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

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