The Falklands, London Olympics and Burlesque; the common denominator?
Jennie Smith BE Volunteer of the year 2012
Eventing Worldwide caught up with Jennie Smith, 2012 BE Volunteer of the year and discovered a multi-talented lady who is fortunately very good at multi-tasking. If you ever think there aren’t enough hours in the day, after reading this, you’ll wonder how on earth Jennie manages to fit everything in!
Originally from Weston-super-Mare, 44 year old Jennie moved to Frome in Somerset (the 6th coolest place to live according to The Times!) 16 years ago when she met her now husband, Andrew. Jennie and Andrew got married on Christmas Eve 2010 in a lighthouse on the Falkland Islands
“We didn’t tell anyone it was planned but did send out invites the day we flew!”
This gives you the clue that nothing stands in the way of Jennie when she has an idea. When she was 12 years old, Jennie became penpals with Steff, who lives in the Falklands. Many years went by and Jennie became Godmother to Steff’s son. When it was his 18th birthday Jennie and Andrew decided that they really wanted to go to the Falklands.
“It cost a fortune to go, but Andrew and I were joking that our friend’s wedding cost even more. Somehow from that we decided to get married whilst we were over there and get it over and done with! We’d been together 15 years by then. We had to get a special licence and send everything out beforehand. We got to the lighthouse by 4x4s as there were no roads. It was all tremendous fun – so much better than my first wedding and a lot less stress!” Only Jennie could organise a wedding in the Falklands whilst in the UK and describe it as not being stressful. Andrew and Jennie have one daughter; Stephanie, aged 14.
Andrew and Stephanie provide an invaluable support team for Jennie who suffers from the painful and debilitating condition Fibromyalgia which means she gets very tired, with confusion and memory loss, as well as a lot of pain. Steph is registered as a Young Carer and goes with Jennie to as many events as possible
“She’s excellent now at all the jobs a Fence Judge Steward needs to do, as well as many other roles at an event. When I get ‘Fibro Fog’ she gives me gentle nudges in the right direction. Andrew does all the physical work, like carting equipment about for me, or driving me to places if I need it, he will also step in if I’m let down at the last minute by a volunteer”.
You might think that the work involved with BE would constitute a full time job but no, Jennie holds down a full time job as a Personal Adviser in Trowbridge Jobcentre Plus.
“It can be an emotionally demanding role – I’m dealing with real people with real issues, not the stereotypical scroungers portrayed in the media. It has given me good communication and problem solving skills, plus I get regular training in ‘Handling Difficult Situations’ and ‘Dealing with Potentially Violent Customers’, which is all useful especially if I’m in the Show Jumping warm up arena!”
Jennie does not come from what some see as a typical eventing background, she describes herself as being “more council estate than country estate” but she has had a lifelong love of horses and started riding when she was 24, learning to ride at Clevedon Riding Centre. Jennie became friends with her instructress Sandra Manners (nee Sims). Jennie was having a lesson with Sandra when she got the news she had got off the wait list for Badminton and that was the start of Jennie’s love of eventing. Having only watched Badminton on the TV, Jennie went along to support Sandra and got hooked. “I then went all over the place helping her with her horses, Clevedon Merry Lady (15hh grey mare) and Clevedon Top Spot (enormous appaloosa) and my passion for eventing just grew”. Unfortunately Jennie can’t ride anymore as a result of her illness “not least because my medication has made my weight increase to a point it wouldn’t be fair to expect any horse to carry me! I had my mare Beatress for 14 years but lost her in 2008”. When Jennie found she couldn’t safely ride anymore, her ever supportive husband Andrew learnt to ride so that Jennie could keep Bea “I will always be grateful to him for that; I adored her”.
Obviously daughter Steph has inherited her Mother’s love of horses, she has always had ponies and has just moved on to horses, courtesy of Jennie’s dear friend Christine Yorke who owns Rectory Farm Riding Stables near Bath, so Jennie is still involved with the practical side of horses. When she feels the need to get more hands on she can fetch in Steph’s old pony and play around with him “at 11.2hh, he is about all I can manage!”
Jennie suffered a bad fall at a hunter trial where she broke her pelvis and damaged her back. Deciding that it was no longer safe for her to handle horses, let alone fit eventers, but still wanting to be involved in eventing, she enrolled on a Fence Judge training course at Stockland Lovell and it went from there. Sue Clayton asked Jennie to organise the Fence Judges at the Bath & West a few years later and so began her new “career” organising as well as Fence Judging “since then I’ve done lots of different roles at events – I go where needed, I’m not fussy!”.
