They call her The Sugar Lady, and the horses know her well. Marching down the hill towards dressage warm-up at Poplar Place Farm, with their ears pricked and eyes sparkling, horses approach the white steward’s tent already reaching towards volunteer Kris Keating.
She retrieves a white sugar cube from the pouch at her waist and coos lovingly as a horse happily munches away. It barely notices when she discreetly slides a gloved finger inside its mouth to check the bit. Chatting casually with the rider, she checks the girth and gives their boots a swipe with the rag before sending them on their way.
“She’s a full service provider,” Lora Fields, another steward, says to me as we observe the proceedings. “And she takes her time.”
Indeed, not all horses are eager to have their bit checked, and they will dance and chew nervously. Unconcerned, Kris encourages these horses to accept the treat and quietly reassures them, taking as long as necessary to accomplish the task.
Kris is now in her 13th year of volunteering. She works every recognized horse trials and dressage show at Poplar Place as well as three-quarters of the schooling shows. In 2016, that will amount to more than 15 weekends.
“I’ve always been horse crazy,” Kris said. “When I moved here due to the military, I found out about Poplar Place and came to a horse show. Then I found out that you could volunteer here. So I signed up! And that’s the end of that!”
Her first volunteer position was warm-up steward, and that is what she has stuck with all this time.
“I get to see a lot of really nice things because a lot of times the riders will push their horses a little more in the warm-up than they will in the actual show arena,” she said. “I’ll probably never get to ride anything this nice in my lifetime, but I get to touch every single one of them.”
Kris’s favorite part of the job is getting to love on all the horses. Yet the sugar she offers up isn’t just to spoil the animals she has come to know so well over years.
“The sugar is a bribe in a way to get them to not pay attention to a rubber glove,” she explained. “I always try to give them a piece of sugar and give them something else to think about. Then I try to be just as easy going with the bit check as possible. I think it does help. A lot of them know they’re going to get it so they look forward to coming down here.”
The riders, too, know and trust Kris, and many find comfort in her steady presence. At the very least, they know she would never let them head to the competition ring with stray wisps of shavings in their horse’s tail or dirt on their boots.
“I love this job. I will do it until I am physically not capable of doing it anymore.”