10 reasons why RDA volunteering might just be the best cure for January blues

Good for the soul... a wintery walk with one of my classes

1. It gets you out in the fresh air. A New Year cliché straight out of the starting gate, yes, but being an RDA volunteer certainly does get you out and about. At the beginning of the year when it's a bit too easy to stay in bed or on the sofa feeling miserable, spending some time out in the elements can be a refreshing change of scene. Many RDA groups have indoor facilities too, so it's not like you'd even be actually outside the whole time. Coming in from a productive RDA Saturday on a cold January day feels ten times better than spending it hiding away, even if your fingers and toes are a bit chilly.

2. It's low or no-cost. Depending on where you are relative to your group and how you get there, your only regular expenses for helping out an RDA group would be the cost of travelling to it. That's a pretty good deal for all that can be gained from it. Horses might be an expensive hobby, but RDA isn't.

3. It's decent exercise, without necessarily feeling like exercise. I count my steps on my phone, which usually sits in my coat pocket when I'm at the stables on a Saturday morning. The only time I've not got at least 15,000 steps just from being at RDA was when I was achy and stiff after a fall and relegated to the bench. A spot of gentle side walking in riding sessions will keep your heart rate and step count up, and there will plenty more strenuous yard tasks to do (I've seen plenty of social media posts doing the rounds, extolling the calorie burning virtues of mucking out!) if you are so inclined. Plus, it's more interesting to talk about than your gym sessions or jogs.

4. It's good for your mental health. RDA brings together all the things we are advised to do to look after our minds: gentle exercise, interpersonal interaction, goal setting, purpose... I refer to last year's 'Horses, Health & Happiness' report a lot, but it speaks a lot of truths: namely the fact that 94% of volunteers surveyed said that RDA had some sort of positive effect on their lives. Over three quarters of volunteers also said that it makes them feel better about themselves, more cheerful, and more useful. In my experience, you are never far from a fellow volunteer who has found that RDA has been good for their mental well-being.

5. Horses are magic, and RDA is one of their most magical contexts. Perhaps the most important mental health-boosting element is the horses themselves. These are horses with a special job, and more often than not their implicit understanding of this job shines through. Even if you aren't directly involved in RDA sessions as a volunteer, spending time with horses is a wonderful way of lifting the lowest of moods. We are very lucky that horses, with their deep eyes, soft coats, comb-able tails, and heady equine scent (when you know, you know), are so good for our disabled riders: it means we get to benefit from their company too.

6. You're in good company. It isn't just four legged friends who are there for the making at an RDA group: your fellow volunteers offer a welcoming and diverse peer group. The volunteers at my group often say that they appreciate the fact that RDA has linked them up with new friends who they never would have met otherwise. Even if you aren't the flutteriest of social butterflies, the purpose that RDA volunteers share makes friendships more seamless to build than in other contexts, even if they are between very different people.

7. You have endless opportunities to learn something new. I see variations on "learning a new skill" peppering published lists of New Year's resolutions every year. New skills are horizon-broadening, mind-occupying, empowering. RDA volunteering offers the opportunity to learn multiple new skills at once. For many new volunteers, these might present themselves in the form of learning to approach, handle, and manage horses: it cannot be said often enough that RDA groups are happy to take on helpers who aren't dyed-in-the-wool equestrians. For those who are, and don't need an introduction to tacking up or grooming, RDA still represents a set of different approaches and challenges to how many of us are used to experiencing the world of horses. How, for instance, do you explain the simplest of dressage movements to a rider with no sight? There are also new disciplines (at some groups) to get stuck into: can many riders say they are also well versed in both vaulting and carriage driving?

8. Your focus is altered (for the better). RDA volunteering is, for the most part (we can't forget that equestrian sports do involve some level of risk) an activity which is mindful, but sufficiently safety-critical that full concentration is essential. This is a great way of shifting focus from whatever else is taking up lonely, anxious, or downbeat head space; as people, we aren't so great at making that shift with no new focus lined up. The time outside your own head could be a great opportunity to find new perspectives on both your own and others' experiences.

9. It's making you a more selfless person. We've got data to prove that RDA has a positive effect on volunteers' lives, but it's a bit harder to quantify how much it improves you as a human being. I am a staunch believer in "you get out what you put in", and RDA is my go-to example of how it works. The more you are willing to put into RDA, whether it's an extra half an hour of mucking out; speaking up more than you would usually to help out somebody who has a hearing impairment; some special, unscheduled words of encouragement for a rider who is nervous about mounting; the more you will find your character enriched by your own selflessness. Giving up time you could have otherwise spent on something completely chosen by and focused on yourself to help others develop and achieve is something incredibly special. It's never a reason that volunteers give for starting their journey with RDA, but it's a beautiful by-product of all the reasons they do.

10. It lasts all year... and then some. Once RDA has you hooked, it has a wonderful way of adding something special to every season. It may well give your January blues a good kicking, but given enough time it may just blossom into the best thing you've ever done.

If you'd like to find details for your local RDA group (there are currently 514 listed on the National Office website!), click here and type in your postcode or town.

If you'd like to read more about the experience of being an RDA volunteer, I've blogged about getting the most out of your experience; why I think RDA is a good use of time off; and how RDA can be useful in a university or job application. You can also read my own volunteering story here.