8 life lessons from 8 years of RDA: part 1

October is a significant time of year for me. Not because it's when I happen to have a birthday (last Saturday, as it happens), but because it was the time of year in 2011 that I first started my journey with my RDA group. I think anniversaries are a great opportunity for reflection. This year, my eighth anniversary of involvement with RDA is (rightly) overshadowed by the organisation's fiftieth, which I think is an opportune backdrop for contemplation, teaching, and learning. As such, I've decided to write about the biggest eight lessons I have learnt for each of my years with RDA. These are the first four.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

1. Be honest about your limitations (sometimes)

It's very easy to be positive about volunteering, because it is something which is inherently positive as an activity. What's harder to come by is honest discussion of when to call time on voluntary activity when it is too tiring, stressful, or difficult to fit into your schedule. The two best things I have done for myself during my RDA "career" are a. taking a break during my university finals, and b. taking a hiatus (whether it is permanent or not, I am yet to decide) from coaching my other sport in favour of devoting more energy to RDA. Only last week, I was unexpectedly away from the stables on a Saturday (an unusual phenomenon that occurs perhaps twice or three times a year, usually with several weeks' notice) due to a family emergency that I knew had not left me in the right frame of mind to focus, even temporarily, on RDA business.

We all know that in theory, we can always walk away from a voluntary position. We also know that practice, this is far more difficult. I've learnt this year that it's possible to say "no" and still be all-in. Understanding where my limits are means that RDA can be a well-paced, enjoyable marathon; not a series of enthusiastic but erratic sprints. New experiences can enhance, elevate, and even completely turn around your experience as a volunteer for any organisation. That doesn't mean you have to sign up for everything at the expense of your health, well-being, time, and real-life job. I know that I can be a high achiever at work and at RDA, and have at least a little bit of time for myself left over. I also know that getting there will need a few lines drawn and "no"s uttered.

2. Don't be scared of progress

"If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got." This echoed around our yard a couple of weekends ago when we hosted a clinic for our riders with Clive Milkins. Yet I've encountered many RDA folk who are quite happy with sticking to "what you've always done". Everyone is different, of course, but I've discovered that progress is one of the things that motivates my coaching the most. Progress can mean many things: the alteration of a process; the appropriate introduction of new skills; the acknowledgement of change as necessary. It can be applied to riders, horses, volunteers, coaches, entire groups. Progress can propel us all a long way if we aren't too scared to let it. Recently, I've spent a lot of time rationalising progress, whether it's letting a rider walk off the lead rein or canter, or giving a volunteer a new challenge. If you are drawing breath to contemplate whether someone is ready for progress, you are unlikely to be rushing it. And even if it feels like a bit of a break from "what you've always done", I think we owe it to those we work with to guide their progress as far as we can. If you love them, let them go (off the lead rein).

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

3. The longer you coach, the more you realise it's not about you

RDA has made me a more selfless person, especially during my university years when I was told that it would never be more OK to be the opposite, prioritising only myself and my books. We are, of course, allowed to measure the impact that RDA has on us as individuals by the way it makes us feel, the experiences and achievements it offers us. What I mean is that your riders' achievements will most likely be on a different scale, or in a different currency, to your own, but should be prized above yours if you want your coaching to be worthwhile for them. Ironically, acknowledging this makes your own personal gain from RDA so much greater. It may mean that you have to accept that a rider is better off with another coach, or that you have approached a situation in the wrong way. It might mean that you have to back gently away from big, bold, "one size fits all" goals: "I want all  my riders to compete in dressage competitions", "all of my riders should be riding independently within a year". This doesn't mean that the time you give to RDA is worthless; it means that you are aware of how best to maximise the worth of that time.

The more hours of coaching experience I rack up, the less I find myself frustrated that I "wasn't able to get X rider to do Y today". It's not about ticking off a to-do list written around my own wants when I should be focusing on the well-being and development of other human beings.

4. Be the kind of leader you would want to follow

I wrote in my last post that coaching is a leadership role, whether you intend it to be so or not. Leadership roles within RDA are far from limited to coaching, too, and many volunteers find themselves falling into acting as a secretary for an event; masterminding a fundraising initiative; or helping to train and coordinate newer volunteers. However you take the lead, make sure you would be happy to follow yourself. Any kind of volunteer-driven organisation requires existing volunteers to keep up momentum and camaraderie for incomers, unless they want said organisation to grind, eventually, to a halt. It's equally important to model fairness and good communication when taking the lead in a group of fellow coaches and/or long standing volunteers. I know what would get on my nerves (or make me nervous) if I were a helper in my own classes, and it really is as simple as not doing that when I coach. My riders have to want to follow me too, albeit in a different way. In and out of RDA, we need leaders, but there's no point in stepping up if you aren't prepared to do it thoughtfully.


For the second half of my 8 lessons for 8 years of RDA, please check back next Sunday (20th October).

These 8 lessons are dedicated, with thanks, to the people whose paths have crossed mine during my RDA journey to date. Thank you for all you have taught me, whether you knew you were doing it or not!

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