Dear new RDA volunteer... Ten top tips: Part 1

Volunteer & participant Rosie - joined by Elbow the pony for some down time in the field!

It's been a while since welcoming new RDA volunteers was a standard feature of life in our groups, but many are restarting (or planning to) this process over the coming weeks and months. I know my group has received lots of enquiries from prospective volunteers this spring, and knowing that it takes thousands of volunteers across the UK to keep RDA delivering its unique brand of horsepower, this seems a promising sign of things powering up and (hopefully!) leaving our limited Covid-days behind. This week and next week's blogs will be offering ten top tips for new RDA volunteers, from my own head and from consulting others who are just as excited to expand our community.

1. Be honest and open about what you can (and would like!) to do

There will usually be a suitable role, time, place for any potential volunteer within any group, but your group will only know what your preferences, needs, and limitations are if you tell them. We always make it clear when advertising for new volunteers that experience with horses or supporting disabled people isn't necessary at all: we'll give you the training you need to be able to participate and continue learning safely, and with plenty of enjoyment. What's a little bit wordy for an advert but equally true is that if you'd prefer to stick to poo picking and yard jobs and not get involved with lessons; if you're enthusiastic about the cause but can only really commit to helping out with occasional fundraising events; or if you'd like to do everything possible within a short window of time due to other commitments... all of this is fine too. There's no real mould for an RDA volunteer to try and fit. Talk to your group, and be honest.

2. Be ready to listen, especially to what your new group might need

The flipside of point 1 is that your new group might have specific times, days, or roles that they need new volunteers to fill. Volunteers come and go fairly organically (because they can: it's called "volunteering" for a reason!), and that can mean an urgent need to recruit for a specific class or day of the week to keep the group's regular service going. Don't discount your potential new group if their needs don't match your availability at the specific point in time that you make your enquiry, particularly as all groups are somewhere on their own complicated route back to pre-Covid capacity. It also might be that your perfect window is actually at a time when the group is closed, or that they would really appreciate you staying an extra hour than planned to help with XYZ. It is absolutely your right to say "that doesn't work for me", but if it might work it's worth giving it a go. Once our volunteers are hooked, it often becomes a case of planning around RDA rather than vice versa!

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

3. Stay open: don't make any kind of assumptions

One of the things I like most about RDA is how it constantly challenges assumptions and misconceptions: about disabled people and disabilities, equestrianism and horses, and many things in between. Even if we don't intend to, I think most of us start a relationship with an RDA group with some sort of automatic assumption about what it will be like, its people, and activities. Whatever the image you've got in your mind, you are likely to find many parts of your experience with the organisation challenge, disprove, or go way beyond it. I have known plenty of new volunteers be completely astonished by the fact that we teach many of our riders to ride, and even compete: it's not just a case of holding onto a child having a pony ride. 

The range of ages and disabilities represented at my group is so broad, there will always be some kind of rider who is the opposite of some kind of volunteer's expectations. It's more common than it should be for people to be surprised that our horses aren't all 30-year-old plods, and although I wouldn't expect a new volunteer to be aware of the amount of hard work that goes into coordinating sessions so that they actually happen in the first place, that can be a bit of a surprise too. You will get the most out of your experience if you keep your mind open, and we really hope that you will quickly become a fan of the can do, out-of-the-box-and-what-even-was-the-point-of-the-box-anyway ethos of RDA at large.

4. Team work makes the dream (and also the stable yard) work

Don't feel like you have to be a lone wolf in anything you do as an RDA volunteer, even if you think you'd quite like to be! Almost everything we do is the result of cumulative effort from multiple volunteers, so much so that I would recommend full RDA immersion as one of the world's best value ways of building teamworking skills. As someone who coordinates other volunteers, I love few things more than being asked "what can we do to help?" when the day is getting busy. There's no expectation for new volunteers to understand an RDA group's inner workings straight away, so your best course of action as a rookie is to embrace (metaphor, for now) the team. You'll learn plenty, make new friends, and feel like you're part of the gang and making a difference before you know it.

5. Never be afraid of asking for help

When I crowd-sourced some top tips on Instagram, this one came up again and again - it was a good way of validating my own views of it as one of the most important pieces of advice a new volunteer could possibly receive. If you are confused, unsure, or just in need of a bit of support: ask! Starting anything new, whether volunteering, a paid job, or a new stage of education, will always generate moments where you're not 100% on what's going on, or your ability to respond to it. In an RDA group, you'll be surrounded by people who are enthusiastic about their cause and who were all new volunteers too at some point. You can only benefit from asking when you need a hand, and the learning experiences available to RDA volunteers can lead to genuinely life changing things: whether for you, or someone you are yet to help yourself.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Don't forget to come back next week to read the second half of my top ten tips!