Five reasons why I am an RDA volunteer

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Happy Volunteers' Week!

It's (just!) Volunteers' Week. We like to mark this in some way every year at Abingdon (mainly on our social media pages), but this year has provided extra time to reflect on our reasons for becoming and staying volunteers whilst we are temporarily unable to live them together. Now might not be the time for embarking on a new volunteering journey or making the absolute most of the benefits voluntary work has to offer, but it's a perfect time for those of us privileged enough to have time to give to reflect on our reasons for doing so. I have many reasons of my own, but I've chosen five I particularly miss and wanted to share. What are your five (ten... twenty... fifty...) reasons?

1. Horses, horses, horses

Plenty of RDA people will have their own horses, but plenty won't. I don't think I could ever overstate the value of RDA as a low-cost, high-impact way of being involved with horses for those who are not in a position to own or loan. I am yet to find myself in such a privileged position, but am able to keep spending time with and learning in considerable depth about horses through my involvement in RDA. Volunteering costs as much as we want it to: the baseline is the cost of getting yourself to wherever you are doing it. The equestrian world is notoriously expensive, even elitist, but few other organisations offer their volunteers such a good "deal" in terms of what RDA volunteers can gain from being around their groups' horses.

There is, of course, the draw of horses. Just horses. I was aware of RDA as an organisation long before I started volunteering, and admired their work, but ultimately it was a desire to be involved with horses which motivated me to sign up. My riding school, where I had spent a sizeable chunk of my teenage years, was closing down, and I wasn't in a position to transfer what I had learnt and enjoyed there for so many years to a horse of my own. RDA seemed a sensible place for me to spend my last year before going to university: I could be around horses, make some sort of difference to the odd person, and not have the faff of trying to fit in with a completely new equestrian social circle at a new riding school. I found a thousand different reasons to stay on after that year, many of them concerning the people I met, but that "horse girl" undercurrent never stopped flowing. Horses are special. They are good for our mental health, and strengthen our physical and psychological resolves. They understand people more than most give them credit for. I might have a lot of ambitious aims for my volunteering and its impact, but ultimately I'm happy if I'm able to share that love of horses with other people.

2. Challenge accepted

I've always enjoyed personal challenges in an abstract sense. I like to solve problems, to plan my way out of crises, to decode and to understand. Even more so, I like the feeling of accomplishment when a challenge is risen to and then surmounted. I didn't think too deeply about this at the beginning of my RDA career, but a few years of hindsight made me realise that part of the draw of RDA was how it constantly challenged me. During an average day at the stables, I could easily find myself having to adapt the way I communicate fifteen or twenty times to include, reassure, and teach the many different people, participants and otherwise, I encounter. There are endless opportunities for something not to work, or to stop working, and endless opportunities to find a solution to those problems as a result. Internal group politics are my least favourite part of the job (not that it is a job), but I suppose even they keep my mind active with challenges to chew over. 

As I've grown into my role as a coach, I have also come to relish the responsibility of helping others to meet and surmount their own challenges. In some cases, even finding a way of communicating the challenge at hand and how we might go about tackling it is a challenge in itself. Most importantly, I have found that being part of someone else's achievements, of helping someone else take on their own challenges, is the greatest draw of all.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

3. On your side

The longer I am involved with RDA, the greater the responsibility I feel for making sure I stand up for my riders, and get to know them well enough that I can do so meaningfully. There are lots of organisations which require volunteers to support disabled people, and it's not unusual to hear those volunteers describe their work, and the people they encounter, as "inspiring". That's nice, I suppose, but I think the litmus test for meaningful volunteering is continuing that conversation beyond "the disabled people are so inspiring". Has that burst of inspiration actually inspired any action? Have you gone home and done a bit of research into the pioneering medical treatment one family is pursuing? Have you reassessed your attitude towards another activity or area of your life? Have you felt more able to assist someone in public, like a guide dog owner struggling with temporary road signs or on public transport? The state of being inspired isn't what makes a difference, but it can be the beginning of actions which make more than your own world a better place.

I choose to give my time to RDA because I feel strongly about being on the side of the people we exist to help, as honestly, as unpatronisingly, and as helpfully as I can be. I wrote a post earlier this year for my riders' parents, in which I said that even if I am just a child's horse riding coach for an hour a week, I'm still on their side for the long haul. We meet people at our RDA groups who are vulnerable, who have difficulties accessing things non-disabled people take for granted, who are just fed up of having to explain why they are different or why they are struggling. It's important to me that I try to be the ally these people might need, and that I am able to learn from any mistakes I make in the process.

4. Brave new world

RDA has a fascinating history, and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. 50 years is a long time, but still short enough for some members of the RDA community to have been around for most, if not all, of that history. My almost nine years of service is longer than some of my riders have been alive (as they like to remind me), but isn't much at all next to some of the stalwarts of the organisation.

RDA has been evolving and adapting for its entire history. Over the past couple of years, I've looked carefully at my own involvement and decided that I want to be committed long term (maybe for the next 51 years or so). As such, understanding how we might develop my group, or the organisation at large, has started to take up more of my head space on top of my week-by-week lesson plans and observations. I am part of an organisation which has always championed what people can do, with the uplifting side effect that people can often do more than was expected or believed. How exciting to be able to learn from the powerhouses of the past and present, then look to the future (when we've reopened, of course...) and anticipate the impossibilities we might be able to make possible in the years to come. There will always be ways we can better RDA, for all who love, respect, and rely on it, and I volunteer because I want to help make those changes.

5. Part of the story

Within an RDA group, there are many stories unfolding at any given time. Everybody, whether they are riding, helping, coaching, or watching someone they care for from the sidelines, has their own reasons for being there. In most cases, especially for those who ride or parent a rider, the story runs a bit deeper than just wanting to have a go at riding lessons. I think what I value most of all is being let into so many of those stories. There is something, perhaps the combination of horses (magic, remember?) and good, honest intentions, that makes a lot of people very willing to open up at or about RDA (although this is, of course, not compulsory). People share vulnerability, anxieties, triumphs and frustrations. I have been trusted over the years with all sorts of things: sensitive information, favourite cuddly toys stuffed into my coat for safe keeping during sessions, hopes, dreams. 

I don't think anyone should go into volunteering expecting to make waves, but we all hope that we are able to make a difference. I really treasure the small moments when it is apparent that I have been able to do just that, whether it's an act of trust, a thank you card, or a realisation that I exist in one of my riders' lives beyond "just" their weekly riding lesson. It's a privilege enough to be able to give my time to helping other people, but it's even more of a privilege to be a meaningful part of so many stories. 

I've written plenty of other blogs about RDA volunteering. You can browse them here

RDA groups aren't currently in a position to take on new volunteers, but you can read more about volunteering with the organisation (and at some point in the future, find a group near you) here.


Have you enjoyed reading this blog?

All RDA groups are currently closed as part of the response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. My group, Abingdon, is likely to suffer financially as a result of this closed period: our busy fundraising calendar has been wiped clean for the foreseeable future, meaning that we will lose thousands of pounds which are desperately needed for the upkeep of our yard and the care of our 14 horses.

Can you help?

We have set up a Covid-19 appeal for Abingdon RDA, and are asking in particular for people to consider donating a small sum of money which they will not be spending as usual during this difficult time: the cost of a trip to a coffee shop, or petrol you are not using for commuting or coming to the stables. We have been so touched by the generosity of our supporters to date. If you are not able to donate (and we appreciate that not everyone can), sharing this blog post is a great way of spreading the word and showing your support. It is all appreciated so much.