Jennie is the Fence Judge Steward for 11 events and Cross Country Steward at Bramham. In addition to all the work that involves, Jennie also Fence Judges whenever she can, and regularly does about 15 days every season:
“I’ll go along to anywhere that is short of volunteers” Says Jennie
The logistics behind organising Fence Judges for an event is quite complex, a lot of time is spent on the administration. Jennie tries to use email to contact everyone to save postage costs, so her inbox is often crammed full and can take several evenings to work through, by which time she has been emailed again because people haven’t heard from her. People may look at the competition days and think that is all she does, but she spends most evenings after work collating and contacting volunteers.
“It can be very difficult to manage the volunteers as I often don’t find out how many Fence Judges I need until a couple of weeks before the event, and that can change even up to the night before; often the briefing details are only sent to me a few days before. I don’t like to waste people’s time and fuel coming to an event if they don’t have a job, so I do my best to ensure I only have the number of volunteers I need at an event. Having said that, it’s definitely getting harder to get volunteers, especially for the lower level events, as the costs involved for volunteers to get to an event are rising dramatically”.
Jennie has also joined the world of social media and uses Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about volunteering with BE. It’s proving to be an excellent way of getting information to her many volunteers and is also proving a good recruiting ground. Riders beware; Jennie is mentioning those riders who thank her volunteers; be sure to have a word with the fence judges when you’re walking the course and get yourself a mention or if not you might get a mention you don’t want!
Understandably Jennie didn’t want to pick a favourite event; she describes them all as being like family “I can’t pick a favourite! I genuinely enjoy all of them, I wouldn’t do them otherwise”. Whilst many of her events are based around the South West, Jennie can also be found at Bramham Park in Yorkshire every year; a round trip of 470 miles; where she is the Cross Country Steward.
Many people will know that Jennie organised the volunteer fence judges for the London Olympics and the test event and we wondered how that came about. Having enrolled as a Gamesmaker, Jennie received a phone call out of the blue one evening from Alec Lochore (Eventing Manager), inviting her to take on the role. From that moment until the end of the Cross Country phase at the Games “it was a frenetic roller coaster”.
“The hardest part was trying to explain and emphasise to the Gamesmakers that it was not just another horse trials; it was the Olympics, and so their role and expectations had to adapt accordingly”
Jennie is still not sure all of them really understood that. From the moment people knew she was involved, Jennie was constantly quizzed or challenged on various aspects of the organisation or opportunities:
“It took up a huge amount of time and energy, whilst I was still trying to organise volunteers for my regular events and go to my paid job! It was quite exhausting being involved purely from the demands of the volunteers, but that is understandable as everyone wanted to be involved and wanted to know as much information about it as possible, or if they didn’t they wanted to tell me in no uncertain terms why they didn’t! All that said, I was so proud and excited to be involved”.
Jennie made many great friends including Alec who she found was great fun to work with “I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to be asked”. After the Cross Country phase; we saw many pictures of competitors, Gamesmakers and supporters outside The Greenwich Tavern. One which caught our eye was of Jennie getting a big kiss from Sir Mark Todd; apparently he was just one of many people she kissed! She denies alcohol was involved and it was just the relief of everything going to plan and she wasn’t to be drawn on that particular kiss with Sir Toddy!
Jenny, would like to see more riders volunteer at events; she thinks “it would be good for riders to know what a volunteer actually does, and for how long they have to do it. Volunteers are vital to eventing but are still not given the recognition they deserve by all the riders. If a rider, especially some of the top riders could experience what a Show Jumping Steward goes through, for example, it would give them a new perspective on their sport and maybe give them some more manners & patience! It’s been said that the professional riders are unable to volunteer because they are too busy riding, which is their job. However, an awful lot of volunteers do it as well as working full time so I can’t really agree with that. I’m not sure about compelling riders to ‘volunteer’; you need people out there that want to be there for it to be a happy event. In the past when riders have been asked to provide a volunteer I’ve had elderly aunts put forward as a way of not getting balloted and that’s of no use to anyone! I would like to see some of the named riders setting an example and volunteering – not playing at it for PR but actually doing it! We had Sam Watson as a Fence Judge at Larkhill one year. He was great simply because he was outspoken afterwards about quite how long, boring and thankless it can be! Having said all that though, this year I have had quite a number of riders coming forward to volunteer as they are unable to compete and they have all been a real joy to have on the team”.
As Jennie says, no one wants to force people to do anything but if any riders are unable to compete for any reason, if they could offer to help at a local event it would benefit everyone involved in the sport. For anyone who has never fence judged, but thinks they might like to have a go, think of it this way; you go to some fantastic back gardens, you get fed (the cakes at some events are legendary) and you watch horses pop over a fence. Jennie did add slightly tongue in cheek “If you go more into more depth you aren’t likely to get anyone to volunteer”.
After so many years Fence Judging and as an organiser Jennie has seen many things and her most notable memory is the Cross Country day at Greenwich, for all the obvious reasons. As a Fence Judge she sadly remembers seeing Daisy Berkeley’s Springalong collapse at Gatcombe
“I had just told Steph he was coming and then we watched him somersault over; it was heart-breaking”.
