How to get the most out of volunteering with RDA

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) needs volunteers to function; if you are, have been, or want to be one (there are almost 20,000), you are doing something incredibly special. In this week's post, I've put together a few pieces of advice for making your experience as special and as valuable as you want it to be

1. Be honest about what you are able to (and want to!) offer...

...and expect similar honesty from your RDA group about how that might fit in with their existing structures and processes.

Once you've identified a group that might suit you as a volunteer and are at the stage of making contact with them, it's useful for all parties for you to have a think about what kind of volunteer you would like to be. When will volunteering fit into your schedule? Are you able to commit to an hour, a morning, a full day? Are you keen to be involved in the sessions, or would you prefer to take care of the mucking out? What you are able to give may well change over time, and that's fine, but it can make a huge difference to an RDA group in need of volunteer power to know for which parts of their schedule you will be able to lend a hand. A little can go a very long way; we have some wonderful helpers who we see a couple of times a year for holiday Pony Days (they are busy at work or away at university for the rest of the year), and we are as grateful for their help as anybody else's.

It can also be productive to be receptive to the group's suggestions. My group, for example, doesn't work on Sundays, and regularly has to redirect offers of Sunday help from well intentioned and most likely excellent potential volunteers. It's absolutely fine to say no if a time or day suggested doesn't work for you (that's how volunteering should work), but RDA groups will also be the experts on where your help will be most useful. If you're giving your time, you will most likely want to be doing something, not sat in a tack room twiddling your thumbs.

In terms of the actual nature of volunteering, it's also important to be honest about your physical limitations. We won't mind if you aren't able to run alongside a trotting horse, or if you are likely to struggle with specific yard duties; just tell us at the very beginning so we don't try to put you in a role or situation that makes you uncomfortable. If physical tasks are a definite no for you, that also doesn't rule you out of being an asset to your local RDA group; you might want to talk about being involved in fundraising, or lending a hand with behind the scenes admin. The organisation's motto, "it's what you can do that counts", rings as true for volunteers as it does for participants.

2. Trust your coach (or any other leaders)

If you are volunteering in RDA sessions then you will most likely be taking instructions and receiving any training from a coach, although you may also work with members of yard staff, trustees, or committee members. Whoever is "managing" you as a volunteer will be the person to go to with any queries or issues: remember what a great resource they can be, and don't be afraid to approach them. I would much rather be asked to repeat or clarify something than have a new volunteer stressing about finding something difficult.

A good coach will have lots to teach volunteers as well as participants. They will also have good reasons for allocating you particular jobs; maybe pairing you up with a horse or participant which they feel would be a good match for you and your skill set. The majority of RDA coaches will also be volunteers too, so will particularly understand and appreciate you giving your time to support their sessions.

If you have any particular goals that you would like to achieve through your volunteering with RDA, talk to the coach for your session! I definitely see part of my duties as an RDA coach as supporting my helpers' development, even if I can't always prioritise it as highly as my riders' safety and progress. Goal setting doesn't have to be a formal process to produce genuinely rewarding outcomes. Coaches have to achieve certain standards of expertise to be able to make the decisions that they make in their sessions. This makes them the perfect point of contact if you want to know, or do, more.

3. Be a communicator

Any kind of paid job would cite "good communication" as a desirable attribute for an employee. I actually think that this is twice as useful for voluntary roles, where there is no expectation of such things as core hours or annual leave entitlement. Good communication in the context of RDA volunteering can be very simple; letting your group know when you are or are not able to come and help, for instance, or giving the coach a heads up if you aren't feeling up to running or leading a particular horse one day.

One thing which is particularly difficult, and which can be completely avoided with good communication, is when volunteers disappear seemingly into thin air. We know that circumstances change, and that not everyone is willing or able to commit to fifty years of RDA service straight off the bat. We aren't going to judge anyone if they come to us and say "thank you, but I need to stop helping out after this week", and it makes it so much easier for those who coordinate volunteers and sessions to know when to stop expecting someone to turn up. Even if your volunteering is part of a short term arrangement, like the "Service" section of a Duke of Edinburgh's Award, it is still courteous to let your group know when the time required is coming to its end. If you find things change in the future and you'd like to start volunteering again, the door is always open.

Photo credit: Ann Barlow

4. Get to know the participants... and your fellow volunteers!

For me, this is one of the greatest pleasures of volunteering in RDA sessions. Yes, your primary role as a leader or side walker is to support your rider, and to ensure that they are able to follow and access the session delivered by the coach. No, that doesn't mean that you aren't allowed to say anything to your rider other than repeating their coach's instructions! As point 3 says, be a communicator. Even if a rider is non-verbal or doesn't want to talk back, a helper who values talking to them can have a huge impact on their self esteem and enjoyment of their riding lessons. For those who are happy to have a conversation, a little chat when their classmates are mounting up or they are waiting for their turn to have a trot can build some beautiful bridges.

I am always enthusiastic and frequent in my thanks for my helpers, but I am under no illusion that this means more to them than when one of my riders sees that they will be with them in their lesson that week and gives them a huge, beaming smile. Many of our volunteers start off with equine experience but no experience of working with disabled riders, although neither kind of experience is a prerequisite for getting involved. Whilst our horses and ponies are charming and very good at reeling people in, it's usually the relationships between them and our riders which really capture volunteers' hearts and minds, and keep them invested in our group.

There is also, of course, a ready made volunteer community within every RDA group. Everyone has their own reasons for being there (you can read more about mine here), and many will not be the kind of person you would otherwise meet day-to-day. Whether it's a shared love of horses and their unique therapeutic abilities, the shared experience of helping participants achieve their goals, or a combination of both, there is something very special about RDA friendships.

5. Seize new opportunities, even if it means stepping outside your comfort zone

It might be the case that signing up to be an RDA volunteer is in itself a big step out of your comfort zone. If so, you should be really proud of yourself for getting in contact with your new group and showing up to your first session. It might also be the case (even for the same person!) that when you are very comfortable in your regular RDA duties, new opportunities present themselves which give you the chance to push yourself that little bit further. Don't brush them off! As with most things of any worth, RDA operates on a "you get out what you put in" sort of system. Put yourself out there and say "yes".

You might find yourself involved in a new RDA discipline (I only wish that my group still did vaulting and carriage driving...), leading a rider in their first dressage test, lending a hand at committee level, or even training to be a coach. It could be as simple as agreeing to work with a new horse or rider when you are used to another combination. It's not as if your RDA experience won't be fulfilling enough just by turning up each week and interacting with the participants (see point 4), but achieving new things feels good, and makes you a more skilled, more confident, better-rounded person. I know without a doubt that every new experience I have said "yes" to during my time as an RDA volunteer has made me a better human being, and a better addition to my group. I know that many of the volunteers I work with never saw themselves doing as much as they are with their own experiences, and their accomplishments are as uplifting to see as any of my riders'. I think that saying "yes" to all the new experiences is one of the biggest things that keeps volunteers coming back and RDA groups growing.

The one terribly unfortunate side effect of enthusiasm for RDA and new RDA experiences is that it begets further and further enthusiasm, making it harder and harder to step away. You could find worse bugs to be bitten by...

You can find an RDA group near you (and their contact details) using the RDA website. My group, Abingdon, is located in South Oxfordshire approx. 12 miles from Oxford. If you would specifically like to get involved with or find out more about Abingdon RDA, have a look at our Facebook page or our website.