunities, along with anything the presenter feels serves the sport’s best interest.

“It was hard..there were a lot of changes going on,” she commented. Twin Rivers had been granted Week 16 but applied for a modification to run on Week 15 instead. “We’ve run on both weekends and so we had a lot of data…which was more financially viable, which was healthier for the area, which was healthier for upper level riders trying to go to Kentucky.”

Source: Christina Gray to USEF/USEA on behalf of Twin River’s bid for modification. In 2013, the spring event moved from Week 16 to Week 15 where it has been placed in the calendar since.

Based on Twin Rivers’ data, Christina could confidently quantify the effect on high performance eventing. “[Week 15 was] drastically more used for people going to Kentucky…when they [Kentucky and Twin Rivers] are back to back weekends, that doesn’t allow for the travel that it takes because if you’re driving your own horses, it’s three day drive, and then if you’re flying your horse, you can only fly on certain days. So a lot of times you have to get a flight the week before.” As she pointed out, “that’s a bit much for horses to fly on Tuesday and jog on Wednesday.”

But it’s not just those horses aimed at Kentucky that were affected by the policy change. “Our upper level events have to have support of the lower level events to survive,” Christina said. “We’re not getting the divisions of forty or fifty at the 4* or 3* level. We’ll run an FEI event and it might have 45 entries total between all the divisions so it really takes having 350 national entries to help fund those FEI levels. And I think people don’t necessarily know that’s how it balances on the West Coast.”

Even if one venue could get an exemption from the three week policy, having events on back to back weekends competing for entries challenged any ability to hold upper level sport at all.

When Christina and Twin Rivers initially presented their desire for the modification to run on Week 15 instead of 16, the response from the governing bodies endorsed a trial year. But “on the West Coast, we can barely fill two [shows] every other weekend,” Christina went on. “That’s with support at the upper levels from all over the west. It’s not just California. You’ve got people coming from Washington, you have Canadians coming down to really fill those divisions. If you’re looking at an event making enough money to continue to run, we can’t afford to lose anything else.”

Photo by Tina Fitch Photography.

The Solution

“It was no easy feat and it really was a team of individuals. It wasn’t one person who carried the load,” Andrea recalled.

After many ears bent, letters of support written, and emails sent, the committee members managed to convey the gravity of the situation to the Eventing Strategic Calendar Task Force. The goal of this appointed group is, Amber Braun describes, “to carefully review the strategic calendar and address any deficiencies as well as consult on the future process.” The Task Force passed it on to the Eventing Sport Committee. Those modifications were then recommended to an Ad Hoc of the Board of Directors.

On January 23, 2023, the press release that accompanied the announcement of the new and approved calendar wrote: “Due to hardships demonstrated for qualification under the current structure and criteria, and to limit the travel to achieve those qualifications in the interest of horse welfare, the following modifications were approved to offer the best preparation for high-performance athletes and horses.”

That one sentence encompasses the work and effort of so many people across so much time. From Area VI committee members to USEF and USEA representatives, from elite athletes to show organizers, it shows what happens when we do the work to engage honestly with each other and to communicate across difficulties even when everyone comes with the best of intentions. However, Bec Braitling, Christina Gray, Teresa Harcourt, and Andrea Pfieffer led the charge for Area VI by doing the work to help resolve the challenges posed by new strategic policies.

In the words of Andrea Pfieffer: “The calendar, as it stands right now, is absolutely, completely workable…If we had another venue in California, that would be really fantastic. But that doesn’t happen overnight — that’s not going to be in 2024 — that’s a big undertaking to find a location…That’s my big dream. but as it stands right now, we have a very healthy calendar..I think Bec said, ‘we might be small but we are mighty.’”