7 things an RDA volunteer feels every session

Photo credit: Siobhan Dennis

We've finished our first month of the new decade. Perhaps it was the first month of your umpteenth year of RDA, perhaps it was your opportunity to start out on your volunteering journey; if the latter, I've got a few reasons why that was (is) a great decision. Either way, you will probably be aware of the rush of emotions you feel over the course of an RDA session: happy, hesitant, thrilled, thoughtful. I think we all feel these seven things in every riding lesson we assist. Do you recognise them all?

1. Uplifted

Maybe somebody needs to trademark the RDA Buzz: felt before, during, and after sessions. One of the volunteers at my group penned a poem for us when we were running a Volunteers' Week feature on the Instagram page, which I'll add below.

Poem by volunteer Natalie Ilsley

The first line leaves me with a real impression of how much volunteers look forward to their time with their RDA group. I often hear it described as the "highlight of my week", or see a huge smile when somebody greets the horses or riders. Done right, RDA is uplifting for everyone. 

2. Conscious

Mounting and dismounting are like an aeroplane at take off and landing: the riskiest and most vulnerable parts of an RDA session. For many riders, vulnerability is particularly evident: we might be used to seeing them moving independently on horseback like they were born in the saddle, but watching how they move to and from the horse can give a telling insight into how much that freedom and therapy is needed. Is there an RDA centre in the country that doesn't have the poem "I Saw a Child" printed out somewhere? For volunteers, especially those with limited experience of working with disabled riders, this insight can be quite sobering. I think it's important for us to stay conscious of the nature of our participants' disabilities: it means we are unlikely to miss the gravity of their achievements, and to stay alert in keeping a session as safe and accessible as possible.

3. Apprehensive

The coach wants me to step away from the horse. Is she sure? Can they do it alone? RDA volunteers are by nature very helpful people, so it makes sense that one of the hardest challenges we face as volunteers is learning, when the time comes, to help less. We are fast to develop a keen sense of responsibility towards the week's horse and rider combination: stepping away feels somehow disloyal. Ponies, of course, are experts at latching onto a pedestrian within touching distance, lead rein or no, and following them around like an absent-minded labrador. Sometimes we have to take that extra step into the middle to encourage our riders to earn their "rider" title, and their mounts to engage a little bit more of their brain. They can't do it with you, but they can't do it without you.

Look, no leaders! (Not pictured: proud volunteers encouraging these two young riders from the sidelines)

4. Competitive

Who knew that something as innocuous as grandmother's footsteps or collecting toys in a bucket could matter so much? In the bubble of an RDA session, it's heartening (and amusing) to see how much volunteers commit to the activities on offer. It's fun(ny), but I think it also really contributes to our riders' sense of belonging and achievement to know that their helper wants to help them succeed. (This post describes why and how these emotions are important for building trust.) When I'm not coaching, I am completely guilty of overcommitting to any game with a slight competitive edge (safely, I might add!). I can point to at least a couple of riders who have learnt the word "tactical" from me in the context of a gymkhana game...

5. Breathless

Wow, we've been trotting for a long time... Just think of those steps! The tack room biscuits you can demolish later! The mirth of the rider you're helping as you wheeze around your second lap of the arena! (Maybe mine just have evil senses of humour...)

6. Proud

There are tens, if not hundreds, of achievements made in every single RDA session. One of the best things about volunteering in these sessions is the fact that you get to take an active role in making those achievements happen: if you're helping a rider, their goals become your goals too. You bet you're going to feel proud when those goals are achieved. A new volunteer the other week was watching one of my riders, Lily, trotting off the lead rein. This is still a very new skill, achieved only a few weeks ago (you can read about it at the end of this post), and my new recruit was very vocal about how impressed she was by it. Although she is the kind of rider who takes a bit of time to get to know new people, Lily was so buoyed up by the pride of a near-stranger, and I could see her remembering how proud of herself she deserved to be too. There's nothing to say that a volunteer can't or won't feel proud of themselves during a session too, whether it's because they had a starring role in assisting a rider with an achievement, or for an accomplishment of their own. You might have made a huge leap in progress in the way you are able to communicate with participants, handled a new horse well, or helped to assist a new fellow volunteer. I think it's good for all of us to feel proud of each other and of ourselves.

7. Fulfilled

Finally, the quiet, satisfying sense of having done something good, and of having made someone else's day a little bit brighter or more exciting. I always find I feel this, even after a rough day (we all have them from time to time). When you give your time to help with an RDA session, you are contributing to others' well-being alongside your own, making a difference, and being a positive, supportive force to those who often find themselves badly accommodated by the world they live in. If that isn't fulfilling, I don't know what is.