Bob Smith and Karen Shields at the Auckland Manukau Dressage Group Kiwi Arena Rakes Premier League Championships in mid-January.

It’s hard yakka in the 29 degree Clevedon heat at the Auckland Manukau Dressage Group’s Kiwi Arena Rakes Premier League Champs.  Today Karen Shields is on duty as a list judge, a technical delegate, and she’s helping out her husband Bob as an ESNZ National Steward.  The situation highlights the shortage of volunteers to fill the job.  Both are on duty from dawn ‘till well into the night, solving problems and making sure that the competitors and their horses are well provided for.   

“We’ll be the first up in the mornings because we have to be in the warm-up areas before the riders present for their tests.  And we’re the last ones to leave because we have to be there when they’re warming down as well.  If there’s a mounted prize giving, we have to be there too,” says Bob.

Bob is spending each night on site and sleeping in his truck, while Karen pops home to feed the animals 10km away.  He says the hours are long.

“In the evenings, we go around and look at all the stabling and make sure horses have got water, that they’re looked after, and to make sure that there’re no issues around horse welfare. Sometimes we text people at 10 o’clock at night and say, ‘your horse hasn’t got any water’  and then we wait for them to come and attend to the issue. If there’s anything dangerous we see, that will get fixed.  People come to us and ask us for clarification about rules, and we do that too,” he says.

During each day, much of their time is focused on making sure riders’ gear is legal and safe, and that they comply with the rules.  At big events they also support the other officials such as the ground jury and the judges, as their stewardship responsibilities take place before and after riders present to the judge.

For Karen, it’s very much about putting something back into the sport.  She enjoys the collegial nature of it, as stewards spend the most time of all officials interacting with the riders on the day.

“When you’re a judge you’ll see them go past you and you’ll say ‘hi’ as they warm up, and then you’ll judge them.  And unless you need to get out of your car – because they’ve made a mistake – you won’t talk to them,” says Karen

“When you’re a steward you’ll greet them in the morning when they come to the warm-up area, you look at them and say, ‘where’s your helmet tag’, ‘you’ve forgotten your numbers’ or ‘don’t forget to take off your warm-up boots’.  And when they come out you say, ‘how did it go?’”.

Horse welfare is of high importance, especially in extreme weather conditions as the country is experiencing now says Bob.

“If they’re warming down, someone might tell you they think a horse is looking a bit stressed.  You’ll go over and make a judgment, and then you’ll monitor the situation.  Sometimes we have to tell people we think it’s time for them to go back to their truck, because there is a limit to the amount of time that horses are allowed to walk down and no more than one hour for a warm-up,” he says.

Yesterday, Bob and Karen supervised two horses being tested for illegal substances which is another part of their steward role.  Random testing is required by ESNZ, and the stewards are there to ensure the welfare of the horses during the testing process.  They also check that the rider understands what is going to happen so that they don’t have any anxiety about the process.

Karen and Bob also work as para-equestrian stewards.  This weekend’s show is particularly special to them, as it marks 10 years since they were talked into becoming para-equestrian dressage stewards by their friend Judy Alderdice.  They had gone to an introductory presentation where Judy and Murray Anderson  talked about the role of the technical steward. They were both hooked.

They enjoy working in the para-equestrian space as it introduces a new aspect to their role.  There are additional challenges for the riders that raise the level of risk that a technical steward has to monitor.  Bob says that means they have been able to build stronger relationships with the riders who rely on them to keep them safe. 

“You need to make sure that there’s nothing happening around them in the environment that could cause them to have a mishap.  Currently, we have a grade one rider who gets out of a wheelchair and climbs on a horse.   She’s got a support crew, but we also have to make sure that everything around her is safe,” he says.

He remembers how Karen once pulled rank on a crane driver who wanted to move a nearby cross country jump while a para-equestrian rider was performing a dressage test in the arena next to it.

“Karen said ‘no’ and actually sat down on the cross country jump until the rider had finished her test.  After a brief exchange, the crane driver had no option but to wait seven minutes – that jump wasn’t going anywhere!  So yeah, we have to protect them in those sorts of ways,” he says.

The couple have a 45 acre property in Hunua where they have lived for 26 years. They have six horses on the property, four are grazers and two belong to Bob who rides with the Pakuranga Hunt Club and also competes in dressage and eventing when he gets the chance.  Karen is a past president of AMDG, and a former Elementary dressage rider who “did a little bit of jumping” before she gave up riding after a double hip replacement.

Right now their focus is on advancing their qualifications so they can add to the one and only FEI Steward in the country, Robyne Naylor who is based in Christchurch.  This means Bob and Karen will complete an online foundation course, then they are both hoping to travel to Belgium to start the journey towards FEI para stewardship.  They’ve waited four years to apply for the qualification, after their attempt was cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If we want to have more CDIs for paras, CPEDIs, we need more FEI stewards. So, by upskilling ourselves Bob and I will make it much more accessible for people to have what they need to allow that to happen, because just having one FEI para steward in the country is not working,” says Karen.

Holding CPEDI’s in New Zealand means that para-equestrian riders will have the option of competing at FEI within New Zealand, rather than bearing the costs of travelling across the ditch to Australia.    She says specialising as para stewards gives them a chance to return to their roots, as that is where their journey began 10 years ago.

“We love the aspect of stewarding around horse welfare and giving back to the sport and making sure that you can live by the motto,” she says.

“Help, protect, intervene. That’s the stewards’ motto. Yeah, great,” says Bob.