Jul 20, 2022

The VIP Volunteer: Joan Harper

By Sydney Rowe - USEA Staff
Photo by Grant Gamma

Joan Harper is a committed rider, eventing volunteer, and course decorator that has been in love with horses since she was a child. She started out trail riding for fun before she’d even made it to grade school and was serious about horses by high school. However, while participating in a few unrecognized events, it wasn’t until her 30’s that she was introduced to the sport of eventing when her daughter joined the local Pony Club. From there, she started learning all she could; stating, “I tell people that at 50, I started my second childhood with eventing.

After being in the sport for so long, she amassed an impressive friend list, including notable names along the lines of Denny Emerson, Bobby Castello, Morgan Rowsell, and Janine McClain. Those connections she made continuously opened up new opportunities within the sport for Harper to pursue.

“I did a cross-country clinic with Denny Emerson. I heard kids talking about, you know, working students, and driving home from that weekend I thought, ‘Gee, that sounds great.’ So, I called him up and I spent the month of February in Southern Pines [North Carolina] as a working student with Denny. Almost every winter I would come down for three or four weeks to work as a working student.”

While Harper has been involved in the sport in many capacities as a rider, working student, and more, she has a clear passion for course decorating. For over 25 years, she has been adorning jumps and cross-country courses with colorful mums and stunning floral arrangements all over the country. Her course decorations not only make the courses more attractive but also serve a very large purpose when it comes to the way that the horses perceive each jump.

The former New Jersey native, who now resides full-time in North Carolina, got her start in volunteering with the Eastern States Dressage & Combined Training Association (ESDCTA) which served as the catapult for her volunteering career. She joined committees, spearheaded a movement to approach the Horse Park of New Jersey to create a cross-country track at their facility, played a role in getting the Jersey Fresh Horse Trials off the ground, and more. She even served as host for John Williams the Course Designer for the ESDCTA Horse Trials during the event, letting him stay in her home and offering him a home-cooked meal each night. When she relocated to North Carolina, right next door to Emerson’s former Tamarack Hill Farms, Harper continued her volunteering efforts at the local recognized and unrecognized horse trials. She spends her summers now decorating the courses for the unrecognized War Horse Event Series at the Carolina Horse Park.

A jump that Harper decorated recently for the War Horse unrecognized horse trials. Photo courtesy of Joan Harper.

“A lot of people tell me that a lot of the recognized events don’t decorate as much as we do [at War Horse] but I said the idea, in my mind, of a schooling show is to make every effort to give the horse a good experience. I want the horses to be happy with what they are jumping.” As all eventers know, eventing isn’t all about the rider. The horse’s comfort is paramount and a happy horse makes for a better ride. No one seems to understand this more than Harper. She is intent on making sure her fellow volunteers share this understanding as well so she has them read her friend, Janine McClain’s, book, ‘Cross-Country Completion: considerations about jump decorating’ to help them better understand the purpose of their roles as course decorators. McClain shares Harper’s love of course decorating and made the perfect guide for Harper to teach her team.

When asked why she was so drawn to the eventing volunteering community, Harper replied saying, “One of the benefits of volunteering is that you get to meet people and make connections which helps you to do other things.” The connections she has made through eventing have brought her fulfillment, travel opportunities, and lasting friendships that continue to inspire her each day.

Harper went into detail about everywhere this sport has taken her, both as a volunteer and as a spectator and lover of eventing. Across multiple state lines, to influential people, and even out of the country! “I’m going to Rome for the World Equestrian Games. This will be my last time at the Equestrian Games, I’ve been to every one since 1990.” At 80 years old, nearly 81, Harper will make the trip to Pratoni del Vivaro, Rome one more time to watch the international showdown.

While this may be her last trip to the World Equestrian Games, Harper shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. “I have a really crazy schedule for an 80-year-old lady,” she remarked with a chuckle. Harper still competes in the Green as Grass levels and is aiming to complete her Century Ride in the near future. In order to allow her to compete and serve as a volunteer at War Horse, the show office got a little creative with Harper’s ride times to make all of the pieces fit together.

“They give me the last dressage ride and the first jump ride so that my ride times are pretty close together. I bring my horse home, turn him out, and then I go back and pick up my decorations when the competition is done.” Harper chalks up her ability to keep up with her course decorating and competitive endeavors to conditioning herself properly. She regularly participates in Pilates and has a physical therapist who helps her stay in top-form. Five or six nights a week, Harper dutifully performs the exercises assigned to her by her physical therapist to ensure that she wakes up feeling fresh and ready to go for the next day at the horse trial.

In 2021, Harper received her bronze medal through the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program (VIP) Medal Program after accumulating 556 hours and 17 minutes of volunteer time. Even at her age and with her many hours dedicated to the sport of eventing, she is still learning new things and strives to learn more each day. Her passion for giving back to the sport and volunteering was instilled in her from a young age. “The commitment to volunteering actually came from my family. My parents were involved in boy scouts, girl scouts, PTA, and all that, so I just learned it as a way of life.”

At the end of the day, one thing sticks with Harper more than anything else. “The biggest satisfaction to me is getting compliments on my decorating. If your efforts are being acknowledged and appreciated then it’s all worth it.” Harper’s efforts are most certainly recognized. Her hard work not only brings her joy, but all the riders she has decorated for as well. There is no doubt that her designs have made memories and lasting impressions on many riders across the country.

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 the sport alive. In efforts to recognize the dedication, commitment, and hard work that volunteers put into eventing, 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 (available as an app for iOS and Android).

Volunteer incentives include national and area recognition, year-end awards with ribbons, cash prizes, and trophies, a top ten USEA Volunteer leaderboard, and a Volunteer of the Year award which is given to the volunteer who tops the leaderboard by accumulating the most volunteer hours over the USEA competition year. Click here (https://useventing.com/support-usea/volunteer) to learn more about the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program.

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