Jun 19, 2024

The VIP Volunteer: Diane Bird Brought Her Fun Flair to the USEA Intercollegiate Championship

Diane and Art Bird enjoy volunteering together. Photos courtesy of Diane Bird

You might not know her name, but chances are, if you’ve competed at an event in South Carolina, Virginia, or other venues across the eastern United States, you’ve met Diane Bird.

“Diane’s so cool because she really cares about eventing,” said Sissy Sugarman, 22, who just graduated from Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee. She’s chatted with Bird while competing with Carmani (Armani x Cara), her 16-year-old Canadian Sport Horse gelding.

“My start-box habit is to talk to whoever is volunteering, to calm my nerves and get myself out of thinking only about the course,” said Sugarman, who rides at the Intermediate level and has encountered Bird when she’s been working as a cross-country starter. “Diane is always that person I can talk to, and she’s not weirded out by it. She understands what [riders] need.”

Bird, who turned 74 on June 7 , is a longtime starter, course decorator, and uber volunteer in the eventing world. Riders might not necessarily know her name, but they’ve no doubt talked with her or enjoyed her artistically decorated jumps as they’ve walked and navigated cross-country courses at Stable View (Aiken, South Carolina), Virginia Horse Center (Lexington) and other places. She’s one of the all-time leaders in volunteer hours at www.eventingvolunteers.com, though these days some of her work is paid and doesn't count.

She explained that at Stable View, where she’s volunteered for several years, she’s compensated for her work in the cross-country start box and for decorating jumps. “I really don’t get the amount of [volunteer] hours I used to. Money? Hours? Money? Hours? Money wins," she said.

Regardless of where she stands on the volunteer leaderboard, there’s no questioning her passion for giving back to the sport that she and her husband, Art Bird, discovered while watching the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She distinctly remembers following the action as Karen Stives and Ben Arthur captured a silver medal. She’d always loved horses, since she was first taught to ride at 6 years old by her older sister, Gail, while growing up in southern New Jersey. She was 12 when she got her first horse.

“He was a cutie,” she said of Sancho, a strawberry roan Quarter Horse who she rode for pleasure. “We didn’t have a pony club or any organized things. We trail rode around the paths that the stable had.”

Diane sold Sancho after graduating high school and before heading to Glassboro State College in New Jersey, now known as Rowan University. She majored in education and upon graduation, spent her career teaching in the Hamilton Township Public Schools. She got back into horses at the age of 32, after meeting and marrying Art. They both grew up in Absecon, New Jersey, but didn’t meet until they were in their 20s. They’ve been married for 50 years.

“Time flies when you’re having fun,” said Diane of her husband, who’s a retired commercial artist who specialized in hand painting the giant billboards on the roads leading into Atlantic City, New Jersey. “He’s a great guy.”

Diane Bird's decorations were featured on cross-country jumps at this year's USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Championship. USEA/Annan Hepner photo

Diane’s passion for horses eventually lured Art into riding and even using his artistic talents to build barns for their horses, first in New Jersey and then in Lexington, Virginia, when they moved there in 1999. They couple had become active volunteers and were excited to move near the Virginia Horse Center, where they gave their time for almost 20 years.

“We moved there for the Horse Center,” Diane said. “By then, we’d gotten into eventing. Not riding ourselves, but volunteering,”

The couple first became intrigued by eventing during the 1984 Olympic Games, and then, while watching a grand prix at the Devon Horse and Country Fair in Pennsylvania shortly thereafter, they saw an ad for storied eventer Bruce Davidson’s Chesterland Farm in Unionville, Pennsylvania, which had formerly hosted a three-star event. They decided to make the trek to watch that event in person.

“The rest is history,” said Diane with a chuckle. “That was just so cool. We just really liked it, and we started by being spectators for a couple of years.”

In 1988, they began volunteering.

“You know how it is,” Diane said. “You go to an event, and they don’t have enough people. They’ll grab anybody off the street. They have to because they just can’t get enough people.”

The couple have volunteered at numerous events, including Essex (Far Hills, New Jersey), Fair Hill (Elkton, Maryland), and Millbrook (Millbrook, New York), and at the 2018 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Mill Spring, North Carolina). While Diane does a lot of jump decorating and start-box duties, Art often will be found scoring dressage. Ultimately, however, the couple are happy to step in and help wherever needed.

Most recently, Diane knocked it out of the proverbial volunteer park when she came up with the ingenious idea to decorate cross-country jumps in honor of each university, college, and club participating in the 2024 USEA Intercollegiate and Interscholastic Eventing Championships, held in May at Stable View.

“I thought it’d be really cool if we did a little more spirit stuff because the kids just are so excited and full of energy. I thought, ‘Oh wow. Now I can do something to make it really special,’ ” she said.

There were 18 colleges and universities who competed in the Intercollegiate Eventing Championship and an additional 12 schools competing in the inaugural Interscholastic Eventing League (IEL) Championship for riders in grades 5 through 12. Diane was able to get school-themed items sent by many of the programs and then also borrowed school-themed swag from friends with connections to many of the participating schools. Additionally, Cindy Olliff, who owns Stable View with her husband, Barry Olliff, purchased masses of flowers in the colors of the attending schools.

