Dear new RDA volunteer... Ten top tips: Part 2

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow
New volunteers: welcome to what could be one of the best things you'll ever do! This week's post is the second half of my top ten tips for new RDA volunteers: don't forget to check out the first five here.

6. Don't stress

A friend on Instagram offered some fantastic advice: stay as calm as possible when handling any of your new group's horses, because they can pick up on human tension very easily. Easier said than done if you're a total novice around horses? Perhaps, but if you're learning the ropes, you're in good hands and good hooves. The very best and most gentle of RDA horses will have taught as many newbie volunteers to lead, groom, and tack up confidently as they will participants to ride. We also established last week that it was totally OK, and in fact totally encouraged, to ask for help with anything at your RDA group, whether you're finding your feet or otherwise. Take a deep breath, and those helping and training you can meet you at least half way to make this new experience an unstressful one.

7. Getting to know you

A good, but slightly boring, tip is to pay close attention to the coach for any sessions you are helping with: there will be plenty of instructions and directions which riders will often need support to follow. An even better piece of advice is to take the opportunity where you can to get to know the participants you are working with. There will probably be a whole spectrum of rider communications at your group, from non-verbal to non-stop-chat, and although I've encountered a couple of riders who are happiest riding with only their own thoughts as the soundtrack, the majority really enjoy it when volunteers take the time to interact with them. I so value the relationships I build with my riders and their families, and it's a lovely feeling to be able to watch volunteers forging their own bonds in my classes: they make the volunteer and participant experience so much richer. If you were to help out with one of my current groups, I would advise you to have your Hogwarts house ready as an ice breaker. I learnt the hard way that it wasn't cool to say "I'm not sure, it's been a while since I've been into Harry Potter..." (I know I'm a Gryffindor now.)

Bright ideas incoming...

8. Relate the unrelated

Say you're a few weeks in, it's going well, and you're feeling inspired to find an extra way or two of helping out your new group. Or perhaps you've got stuck in and are working out your first RDA-based challenge: a way of engaging and relating to a rider you've been working with, or perhaps remembering some of the new horse management skills you've acquired. Have a good think about what you could bring to the table from other parts of your life, even if they seem totally unrelated. You might have a particular skillset, a connection, or a fantastic imagination: if you think you could use any of them to make even more of a difference, don't be shy! RDA groups' momentum is often generated by a totally random meeting of minds and skills from the volunteers they attract. I've been surprised by how many of the skills I use in my day job can be related to RDA, but at the same time I don't feel like I've brought work to the stables with me because so much about the setting is different and more empowering. My work colleagues would probably venture that when I'm bending their ears about how Braille works (one of them made the mistake of musing about that very topic the other week: I coach a blind rider and was more ready to respond than he was bargaining for) or my riders' latest achievements that I am very capable of bringing RDA to the office with me...

9. Be prepared

This one is very simple indeed: scope out the geographical (will you be trudging through clay soil, or up and down hills?), meteorological (is the yard very exposed to the elements, and have you checked the forecast?), and architectural (is there a covered arena or are you outside?) features of your new group, and prepare accordingly. Sturdy shoes and comfortable clothing, neither of which will be ruined by a bit of mud, water, or pony fluff, are a good rule of thumb, but do make sure to check in with your new group to ask if they advise anything else. There might be a bad weather procedure to get to know, especially if the group is in a fully outdoor location, and in current circumstances you might also need to wear a face covering in certain roles and places. Be prepared!

10. Go on... give it a go!

No matter how confident you feel about starting your new voluntary role, sooner or later you'll come across something which invites you out of your comfort zone. In RDA, this could be a whole range of wonderful and often slightly wacky things which can do everything from raising a good laugh or making a new friend to giving you a whole new purpose. The way people are able to grow through volunteering experiences is totally unlike how they might develop through work or school, but the only way you'll be able to make the most of whatever comes your way is if you get stuck in and give it a go. RDA participants are so often surprised and empowered by what they find out about themselves from going to their groups, but there's nothing to say that volunteers can't have that too. Try helping out with that new discipline; attend an external competition with your group; volunteer for an event outside of your regular day and time; help plan a fundraiser; make friends the new pony on the yard; learn a bit of Makaton to communicate better with the riders you help... or, you know, just take the plunge and offer your help in the first place. Go on - you never know unless you give it a try.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow