RDA volunteering is one of the few accessible gateways to the equestrian world: we have to keep nurturing it

Abingdon RDA volunteers in 2019


I've lost count of the number of times in this winter's lockdown that I have seen or virtually heard someone say "I don't know what I'd have done without my horses". It's old news that horses are good news for all kinds of well-being, from aerobic fitness (fresh air + a line of boxes to muck out) to reducing stress and anxiety. Riding isn't even a prerequisite: merely being around a horse or two can pack just the right sort of whole-person-happiness punch that makes all sorts of things better or more bearable.

So, what about the people who have to make do without them? What about those who don't have a clue what they're missing?

RDA is to me the very best example of the positive impact of horses and activities which involve them. I feel like I've spent the last year explaining, in blogs, press releases, grant applications and Instagram captions, what my group's riders have been missing out on... and why it's so important that we are able to be there for them when we finally reach the end of the tunnel. Lockdown 3.0, categorised for me by feeling sad, cooped up, and fed up of keeping up peppy appearances that "we'll all be together again at the stables soon!", made me think harder about what I've always known: the impact of access to horses is important for our volunteers too.

Opportunities to be around horses in any meaningful way without spending money to do so are few and far between, unless you're a small child who is yet to understand that your parents are diligently splashing the cash. I am a horsey anomaly in my family. My interest was grown from fleeting glimpses of horses in fields on the six mile drive from a big town to a small one to see my grandparents at the weekends, and from the striking equine actors in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, which I'd watched with my mum a number of times before starting school (I'd still recommend it, they are lovely horses). I'm sure that if I hadn't found myself in the RDA world almost ten years ago, I would've found some other way to be involved with horses, but in regular circumstances I just don't have the time or funds to devote to another form of involvement, no matter how much I might wish otherwise. RDA works for me because it is so meaningful in so many ways, as well as fitting my lifestyle and budget: I can't see any obvious alternatives which would fit so well.

I had to work hard to stay horsey as a tween and then teenager. Although living in the middle of my large home town was great for dance lessons and cinema trips, there just weren't going to be the sort of equestrian opportunities lurking two houses down (or in the back garden) that I read about in pony books or even heard about in real life. I spent a big chunk of every weekend aged 13+ helping out at the riding school, but even to do that a particular (if non official) level of knowledge and experience had to be reached. This in turn needed riding lessons, and parents willing to pay for them (I negotiated mine there in the end, although I think my escapades did make my mum nervous). I wasn't taking a string of expensive ponies to HOYS qualifiers, but I knew I was fortunate to be able to spend the time in the saddle that I did, and have accumulated my own collection of weird and wonderful equestrian experiences over the years. I think it's important to acknowledge that all of us with that bank of experiences, no matter the level or scale, are just that: fortunate.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow (2019)


Horses cost a lot of money, to paraphrase another grant application trope and acknowledge the equestrian stereotype you'll know before you know anything else about horses. As such, we can't exactly begrudge commercial riding centres for needing to charge to access their services, although I feel like I am hearing more and more that children from unhorsey families are being priced out of learning to ride. My RDA group also charges for lessons, but at a seriously subsidised rate which is waived if it proves an obstacle for a rider or their family. Riding schools that aren't providing charitable services like ours can rarely do this, and my lockdown blues have only been increased by all the coverage of stricken centres in the equestrian press. Some RDA centres also have a commercial arm which funds or part funds their charitable activities; this isn't something that my group has to worry about, but I can imagine the complexities of the cans, can'ts, and hopes that this half-and-half relationship might have created during the pandemic. In short, the industry has been better placed for generosity than it has over the last year, and I can see why even in regular times people might be put off giving horses a go.

This idea of generosity in the equestrian world, of giving access to horses, always brings me back to RDA. We are constantly talking about "accessibility" in terms of the ways we adapt our sessions, equipment, or horses' training to our riders' needs. Although this is our central mission and purpose (and we do it well), the organisation and its 500 individual groups are providing something else which is distinctive: the opportunity for volunteers to spend time with horses, learning and mastering new skills (even qualifications), for free. I'm not saying this is completely unique to RDA, but it is pretty special that the entire organisation is able and willing to encourage people to join the equestrian world and (with time and training) make a difference to it, regardless of prior experience or expectation, and without the onus of paying for the opportunities involved. It's double-edged generosity, and it's how we work.

I have watched people whose previous equine experience consisted of patting a pony over a fence become confident and competent around horses (and our participants) because they have dedicated time and heart to RDA volunteering. I have encountered other people who cite it as the most accessible way of rejoining the equestrian world after a long break or change of circumstances, alongside some of the most generous "traditional" horsefolk I have ever met. Everyone has a story about why they were drawn to RDA, and why they chose to stay committed to it: "I like horses" is the tip of every iceberg. 

RDAUK published a study about the benefits of volunteering a couple of years ago, and last year over 2000 volunteers responded to a national survey during the first lockdown, all of whom were missing their groups, and in many cases, their "horse fixes". We are acutely aware within the organisation that volunteering is great for the people who do it, and that very few sessions would actually be possible without them. An entry level RDA volunteer needs to be able to get themselves to their local group. That's it: we can teach them everything they need to know to help us safely and effectively, and push that further if and when they want to develop. As someone who has trained a fair few new volunteers during my time as an RDA coach, I think I've underestimated what a powerful thing it is to be able to introduce complete rookies to the world of horses. I know I wouldn't be without horses and the experiences I have had around them; maybe my next new volunteer will find their involvement with my RDA group an enriching, even life-changing, experience, made possible by the doors their voluntary role opens.

Urban riding centres with a focus on socioeconomic accessibility and diversity, like Brixton's Ebony Horse Club or Leicester's Urban Equestrian Academy, are few and far between, yet incredibly successful in broadening the gateways to equestrian sport and enriching their participants' lives. Most riding centres are at least a bit more rural (horses need fields to live in, right?), which means that their ability to connect with their immediate communities is diluted. The meteoric success of Park Lane Stables' fundraising campaign to save their site in West London was so important for the equestrian industry because "accessibility" is their entire purpose: they are an active RDA group; provide subsidised non-disabled riding; employ disabled members of staff trained in-house; are constantly supporting their local community; and are easy to access by public transport. We aren't all in a position (literally) to offer all of these things, but the can-do spirit of their seemingly impossible £1million fundraiser embodies the very best of the spirit of RDA at large. It isn't just a case of positive, out-of-the-box thinking: the work that RDA groups carry out, often driven and delivered by volunteers, is empowering for everyone involved. Once you've felt it in action, it's easy to want to keep advocating for it, and for others' ability to experience the same thing.

It's an unhelpful misconception that those who don't feel that they are able to access horses (and/or riding) "just need to find their nearest riding school and get involved". Obstacles of time, money, transport, or a straightforward feeling that the sport and industry doesn't include people like you are easy to dismiss when you're a dyed-in-the-wool equestrian who can't imagine life without a horse (or three). This doesn't make the obstacles to accessing equestrianism any less real to those experiencing them, and even though being involved in it can be a punishing lifestyle full of mud, vet bills, and stretched spare time, those of us who are involved are often more fortunate than we give ourselves credit for. Although we aren't necessarily set up to teach our non-disabled volunteers to ride, RDA groups are in a powerful position to break (or start breaking) some of those barriers down and keep lots of other rewarding gateways open. We will always need our volunteers, wherever they come from, just as much as they need us.

As groups begin to restart (or re-re-restart, as is the case for my group) their sessions, phasing in participants and the volunteers needed to assist them to mitigate Covid risks, we will all have a lot to think about. It's likely that we'll all need to recruit some new volunteers in the coming months as participant numbers hopefully return to normal, bringing with them the need for more helping hands. I think it's important that those of us involved in RDA, or any other set-up which offers equestrian volunteering, don't lose sight of how important we can be to our volunteers, as well as how important they are to our organisations (I like to think this one is difficult to forget). We need to make sure that we stay agile in the way we recruit and retain new volunteers, whether it's targeting new groups of people; updating and diversifying the way we offer training and development opportunities; communicating differently; communicating more. Doing this well won't just benefit RDA; it benefits the entire equestrian community.

I don't think we've cracked it yet. The equestrian world needs a lot of work in terms of almost every type of accessibility, and RDA is included in that. I'm also not professing to have the answers to how best we should be nurturing the opportunities we are able to offer as a community, and those who take up those opportunities. I do know that what we have, both in the present and in its potential for the future, is worth nurturing. I know I am better in all sorts of ways for being an RDA volunteer; I also know from the months of horseless lockdown that I am definitely worse off when that access is taken away. As everything slowly opens back up, I would encourage anyone involved in horses to consider how they might be able to make our shared world that little bit kinder, more understanding, or more inclusive. If you need a good place to start, whichever direction you're approaching it from, I can't recommend better than finding your local RDA group.

Abingdon RDA volunteers at RDA Nationals in 2019

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