“It took a lot longer than my regular decorating,” said Diane. “Usually when I’m going to decorate a course, I’ll say ‘OK, I’ll put pink flowers on this one today.’ This involved a lot of printing of signs and coordinating of colors, buying flowers, and making sure they were all right.”

While it was hard work, the end results amazed competitors.

“I think it was the perfect addition to that week,” said Sugarman, who’s Sewanee Tiger was represented at a table jump late in the Intermediate course. A giant stuffed tiger from the school was positioned to appear to be looking out from under the table, delighting competitors and spectators. “The Intercollegiate Championship is such a wonderful, spirited competition. You just see so much school spirit and liveliness in the sport that week. It was so fun to walk the course and mark all of the jumps, like ‘Oh, that’s Auburn’s jump’ or ‘That’s Kentucky’s jump.’ I really thought the course came to life.

“She is passionate, for sure, and really just understands the big picture of what that week was supposed to be about,” added Sugarman. “It’s awesome how Stable View as a venue got into the spirit of the Intercollegiate Championship, and it’s awesome that the venue is so supportive of the fact that it’s not a typical horse trials but something bigger, and Diane definitely embodied that.”

Even the Championships’ technical delegates got into the decorating action. On the Thursday prior to the beginning of competition, the cross-country courses had been approved and finalized by the TDs. However, Diane was still in the throes of decorating. She had to go to the TDs each time she wanted to add another element.

“The TDs were great. They just worked right along with us, and we made sure we didn’t do anything too crazy,” she said. “We were really careful to make sure that nothing would be too crazy and bother the horses. I always worry about that. I always try and keep it lowkey, so it doesn’t scare horses.”

Big banners and flags went on the back of jumps, and some cheerleading pompoms sent by one school were nixed in favor of flowers because they were blowing around. And mostly, it was Preliminary and Intermediate jumps that were decorated.

“Those horses have been everywhere and seen everything, and we figured those horses would be less concerned,” Diane said.

Emma Young is a member of the Stable View marketing team, a 2023 graduate of Otterbein University (Ohio), and a former competitor at the Intercollegiate Championship. She said Diane’s decorating handiwork at this year’s Championship was so popular that going forward, it might become part of the Spirit Award competition. This year’s Spirit Award saw the schools competing in a hobby-horse race, riding mechanical bulls, and decorating their stabling and windows at the Stable View Pavilion. This year’s winner was Randolph-Macon College (Virginia).

“It was cool. I watched the riders as they were doing their course walks, and they thought it was really fun,” said Young of Diane’s decorations. “She’s just great. She takes a lot of initiative and does things on her own, and she’s always got a new idea.”

Diane is already looking forward to next year’s championships based on how much she enjoyed this year’s competition.

“What impressed me is the quality of the teams,” she said. “It has improved a lot, as has the quality of the horses. It’s gotten so much more professional. What hasn’t changed is the kids. They’re spirited, and they’re all excited to be there, and it’s fun to see the camaraderie. It’s so nice to see all of those young people getting along together and having fun together. They’re so polite, so mannerly, and so respectful of everyone. It’s so refreshing, and it gives you hope that everything’s not as bad as you see on TV.”

When she’s not volunteering, Diane uses her artistic talents in her equine stained glass business, and then she and Art have three horses, which they board at Jump 4 Joy Training Center in Aiken. There’s Flame, a 24-year-old Arabian gelding; Peylone, 24, a Paint-Draft mare; and Orobet, 28, a retired off-track Thoroughbred. They also have a 12-year-old corgi named Chi Chi. They haven’t ridden since Art had a shoulder replacement two years ago, but Diane’s not discounting it.

“Now, we’re probably too old, but there’s still a chance,” she said. “The horses are old. We’re old. But we still see them about every day, and we brush them and feed them carrots.”

In the meantime, Art will continue as a dressage scorer at events, while Diane will keep on decorating at the monthly events at Stable View and working as the cross-country starter.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this,” she said. “I’m kind of amazed I’m still doing it. I laugh all the time because I can just see me going out to the start box with my walker one of these days.”

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About the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program

Volunteers are the lifeblood of our sport, the unsung heroes, and the people who make it possible to keep eventing alive. In efforts to recognize the dedication, commitment, and hard work that volunteers put into eventing, the USEA formed the Volunteer Incentive Program (VIP) in 2015. In 2017, an online management portal was designed for volunteers, organizers, and volunteer coordinators at EventingVolunteers.com, which is also available as an app for iOS and Android.

Volunteer incentives include national and area recognition, year-end awards, a top ten USEA Volunteer leaderboard, and a Volunteer of the Year award which is given to the volunteer who accumulates the most volunteer hours on EventingVolunteers.com at recognized events throughout the USEA competition year. Click here to learn more about the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program.

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Weekend Quick Links: July 13-14

Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered!

Official Corporate Sponsors of the USEA

Official Joint Therapy Treatment of the USEA

Official Feed of the USEA

Official Saddle of the USEA

Official Equine Insurance of the USEA

Official Forage of the USEA

Official Supplement Feeding System of the USEA

Official Competition & Training Apparel of the USEA

Official Horse Boot of the USEA

Official Shockwave of the USEA

Official Horse Wear of the USEA