On Volunteering

Twenty hours this weekend.

This weekend, I spent a total of about 20 hours as a volunteer on the annual Land of the Sun Endurance Ride in Wickenburg, AZ. This was my fifth or sixth year as a volunteer — I’ve lost count — and it’s one of the feel-good things I do for my community.

The event, which is sponsored by the Wickenburg Horsemen’s Association, depends upon volunteers to be a success. There are countless jobs to be done, from marking and grooming the 50 miles of horse trails to marking numbers on the butts of horses. There are folks who handle registration paperwork for this AERC-sanctioned event, folks who order t-shirts and sweatshirts and prizes, folks who handle special requests and complaints. There are folks who buy or prepare the food for attendees, put it out on long tables, and clean up after every meal. There are folks who put out hay and bran and carrots for the horses, folks who fill the water troughs at vet checks, and folks who stand ready with clipboards while paid veterinarians call out horse vital signs. There are folks who check off the numbers of riders as they leave and as they return, and folks who track down riders who haven’t come in yet. There are folks who pick up injured — or just plain tired — riders and horses who are dropping out of the event, using trucks and horse trailers. And there are even folks just hanging around every 3 or 4 miles out on the desert trails, handing out water bottles to riders as they pass. These are just some of the jobs. There are doubtlessly many others I don’t even know about.

What I like about volunteering at the endurance ride is that I’m truly needed and appreciated as a volunteer. I come in and do my job(s). I’m not micromanaged or criticized. And I really get a charge out of the thanks I get from participants just for doing what I’m supposed to.

Each year I generally perform two or three tasks:

  • Make my famous (around here, anyway) vegetarian bean soup. A bunch of volunteers make soup, stew, or chili, but I seem to be the only one who makes a vegetarian dish. It’s actually gotten a few people to think I’m a vegetarian. I’m not. But I recognize that many of the riders are. And when the weather is less than perfect, it’s nice to be able to have a hot and hearty meal on the hour-long break between 25-mile ride segments or at the end of the 25-mile ride. This year, the weather was pretty good and I took home 1/3 crock pot of soup. I’ll freeze it and enjoy it the rest of the winter.
  • Marking Horse ButtsUse large crayon-like markers to write horse entry numbers on the butt ends of horses. It’s not usually a difficult task — most horses have been through this more times than I have and have no problem with strangers marking up their butts. But a few horses are real dancers that make the job difficult. And every once in a while, I’ll encounter a kicker. Their riders get the crayon to mark them. I usually do this from 2 to 6 PM the day before the race.
  • Record the numbers and times of 50-mile riders who return to the main base after their first 25-miles. I do this with another one or two volunteers. My job is usually to write the entry number and time on a blue ticket that I hand to each 50-miler as he or she crosses the 25-mile finish. The rider then takes care of his or her horse and visits a vet to be pulsed down. (There are lots of vets on this ride; no horse is allowed to leave a vet check if it can’t meet certain health requirements.) I usually work with someone who sits at a table and records this same information on a master sheet and another person a bit up the road who uses a radio to tell us who is on the way.

This year, I did all three tasks. I also stuck around to record the 25-milers finish and the 50-miler finish. When I left at 6:30 PM — which was well after sunset — all of the riders had returned except one. She’d refused a lift from a horse trailer and had insisted on finishing the race in the dark. She was riding with the “drag riders” — folks whose volunteer job was to ride portions of the trail, remove marking ribbons, pick up lost items, and make sure no one was left behind. A vet and three volunteers were left to wait for her; everyone else had gone to the award dinner in town.

Endurance RidersIt was a long day for me. I started at 6:30 AM, in the dark, to help put out breakfast and tidy up the departure area after the 50-milers left at 7 AM and the 25-milers left at 8 AM. I also set up a few feed stations with hay and carrots not far from the huge water trough there. I noticed a definite scarcity of volunteers — surely there were more at the rodeo grounds in previous years. The woman who was supposed to help me record the incoming riders never showed up, so a spare volunteer was put to the task. And although I’d told Nancy, who runs the whole shebang, that I’d record the in-times for all riders rather than just the first loop for the 50-milers, I stupidly didn’t realize that I’d have to record the 50-milers again after their second loop. That’s why my day was so long. It wasn’t a big deal — and it was certainly made quite pleasant by the few hours I spent chatting with one of the other volunteers as we called in arriving horses — but it was a very long day for me. I’m not accustomed to being on my feet that long.

One of the things the other volunteer and I discussed was the shortage of volunteers at the rodeo grounds. It seems that each year, there’s a group of core volunteers who show up to perform their tasks. Then there are a number of “volunteers” who show up to watch the goings-on at the rodeo grounds and help themselves to breakfast or lunch before disappearing. These same people often have their hand out for the dinner coupon that volunteers get so they can join in the evening’s festivities after the event. And many of them are sure to walk away with a volunteer t-shirt or sweatshirt.

While I certainly don’t expect association members to volunteer 12-hour days for the event, I don’t see why more of them couldn’t give 3 or 4 hours of their time. The timing in, which I do every year (except the one year I was sick), is usually done in shifts; this year, the same three people worked the finish line from the first arrival at 9:40 AM to nearly the last arrival at 5:30 PM. I really feel bad for the spare volunteer who had to fill in for the woman who didn’t show up — surely she got more than she bargained for. There were likely other volunteer stations that could have benefitted from multiple shifts of volunteers. Where were these people? The event is sponsored by the association. Any net proceeds from the event go to the organization. They all benefit from the hard work of a handful of people.

I’m sure this isn’t an uncommon thing in clubs and other groups. It’s just unfortunate that the weight of an entire organization has to be borne by a small portion of its members.

And, truth be told, some of us aren’t even members anymore.

Anyway, the event was a huge success, judging from the comments of riders I spoke to as they crossed the finish line. The trails were well marked and it was a beautiful day for riding. Of the 136 original entries, only about 12 were pulled due to horse or rider problems. It seemed as if the event went off without a hitch, which is great for Nancy.

I do want to take the opportunity here to complement and congratulate Nancy for another job well done. Nancy is a local business owner with her own responsibilities, yet she takes on the task of managing this ride every year. I can’t imagine the stress of it all. She does an amazing job and it’s a real honor and pleasure to do my part to help her out.

And yes, I’ll be back to make soup, mark butts, and time in riders next January.

What do you think?