Behind the Scenes: Essential Horse Show PersonnelMarch 30, 2022
No horse show can happen without the tremendous efforts and specialized expertise of a team of talented people, some of whom begin their preparations months in advance. And when things go wrong—as they so often do when horses are involved-it falls to these essential behind-the-scenes personnel to try to make the best out of less-than-ideal situations.
Northeast Equestrian Life caught up with a few popular show officials and staff to learn more about their roles at the show, their favorite parts of the job, and what they wish competitors knew about horse shows.
Jared Erho, Hunter and Jumper Course Designer
Erho hails from Northfield, Mass., but since earning his US Equestrian Federation “r” licenses in both hunter and jumper course design in 2021, his services have been engaged at shows from coast to coast. We caught up with him out in Thermal, Calif., where this winter he has been busy designing courses for both disciplines.
NEL: What is the role of the course designer?
Erho: I design the courses, but the hard part is laying the course out so it rides well and is inviting for all the exhibitors. You have to be a foreman of all the [ring] crew as well as the course designer—it is your responsibility to make sure the course gets put together correctly. There’s a lot of work involved, and you need a lot of help. Once the course is built, I double-check all the heights and distances.
NEL: What does your design process look like?
Erho: Without fail, if I try to design before I go to the show, they change the schedule, or the class isn’t in the same ring it used to be, so I gave up on that! If the show is on Wednesday, I’ll start designing when I get there on Tuesday morning and can go and look at the rings I’m doing. I just do one day at a time. Every morning I recheck all my distances to make sure nothing is off. There is nothing worse than having someone call you down to the ring to double-check a distance and have it not be right, or have somebody get hurt. I know plenty of people that’s happened to, especially when the distance on an in and out is wrong. That always scares me to be vigilant with my distances.
After I watch a few [horses] go, first thing in the morning is usually the best time to run back to the office and start designing courses for the next day.
NEL: Do you normally only design for one discipline at a time?
Erho: It totally depends on the show and how many course designers they have. For smaller shows, I usually do both. But here in Thermal, they have me do hunters or jumpers. At a big show like this where there are seven rings of each discipline, they tend to have you stick to one [discipline] one week and do the other the next. At a smaller show, you end up doing everything.
It can get pretty busy during the day—Fridays and Saturdays are pretty busy because there are more classes and more course changes. As a course designer, I have to be there at all course changes, to make sure they are done correctly. When you are the only one at a show, you have to find a [ring] crew guy you trust to be able to run and do a change for you if you have two courses to change at the same time.
NEL: What is your favorite part of this job?
Erho: One of my favorite rings to do is the pony ring. A lot of people don’t like that, because you have to move all the distances. But setting a nice course where people are getting high scores and it’s going well…you see the little kids get the happiest about that. It’s really nice to see that. Setting a course and watching it ride well is really satisfying.
I like [designing] for the hunters more, because you’re trying to set a course that goes well for the rider and the horse, as opposed to jumpers, where you are trying to get some faults and challenge them a little more.
Ray Denis, dressage and eventing technical delegate
Ray Denis will proudly tell you that he became the first licensed eventing technical delegate in the U.S. 45 years ago, receiving his training from eventing legends Neil Ayer and John Pingree, who essentially created the role. Today, Denis holds USEF “r” technical delegate licenses for both eventing and dressage, officiating at an average of 16-20 northeastern competitions annually between April and October. Denis is well-known for his cheerful, positive attitude, his “educate not eliminate” philosophy, and his dedication to animal welfare.
NEL: What exactly does a technical delegate (T.D.) do, and is the role different at an event versus a dressage show?
Denis: Whether it is eventing or dressage, the role of the T.D. is to make sure that everything is in compliance with the rules of USEF, or US Dressage Federation [USDF], or US Eventing Association [USEA]. Rules compliance starts from when the headlights of the truck pulling the horses to the competition hit the pavement at the venue until the taillights depart. Once the competitor is on the grounds, they are under the rules.
NEL: There are a lot of different rules to keep track of!
Denis: Yes, and the rules not only have to do with the competition and its results but also safety and animal welfare. I love horses—all types of horses, and all horses have a purpose, no matter the breed. All breeds, all disciplines, and animal welfare are all important to me. So much so that if there’s ever a decision to be made between horse and rider, the horse will always win. There is no leniency for any inappropriate behavior toward the horses. They don’t have a voice. I am their voice, and I will advocate for them, always.
NEL: What are some common misconceptions about the role of the T.D.?
Denis: That the T.D. has the authority to eliminate a competitor. The T.D. doesn’t eliminate anybody; that is the job of the Ground Jury. The T.D. investigates and reports back to the Ground Jury, for both dressage and eventing. Now, if the Ground Jury is judging dressage, often they will say, “if something is a clear-cut rule violation, please eliminate them on my behalf. But if it is a complex situation, come to me.”
NEL: Can you give an example of how an “investigation” works?
Denis: Something like improper saddlery, discovered in the warm-up area. I will go to the warm-up and find out what happened. My role is to educate rather than punish, so I would start by having the competitor explain why they’re doing what they’re doing. I try to rectify it by doing the proper thing. You can never allow them to break the rules, but you can help them to stay within the rules.
Generally speaking, if it’s not in the rulebook, it is okay. If it’s in the rulebook and it says you must do this, or they say it should be this way— “must” and “should” are keywords. You have to really take notice of that.
