Volunteering is an essential part of the sport of eventing. With fences to be judged, scores to be tallied, rings to be stewarded and countless more tasks to be accomplished throughout each day, event organizers rely on the invaluable help of event volunteers to keep events running smoothly. These efforts are monumental at any regular horse trial but are magnified exponentially when it comes to the production of the USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Nutrena Feeds (AEC).
The 2021 AEC saw almost 1,000 horse and rider pairs compete at the Kentucky Horse Park making it the largest event in North American history. Putting on an event of such colossal proportions requires calling in the big guns and a team of 256 volunteers dedicated their time to make this year's Championship the greatest yet.
Out of the over 250 volunteers, 25 of those drove in from out-of-state to make the 2021 AEC possible. Dynamic duo Ellen and Ron Sadler of St. Louis, Missouri were two of those dedicated volunteers. Vanessa Coleman, Director of Competition at Equestrian Events Inc. (EEI), is one of Ellen's longtime friends and convinced Ellen to give her time at the 1995 Kentucky Three-Day Event and she has been volunteering at the event in some capacity every year since. When EEI stepped in to assist with the AEC in 2019 and 2021, Ellen also found herself working the Championships as well.
Ellen, who is an equestrian herself, has her own individual love of horse sport to motivate her volunteering efforts, but husband Ron found himself tagging along as well despite not being a horseman. "We are both friends with Vanessa and her husband Tony and they needed help and he would be bored at home!" she laughed. "He likes it, he likes the horse people. He thinks he and Bruce Davidson are friends, maybe they are! He has volunteered with me for 20 years now."
The Sadler couple along with fellow volunteer Eloise Penn were the awards crew for the entire duration of the 2021 AEC. Eloise is a former eventer herself and got her start as a volunteer in the mid-90s. Like the Sadlers, Eloise also helps with the Kentucky Three-Day Event and joined the crew of AEC volunteers in 2019 and 2021. In comparison to volunteering at a normal horse trial, Eloise noted that the larger number of horses makes for much longer days, a sentiment that Ellen also echoed.
The start of the day for the awards team began when the first horse entered the famed Rolex Arena for show jumping and didn't end until the last ribbon had been awarded and awards were organized for the next day. Ellen joked, "two nights we had to choose between if we wanted dinner or a shower, and dinner won!" For many volunteers and event staff, long days are the norm. Headlights began appearing at the Kentucky Horse Park as early as 5:30 a.m. and you often saw headlights on the way out at the end of the day as well as the sunset over the bluegrass.
The days are long, but the feel-good moments make it worth it for these three dedicated volunteers. Ellen recalled the sheer excitement and surprise that Gerlinde Beckers, Champion of the Beginner Novice Master division, and Mary Millhiser, Champion of the Novice Master division, exuded upon the crowning of their Championship title. But both Ellen and Eloise shared the same show of sportsmanship that prompted EEI to establish an all-new award, the EEI Organizers Sportsmanship Award as one of their favorite memories of 2021.
Eloise shared the story, "Ella Wegerich told officials that she did not go clean in stadium. Even after they declared she went clean, she kept insisting that she pulled a rail. After the officials acknowledged their error, the judge came down and apologized to her and her parents and claimed total responsibility. She was in fourth place and was moved down to 15th. I was impressed with her honestly and persistence to right what she knew was wrong."
There were many heartwarming stories at the AEC this year, but the dedication of the many volunteers is one of the greatest. Whether they were able to dedicate their entire week like the Sadlers and Eloise Penn or they sported breeches while working the in-gate immediately after their own rides, all of the volunteers who offered their time in Kentucky this year were essential to making the 2021 AEC the best Championship yet. The entire team at the USEA are so grateful for all that they did to help keep our riders smiling all week long!
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