It always helps to see a warm, friendly face when heading to the warm-up ring before that all-important test or jump round. In this new series, the United States Evening Association (USEA) is partnering with Athletux, to feature the volunteers who help make these events possible; without them, horse shows and programs could not succeed. These volunteers go above and beyond to make sure every rider feels comfortable and confident. Do you know a volunteer who should be nominated as Volunteer of the Month? We are looking for our May feature. Email your tips to [email protected]
Horses haven’t always been part of Susan and Van Firth’s lives. Growing up, Susan always loved horses but never had an opportunity to ride. In fact, Van and Susan weren’t connected with horses until after they met, got married, and had their two girls. As it happened, riding lessons were offered just down the street from their youngest daughter Leslie’s school in Charlotte, N.C. and she caught the riding bug early. She began riding in fifth grade, lessons led to schooling shows and those eventually led to events. When asking Susan and Van why they got into the sport and volunteering, they credit their daughter’s passion.
In the beginning, the husband and wife team would volunteer because they found it was best for everyone if they were out of the way while their daughter’s coach worked with the teenage rider. Susan joked that, “Volunteering was easier than dealing with teenaged nerves.” They got their start at the former Ark Horse Trials and Pinehurst Horse Trials in North Carolina and immediately caught the volunteering bug. They were not only passionate about it, but good at it, and soon after, other venues were asking them to volunteer at their events, too. After they moved to Southern Pines, they became more involved with the renowned Carolina Horse Park, and haven’t looked back since.
Van and Susan Volunteering. Photo courtesy of the Firths.
Now Van and Susan can be found volunteering at several venues, from the Carolina Horse Park, to The Fork, Southern Eights and even the Virginia Horse Trials. Van even volunteered at the World Equestrian Games in 2010 at the Kentucky Horse Park and hopes if luck is on their side, to volunteer at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, NC.
They eventually got to know everyone, thanks to their time spent volunteering. At the Carolina Horse Park, they’ve done everything from jump judging to scribing and even bit checks. Around six years ago, they were asked to run the cross country warm-up, and can now be found there at every show, big or small! When asked what they enjoyed most about working in the warm-up Van responded, “We love getting to interact one on one with everyone and you get to know them over time. Now, we can recognize many of the riders at a distance not only by their cross country colors, but quite often by the way they sit in the saddle.”
Van and Susan care deeply for their riders, and will truly do whatever it takes to help them. They are advocates for riders and want the best for them. If there is an issue with the cross country warm up, Van and Susan will be the first ones to speak up to get the issue corrected to ensure the riders have the best experience possible. They even have a special kit they bring with them to every event filled with everything a rider could need in case something breaks or gets left back at the trailer. From extra stop watches to arm bands, bridle numbers, pineys, pins and everything in between, there isn’t an item they don’t have. When asked how they got the idea for the kit, Susan explained, “I remember the days having to run back to the trailer to get something for Leslie and I just began filling my pockets with stuff and anything that she may forget.” Van added, “We try and take care of everything. All we want the riders to have to worry about is their ride, not if they forgot something or if they are late or if something just broke. We want everyone to have a great ride and know how key a good warm up is for that.” They not only want riders to have a good round but also truly mentally cheer everyone on and feel those same emotions as they did when it was their daughter out competing.
Van volunteering at the Carolina Horse Park. Photo couresty of the Firths.
Eventing has truly blossomed into a passion for Van and Susan. They have put in countless hours as volunteers but would have it any other way. When asked what keeps them coming back Susan was quick to answer with “the people”. She added, “You make friends and now we feel like we let people down if we aren’t there because we care about these riders so much. It’s a very special sport where Olympians and newcomers compete together and it’s so much fun to watch.” Many of those special riders quickly pointed out that for them, it’s people like Susan and Van who keep them coming back because of their tireless dedication to helping them succeed and because they are always there whether it to keep things running smoothly, lend a helping hand or give one final cheer before a rider leaves the box. Many of these special riders pointed out, Van and Susan have watched grow up over the years and it gives them just as much excitement seeing one of them complete their first training or prelim as they get seeing someone they know tackle their first Rolex.
When you speak with the pair, their dedication and passion to the sport and their volunteer work shine through. Their passion for eventing is unparalleled and their dedication to being there and volunteering sets them apart. The members of the Area II community and beyond sincerely value and appreciate the Firths for everything they’ve done to help not only the horse park but the sport as a whole. Riders are quick to point out the strong impact the pair has had on the community, describing them as, “caring,” “dedicated,” “enthusiastic,” and “loving.” Expect to continue seeing them at events ensuring the warm-up runs smoothly, lending a hand where needed, and making sure the rider’s needs are covered. If you see them give them a huge thank you because without Van and Susan, eventing wouldn’t be the same.