NEL: What is the role of the T.D. prior to the competition? Is it different at an event versus a dressage show?
Denis: There is a huge difference between an event and a dressage show! If I have gone to a competition time and again, I am comfortable arriving the day before and signing off on everything. For an event, this means checking cross country courses, the show jumping courses, dressage area, and warmups for all of those phases. I also verify the medical coverage available, the volunteer staffing, the credentials of the officials and troubleshoot any problems the organizer may have. For a dressage show, it’s basically the same in that if I have gone repeatedly to a show, I know what I am going to expect. Dressage shows have gotten very professional in terms of the secretary and organizer, and the level of communication is such that if there is an issue, it is usually communicated in advance. As at an event, I have to check the coverage for human and equine medical, stabling, administrative issues, and equine welfare.
NEL: 45 years is certainly a distinguished career as a licensed official! Why do you keep working as a T.D.?
Denis: It’s a very selfish reason—I feel really good when I can make a difference and help someone or help some group. I’m really more of a grassroots competition enthusiast, and I can’t stress enough that education is the key to the success of every competition. I will say to a competitor or organizer, “We can’t do that because…but we can do this or that. What would you like to do?” That’s always worked for me. The success of my officiating over the past 45 years is in the merit of my work, and my honesty in my application of the rulebook. A successful season is one where everyone has a chance to compete and no horses or riders are injured. That’s always in the back of my mind—what is the fastest response if an accident happens.
Lil Gilpin, show manager
For nearly 40 years, Lillian “Lil” Gilpin was based at her Rocking Horse Farm in Plympton, Mass., where she coached and trained saddle seat riders and horses. But with the arrival of her grandson, Gilpin decided to retire from her longtime business, and today, she is the show manager for the South Shore Horseman’s Council (SSHC) pleasure series. These competitions are held at Rozena’s Field in Raynham, Mass., and regularly draw as many as 140 horses a day.
NEL: How did you end up as the show manager for SSHC’s pleasure shows?
Gilpin: I had only managed a couple of one-day shows—I used to do the Marion Horse Show down in Marion, Mass. It was on the 4th of July and I did that a couple of years. But I had a lot of clients that went to horse shows, so that made it hard.
When my niece [Kaitlyn Flannery] came back from William Woods [University], I thought, I will let her do the one-day horse shows, and I’ll start managing them. [Flannery has now taken over Gilpin’s former business at Rocking Horse Farm.] I was on the SSHC Board of Directors, and I thought there were a lot of things that could be a little better about the shows, and I just said I would be interested. And that’s how it went! It worked out pretty nice, and I love it.
It is hard to find somebody to do it, especially for a one-day horse show, because there’s tons of stuff to do. When you get into an overnight horse show, it’s actually easier because you’ve got three or four days in a row. But for the one days, you have to do everything four different times throughout the summer because it’s a different horse show every month.
NEL: Can you give us an overview of your major responsibilities?
Gilpin: At this particular horse show, I am the manager of two pleasure rings, one western and one English. There are three other rings over at the hunt course, two over fences and one on the flat. I don’t have a whole lot to do with that—there is another manager who does it because five rings are quite a bit to manage!
I find judges for both rings, and I have to do that multiple times throughout the year for each show. I get stewards—that’s the lady who keeps the rules in order, or the person to go to if somebody has a problem. I keep track of the number of horses, the number of riders, and the time schedule. We have 65 classes in one ring, so we have to keep track of the time, especially if we are on hold waiting for people.
It’s a long day, but it runs very smoothly. The people who come to our horse shows are very helpful, and they realize the only way that we are going to get through the day is if everybody is ready.
NEL: Do you have any “pro-tips” you have learned?
Gilpin: You need to get an announcer who knows how to keep people informed of what’s going on. You have to get people in the office who know how to enter horses and riders, and sometimes there are multiple riders on one horse, which gets a bit confusing. They all accumulate points for year-end awards, so it has to be right.
NEL: Why is it so important to keep shows like the SSHC series going?
Gilpin: SSHC is a pretty impressive one-day show. There are far fewer [one-day shows] now; they used to be everywhere. It used to be the first horse show people would go to before they go to the higher-rated shows.
I think it’s very important for the one-day horse shows to continue because there are a lot of types of horses and types of riders and the expense is less. It is important to have these shows for people to begin, to start their career. We’ve had people do South Shore for three or four years in a row, then they step up to a horse in training, then they’re going to Louisville or the Grand National in Oklahoma. That’s great—that’s what they’re supposed to do. But they started with us. It’s neat, to kind of push them.
It is also a good schooling show for [people] who take their horse to a bigger show and have a problem or issue. They can come to this particular horse show and ride in two or three classes a day, whereas when you go to an overnight horse show you have one class every day. You get a bit more accomplished.
NEL: Is there one thing you wish that competitors knew about how shows are run?
Gilpin: It’s a hard thing to explain, but if everybody could just do their job with the timeline- including the judge, because sometimes you get a judge that’s on the slower side—it would be perfect. The thing about one days is that your horse is standing on the trailer, and you unload them three or four times to compete. So, if a competitor brings their horse out to get ready for a class, and the next thing you know there’s a hold for 10 minutes—they get angry. That’s why you have to have a good announcer, to give them that heads up.
But sometimes there is an accident, and if an ambulance has to come, that is going to stop our horse show! You have to have patience and you have to wait, and just have respect for other people.
By Christina Keim