On a happier note, and showing her wicked sense of humour, Jennie described her funniest memory as “watching a portaloo get blown over at Belmont and trying to establish if anyone was in it”.
When many events were cancelled last season due to the dreadful weather, Jennie wasted no time in finding another very worthy cause to get involved with. She remembers Claire Lomas having the accident which resulted in her paralysis from the waist down and while not directly involved in Claire’s campaign, she supports her as much as she can.
“I remember Claire’s accident, and it has always made me think how lucky I had been. I’d always supported the Get Claire Walking campaign and followed Claire’s progress, so heard about her Virgin London Marathon attempt and planned to go along to support her from the start. I’d originally planned with Andrew & Steph to go up to London and walk with her just on one day, but Claire is so gorgeously lovely and crazy mad that I went on a second day with a friend, then took Steph out of school to walk with her and see her cross the finish line. Every time I went it was agony during and after, but I felt I couldn’t complain as it had to be harder for Claire. She is so determined and inspirational and all those other clichés, but she is also so smiley and down to earth, and her daughter Moo (Maisie) is super scrummy! I count her as a friend now and try to see her whenever I can. I’m going along to her cycle ride as it heads further south to support her as much as possible too. Everyone involved in riding horses is only one nasty fall away from a life changing accident like Claire. We should all think ‘there but the grace of god’ and support her fundraising for our own sakes as much as for others”.
To find out more about Claire’s challenge go to: http://www.claireschallenge.co.uk
Jennie as we know has health problems herself but manages to cope even if she has a flare up when she’s involved with an event. Her favourite option for coping with a flare up in public is to pretend she’s perfectly fine:
“I take as much Tramadol as possible; then collapse when I get home! It’s my issue not the events; everyone has enough to deal with without me moaning about being ill. Most of my volunteer team and all my organisers and the officials I work with know I have the condition though, and it’s not unknown for me to sneak off for a sleep in my car whilst they keep watch for me! People are usually very kind. The only bit I hate is being told how much better I look when I know I’m faking it & screaming inside, but that’s something everyone with an invisible illness has to deal with”.
This amazing lady puts us all to shame and hopefully will make everyone who reads this think again when we have a bit of an ache or don’t feel like getting out of bed! Jennie and her family last had a proper holiday in 2010, as she uses most of her holidays from work to cover all the events she’s involved with. Husband Andrew volunteers with the local college to supervise their Duke of Edinburgh trips, so often when she’s at home he’s away. When pushed on this subject Jennie said “we were thinking of going to Scotland for a ‘proper holiday’, but that is because I fancy going to Blair!”
Does she ever think about anything but eventing?
Oh yes; didn’t you just know that there was even more to find out about Jennie? We had heard that in her “spare time” she had another very different interest. When asked about this, she replied “I’m sure you mean the help I give Rectory Farm Riding Stables with their admin and events? Or do you mean running the BEV twitter & FB pages? I’m guessing though you mean my involvement with burlesque! I’ve always loved a bit of glamour and sparkle, and then I met the beautiful Muriel Lavender and Dulcie Demure who have brought both that plus fun, laughter and true friendship in to my world. Muriel is a very talented poetrix; Dulcie a burlesque artist and instructress, and they put on burlesque shows as fundraisers for Frome’s independent (and struggling) cinema. I’m strictly front of house though – no tassel twirling on stage for me! – but it is an excuse to get laced in to a pretty corset, put on false eyelashes and cover myself in glitter! Burlesque means joke or parody and the shows are full of humour. It’s all about the anticipation & tease, and burlesque embraces all women of all shapes and sizes, making them beautiful. It’s quite an art form, and very physically demanding. The performers I’ve met have been very talented and delightful women. However, my involvement has caused a great deal of amusement in my eventing world – especially at Howick where I had to go home for a show on the Saturday night and could only find my fake fur coat for the Fence Judge briefing on the Sunday! In honour of my involvement, I was given the burlesque name Ida Down, which suits my exhausted days in bed perfectly! At Larkhill it was the name put on my radio….. It is amazing fun though, and I would recommend a burlesque night out to everyone”. How does she do it all?
Back to the eventing (we don’t want our readers getting drawn away to burlesque too soon); for someone so organised, the next few years must surely be mapped out. Jennie would love to have a paid role working with the volunteers “so I can give up my depressing job, but then I suppose I wouldn’t be a volunteer! Aside from that, I’m only planning as far as my next three events usually…..”
What more can we say; if everyone contributed half as much of their time as Jennie does, BE would be overstaffed with volunteers and many charities would be raising more money.
Editorial by Rebecca Rhodes
Photographs by kind permission of Ivor Welfare