Five things which didn't make me start RDA, but did made me stick with it

A much-missed happy scene in a "normal" lesson at the beginning of the year...

I wrote a post for Volunteers' Week in June about some of my reasons for being an RDA volunteer and, by extension, being so keen to write about it. Since then, I've been considering the "reasons why" which would surprise my past self when I filled out my application form for my group almost nine years ago. Some things, by and large, have worked out as I expected. I've never stopped enjoying the challenges or the feeling of making a difference. I still, nobody will be surprised to hear, like horses. There are other things, however, which I never would have thought would be such big motivators for me to keep up my commitment to my group: a sort of "come for one thing, but stay for the other" arrangement. So, here are five more reasons why which my eighteen year old self never saw coming...

1. Working with children (and animals)

I never really intended to work with children. As a riding school stable girl, it was just a big part of why the riding school existed: there will be kids, and if you're hanging around the yard with the horses all day under the guise of being helpful, then you will be expected to help them out. I am very people-orientated, but never had a specific interest in very young people. I am the type to back off nervously when new parents ask if I'd like to hold their baby, and my comfort zone for dealing with anyone under the age of 12 always had a single, very straightforward condition: they had to be on a horse.

A few years deep into my RDA experience, I don't think this really applies any more. Sometimes, my young riders are all I talk about: members of my family who have never even visited my group know that they have learned to trot independently or that they did really well at Nationals. They make me laugh almost constantly and keep me on my toes: I learnt very quickly that "I'm not that bothered about Harry Potter, I'm not sure what my Hogwarts house is" was not an acceptable answer. I enjoy hearing about their progress at school and seeing what sort of rider they grow into over months and years. I am compelled to point out that RDA riders aren't all children; there are plenty of adults riding with groups across the UK; but my personal experience is almost entirely of teaching children and young adults. Now, I don't think I'd ever want to go completely without teaching young riders. 

2. Voluntary volunteer management

Managing volunteers as a volunteer wasn't something that crossed my mind when I was getting to know RDA, but it's probably one of the most valuable transferable skills I've acquired in the last nine years. The volunteers I've worked with, trained, or encouraged have been more diverse in age, background, and motivation than my office at work. I think it's also fair to say that, through differences in aims and expectations, or recruitment challenges, volunteer management is also one of the most challenging parts of my role as a coach. Being responsible for other volunteers whilst simultaneously living your own volunteer experience certainly provides an interesting vantage point. In the future, especially when we are able to return to something close to full capacity, I am very interested in giving some deeper thought to improving volunteer experience and the processes by which volunteers join my group; there is much to be gained for all parties from doing so.

3. Anatomical ABCs

I swore off studying science the moment my GCSEs were over, and certainly never had the stomach for medicine anyway. Yet, I find the medical and physiotherapeutic information I encounter week on week at RDA endlessly interesting. I had a sincere but limited understanding of one condition, cerebral palsy, and how it interacted with riding, when I started with my group. I've met a lot of riders since then (some of them have CP, although all of them are very different) and had many opportunities to talk, to observe, to research, and to learn. It's important to be able to take participants on what they choose to put forward about themselves, in the spirit of the "it's what you can do that counts" motto. The other side of the coin, where I am quietly clued up, ready to understand what's going on when things are a bit off, and ready to be innovative and agile in how I respond to a rider's concerns or wishes to try something different... that's just as important. 

I enjoy understanding the anatomical backgrounds of the riders I coach because it helps me understand them better as people and as athletes. It's not a surprise that RDA participants, like any person with any sort of disability, will have plenty of things about them which correspond with unhelpful societal "norms", and plenty of things which are a bit different and might require specific assistance or understanding. It is frustrating that a lot of people, perhaps due to limited experience beyond their own non-disabled privilege, don't seem to get this. In any case, I think it's important that I try to get to know my riders and whatever they are dealing with as much as possible. I've surprised myself by how interesting I find the nuts and bolts of how different conditions work (or, as some RDA participants I know would say, don't work). 

4. It's a family affair

I came to RDA for the horses, but quickly realised that the riders (and their relationships with the horses) really made the experience special. Further experience has made me appreciate the worth of the family team behind each rider: getting to know the parents and carers beyond the people who hand over their children at the mounting block is as much a part of understanding the people I coach as swotting up on the science behind their condition. The relationship with parents is, of course, fundamentally different to the relationships built with their children, although both have an essential baseline of trust. In some ways, it's a more challenging relationship to build: people open up in incredible ways when they're in the saddle, and I'm not putting parents on ponies. I so appreciate the trust of my riders' parents, and their ability to contextualise the impact of their children's riding lessons; sometimes, knowing what's going on away from the yard can be incredible motivation, even on weeks when I'm thinking the lesson is a bit off and I'm not achieving what I would have hoped. None of my RDA endeavours are for the sake of receiving praise or gratitude, but I never forget a heartfelt message of thanks from one of my RDA parents. 

5. Write on

Perhaps this is the most obvious point of all, but when I started RDA I didn't give any thought whatsoever to the idea of writing about it, unless you count a letter I wrote to Horse & Rider magazine about a year in which won me a bright pink coat. I don't think anyone starts a volunteering opportunity with the intention of blogging about it, but I'm glad I decided to keep up this little writing experiment. I started this blog partly to express my own enthusiasm and chart my experiences within my RDA group (hopefully garnering new volunteers and/or supporters as a result); I also started it because I felt there were a lot of discussions not being had within the organisation which I personally would appreciate participating in or reading. 

The majority of my blogs could be described as opinion pieces, and I've never set out to present myself as some sort of guru or oracle for the organisation. But, as someone who can be classed as neither inexperienced nor expert, and who likes to write things down, I thought I was in as good a position as anyone at least to start some of those discussions. I've really enjoyed the conversations which have sprung up around past blogs and watching how far some have been shared. Although I write very much in the context of my own experiences, it's really touching when someone comments or messages to say that they related to a particular post, or says that they have been encouraged to do something different or new after reading one. From a purely personal perspective, I think writing has given me a useful extra space to work out and justify what I'm doing and where I'm going, and I didn't see RDA making me enjoy writing and thinking as much as this little blog has.

Do you have any reasons for sticking with RDA which are different to the reasons you started?

Thank you to everyone who entered my 1st (blog) birthday giveaway! Entries are now closed and a winner, drawn at random, has been contacted.