Penny Carpenter: Turning a Passion for Horses Into 48 Years of Stewarding

Photo courtesy of Penny Carpenter


Penny Carpenter has loved horses since she was a child. Originally from New York, she got her start at a stable within biking distance of her home, cleaning horses and tack, and feeding in exchange for a few minutes on a lesson horse.

Eventually Carpenter started weekly lessons at the Thomas School of Horsemanship on Long Island. She also took lessons from and participated in clinics with trainers like Vladimir Littaur, Captain Galiza, George Morris, Ronnie Mutch, Victor Hugo-Vidal and Ralph Petersen. She went on to show in Hunters, Jumpers and Adult Equitation.

Carpenter ultimately turned that hobby into a career by becoming a judge on the hunter/jumper circuit and shortly afterward began stewarding. Forty-eight years later, stewarding is still a job she’s passionate about, as well as judging.

A Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) Level 2 steward, Carpenter now lives in Palm Desert, California, 17 miles from the Desert International Horse Park in Thermal. Because of her proximity, she frequently works in that area, although she serves as a judge and steward all over the country.

“I work at Thermal because I live here, and they can use me as a schooling supervisor, an FEI steward, a regular steward or a judge,” Carpenter said. “Thermal is a wonderful place for me because it’s like a real job — I come home every night. But I like all the venues I go to.”

As a steward, Carpenter enjoys interacting with people, solving problems, interpreting rules and being on hand in her favorite environment, the horse world.

“I look at a steward as a liaison between the United States Equestrian Federation [USEF], the United States Hunter/Jumper Association [USHJA], the [show] management and the exhibitors to help ensure the safety and welfare of horses, riders, trainers, grooms, etc., and create a level playing field,” Carpenter said.

Stewards also measure horses and ponies as needed; obtain course verifications; supervise schooling areas; provide rule clarifications; check for illegal equipment; enforce leash rules for dogs; watch for underage motorist violations at shows; check stable areas; file reports about the show standards at the end of each show; fill out human and equine accident reports; adjudicate disputes; and follow protocols to report abuse cases. They additionally must be aware of rule changes, which can happen quickly and in the middle of the show season.

Photo courtesy of Penny Carpenter

“People think that stewards sit around and do nothing. That is not the case. A lot of times we like to say it’s 85% nothingness and 15% ‘are you kidding me?’” Carpenter said with a laugh. “If a problem gets past the actual show manager and gets to a steward, it’s usually a real problem. But, the steward has no authority to manage the show. They can just suggest to the management what the rule is or that there’s a violation.”

Carpenter said not having authority is one of the most difficult things about the job, as stewards are often only aware of problems after they happen. Carpenter tries to practice “preventive stewarding,” or anticipating issues before they happen so she can solve them. That only works if exhibitors are willing to meet her halfway.

“If a course height is wrong, or a fence is backward, or the rules aren’t being adhered to, tell us first. Don’t tell us after the class,” Carpenter said. “It’s hardest after the fact to correct judges’ cards, redistribute ribbons and points, or have do-overs. When we’re unaware of what’s going on until it’s too late to really help, that’s the toughest part of stewarding. It can take hours of research in the horse show office to figure out the solution to a problem.”

Stewards do have some ability to handle situations like dogs getting loose or underage children driving golf carts, but Carpenter said the perception that stewards are policemen is incorrect. More than anything, Carpenter’s purpose is to make sure things operate in a safe and impartial manner.

“We’re not policemen; we’re fairness and welfare educators, so to speak,” Carpenter said. “We’re not there to make anybody do anything. We’re there to observe and help where we’re needed using common sense and staying within the rules of our job.”

Stewards can also hand out Yellow Warning Cards, which come with fines. Frequent perpetrators might find themselves the recipients of one if they continue to break the rules. Giving out Warning Cards is not Carpenter’s favorite part of the job, but it can be necessary to keep things running smoothly and safely.

Forty-eight years is a long time to do one job, but Carpenter said every year presents new challenges and incidents, and each show provides her with opportunities to meet new people. Learning from the experiences of other officials, stewards and judges also keeps things fresh.

“It is really an avocation turned vocation for me, both the judging and the stewarding, and I feel so lucky to be able to do what I love,” Carpenter said. “I’ve been a horse crazy kid since I was seven years old. I just never grew up.”