Twenty-two years ago, Barbara Morrison of Huntington, W.Va., volunteered to be a jump judge at the cross-country phase of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
The next year, she brought her sister, Janel Aldridge, also of Huntington.
Then they got another friend to come. Then Aldridge started bringing her daughter. Then she brought a friend, and so on, all the way up to Saturday, when the entire brigade of volunteers around Fence 23 were made up of Morrison's friends and relations — including Aldridge's granddaughter Grace, 3, an unofficial representative.
"It's so exciting, it makes me feel part of it," Morrison said of her duties, which include keeping track of how all the horses jump over Fence 23, a massive brush jump fronted by a big ditch. "I'm never going to jump these jumps, but I can pretend."
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Other work for the group included sprinkling gravel at the jump's take-off and landing to mitigate muddy conditions, possible crowd control and, in the worst case scenario, helping horse and rider if they fall.
"I enjoy it," Aldridge said. "And you have to give back. The competition can't go on without volunteers."
Aldridge and Morrison are both ardent horsewomen and have evented at much lower levels. That's how they lured Sharon Jones, another rider, to start coming. And Heather Sallie rode Pony Club with Aldridge's daughter Melissa Jefferson. Then Morrison's friends Martha Hochendoner and Amy Klingensmith, both of Pittsburgh, came.
Rolex volunteers often come back year after year. There are usually at least three or four at every one of the 28 jumps.
They're part of a total volunteer crew that numbers at least 2,000, with people who help out with security, media, crowd control and emergency medical services.
"We could not exist if we didn't have this crew of volunteers," said Violet Forbes, assistant press chief for the event. "Rain, sleet, tornadoes — they're here, and they've got smiles on their faces."
Mary Hutchins has been traveling down from Vermont since the 1980s. She's a paid steward at lower-level events and likes the opportunity to volunteer, particularly because her daughter lives in Lexington.
"It's giving back to the sport," she said. "We come back because we love the horses, and we like to be part of it."
Other volunteers bring their own horses to the Horse Park and work all day as outriders.
Rhonda Watts-Hettinger drove her horse Cricket down from New Hampshire. She was outfitted in a full habit, including top hat and veil, sitting in a side-saddle for the whole day.
"It's been an expensive trip," with gas prices, she admitted. "But it's worth it at least once."
Back at Fence 23, the West Virginia-Pittsburgh contingent was settled in with chairs and coolers, watching closely every time a horse sailed by.
"We have a passion for horses," Jones said. "That's why we're here."