Time off/time on: why I never regret using time off work for RDA

A happy Pony Day line up

The summer holidays are drawing to a close and I am looking ahead at the next academic year. My job in Schools Liaison & Outreach at Oxford University largely follows the shape of the school year, so for me the end of August always kicks off that start-of-something, "back to school" feeling. First task? Flip all the way through the year to July and earmark the days around the weekend of RDA Nationals for annual leave. Yes, I am that person. (Yes, my friends rightly mock me for being that person.) 

My job keeps me very busy for most of the year. I spend a lot of time travelling away from my Oxford base to visit schools in my allocated "patches" in London and the West Midlands, often running or attending evening events, catching antisocially early trains, or staying overnight. As a result I end up accruing a fair amount of Time off in Lieu (TOIL) on top of my regular annual leave. It is often most convenient for me to take this time off during school holidays, during the natural lulls in my work calendar. In recent years, this has meant that I am able to use the time to help run my RDA group's popular holiday "Pony Days": when our riders come to the stables for up to the length of a full day at school, ride (usually more than once), learn about horse care, gain new skills and have in general a lot of fun. I am one of three coaches at my group who are usually found running these days; whilst you could run a lovely Pony Day with just one coach in charge, the team effort approach suits us far better!

I get asked quite often "but don't you want to relax on your days off?" or "time off work is precious, are you sure you want to spend it at the stables?". This week's blog post is an open response to these questions: the reasons why I don't regret using my hard-earned time off to do more for my RDA group.

Finding time

For me, I don't find that my supply of leave days or TOIL days is too worn down by the pull of RDA. That said, I don't have anything big in my life which might chip away at my time off, like children or other dependants. It's not going to be viable for everyone to commit consistently to extra RDA time, even if you stick religiously to your regular weekly or fortnightly volunteering slot; not that this doesn't mean you can't give it a go! I'm very lucky that my job works the way it does, and that my boss is supportive of my RDA endeavours. My first grad job was far less flexible and offered me less annual leave, so holiday fun at the stables had to take a back seat.

It's not quite a case of "if you want to do it, you'll find the time"; everyone's free time is pulled in different directions by work, play, home, or health. I recently took a step back from my other sport, which I love, and love coaching, because I felt that I was pulling myself in too many directions to do any of my main focuses (including RDA) well. As it stands, I can find extra RDA time if I am organised enough with the rest of my time. I'm happy with that, and know I am in a very fortunate position. Just remember that "doing what you can" is always worthwhile, even if it isn't "doing as much as you'd like".

Finding balance

I genuinely think that my enthusiasm for RDA in my free time would be diminished significantly if my career was horse-based. That's not to say that those who work and volunteer with horses don't approach their RDA time with gusto, but there's a lot to be said for doing something different with your free time. "A change is as good as a rest", one might say. A day at the stables gives me the fresh air and exercise I am unlikely to get in my office, and keeps my mind active by focusing it on things which are different to the norm. The change of scene is good for me, and the understanding that I am giving my time without any obligation is even better.

Holiday Pony Days also seem to develop new corners of my RDA group's community. Helpers from different sessions, new helpers, and occasional returnee helpers are able to meet and work together. This summer, I've even managed to get my notoriously un-horsey mum involved (yes, she enjoyed herself, and even came back!). For new volunteers, holiday activities can be a great way of testing the water and seeing whether a group would be a good fit for you. For existing volunteers, even those with lots of experience, breaking out of the standard routine can be a great way of gaining new skills (sometimes alongside participants!) and getting to know horses and riders better. If you're like me and thrive on being busy, taking some time out for an extra RDA day is a great balance between time off and time on.

Finding out more about our riders

My post two weeks ago talked about getting to know participants, and how it's one of the most important ways of getting the most out of your experience as a volunteer. I like to think I know my riders pretty well, but spending six times as long with them on a Pony Day means I know them even better. I also get to work more closely with riders from other classes, including those who I might have never met before. Attendees are with us for the equivalent of a school day (more or less), which means that we are far more likely to see them deal with things outside their comfort zone, and with being genuinely tired. This teaches me something about the personality of a child usually seen fresh out of bed on a Saturday morning that I wouldn't otherwise have known. For coaches who teach in the evening, and only see their riders when they are already worn out from school, the opposite applies.

We also get a lot more time to chat to our riders; something I would usually only get to do if hacking out as part of a weekly lesson. A first-timer might be a bit quiet, but the more days our children spend with us, the more keen they are on chatting. If they weren't already keen, of course. We talk shop: ponies, favourite ponies, dream ponies, old ponies, new ponies, pony care, toy ponies. We also talk about school, about holidays, about favourite books and films (I learnt the hard way that it's not cool not to have a favourite Harry Potter character), about families and pets, and about Spiderman. ("I just love him" proclaimed a nine year old rider, clutching his chest emphatically.) RDA done right should fit into a participants' life like a carefully cut puzzle piece, not merely another session of physio or another after school club. Spending this extra time getting to know our riders enables us to trim our puzzle pieces that little bit better.

Finding new challenges

We've just finished a "run" of five Pony Days for this summer, and I've really enjoyed seeing how open all of our attendees have been to trying new things and getting involved. Some of our older riders went home beaming after their first canter on the lunge, whilst slightly smaller riders were able to power through a whole day for the first time. One of my riders came on two Pony Mornings (we run shorter events during other school holidays designed for younger riders) earlier this year and was on both occasions happy but thoroughly exhausted by lunch time. Last week he was still perky at 3.30pm, even after such intrepid activities as riding bareback. He was also so much more comfortable with the variety of people present in the holidays: unfamiliar children, new volunteers, etc. What seemed three or four months ago to be a daunting new challenge had become something to be looked forward to, and his world had become a little bit bigger.

Another of my youngest riders spent a full day with us for the first time, visibly growing in confidence from the beginning of the day to the end. When she came to the stables for her regular riding lesson a mere 24 hours later, her communication was clearer than we had ever heard it before, and she picked up her reins correctly, first time, with no prompting required. I can only imagine how much further her progress will accelerate now she is familiar with the Pony Day formula (and knows how much fun they mean!).

There's a great feeling of excitement and possibility on a Pony Day; not quite "anything goes" (that could be a recipe for disaster...) but "let's give it a try". If I'm helping others to access new possibilities, maybe it's not so different to my day job after all.


And just in case you were wondering what sort of things go on during our Pony Days, this summer we have tried:

  • Level 1 RDA Show Jumping
  • Drill riding
  • Gymkhana games
  • Lunge lessons
  • Designing new stable name plaques for the horses
  • Bareback party games (to music!)
  • Making a "birthday cake" for one of the horses
  • Exploring a horsebox
  • Horse knowledge quizzes and puzzles
  • Grooming (and plaiting!)
  • Untacking blindfolded
It's been a fun summer powered by teamwork; I definitely can't profess to have thought up all of this excitement on my own! Thank you to my fellow Pony Day coaches, Alice and Mel, and to all of our wonderful helpers for helping to make it all happen. Seeing all the achievement, fun, and enthusiasm that was generated this summer holidays was definitely worth the time off work.