Greek philosopher Aristotle famously pondered that the essence of life is “to serve others and to do good.” Lifelong horseman Mike Smallwood, of Dickerson, Maryland, embodies that concept as a selfless volunteer. He has served his local community as a volunteer firefighter for more than 20 years and donates even more of his spare time to support equestrian competitions along the East Coast by volunteering in whatever capacity necessary. After logging 221 volunteer hours at United States Eventing Association recognized horse trials in 2017, he was rewarded with the inaugural USEA Volunteer of the Year Award.
Mike says volunteering, whether through the fire department or at equestrian events, is a way for him to give back. “I’m passionate about fire rescue and EMS [Emergency Medical Service]. I enjoy helping people. As far as eventing, the organizers put so much into the events to make everything the best they can, and the volunteers are the backbone that make that happen.”
Mike grew up around horses, dabbling in numerous English and Western disciplines. He got his start volunteering at horse trials through his mission as a volunteer firefighter—a job he calls a “professional hobby.” After his department, for which he is now chief, served as the EMS standby for the Maryland Horse Trials, Mike eventually became the event’s safety coordinator. Since then, Mike has stepped in for just about every volunteer position available from jump judging on cross country to serving as ring steward and checking bits. However, if possible, he prefers not to scribe for dressage. “Have you ever seen what a doctor’s handwriting looks like? I think competitors would prefer I not be a scribe.”
Mike logged over nine days’ worth of volunteer hours last year through the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program, presented by Sunsprite Warmbloods. He was rewarded for his dedication with the first annual USEA Volunteer of the Year Award, the prizes for which included a custom embroidered USEA Volunteer of the Year jacket, a crystal trophy and a $1,000 check. When congratulated for receiving this honor, Mike laughs, “I had more free time than anyone else!”
Last December, Mike traveled to Long Beach, California, to receive the Volunteer of the Year Award at the USEA’s Annual Year-End Awards. He walked on stage in front of a room full of eventers, accepting his award to a heartfelt standing ovation. Mike says that while it was a great honor, he worked diligently to accumulate those 221 hours and he hopes that someone else steps up to the plate this year.
“I’ll still be volunteering, but the throne is up for grabs. I’m not going to be competitive with it this year. I hope and wish to see someone else take it. There are so many other volunteers that deserve the same recognition I got.”
The sport of eventing depends upon volunteers like Mike and thousands of other unsung heroes who take time out of their day to help run a horse trials without compensation. They are essential to the sport and without them the competition simply could not go on. The USEA’s VIP Program exists to both recognize volunteers for their behind-the-scenes efforts and provide a way to connect event organizers with people available to help. When an organizer advertises open positions, volunteers sign up, log hours and watch their points accumulate on Area (local) and National leaderboards. The initiative was originally developed by Maryland Horse Trials organizer Carolyn Mackintosh to recognize volunteers and Area II launched a successful multi-state pilot program. In 2017, VIP became an official USEA program.
“It’s insane the amount of man hours put into an event. It’s good for people to see that and appreciate a little more the person standing at the in-gate or checking your bit,” Mike says. “Most venues don’t have a staff so they rely on volunteers to come in and help set up, tear down and decorate. There are a lot of deserving people out there that work hard every year to make events what they are. The program is a very good way to show that and give people the credit they well deserve.”
Learn more about volunteering at www.eventingvolunteers.com.
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.