Ten reasons to thank an RDA volunteer this Volunteers' Week

It's been Volunteers' Week this week: a great opportunity to acknowledge the thousands of RDA volunteers who are at the very heart of the organisation. I've put together ten reasons that you should give the RDA volunteers in your life an extra "thank you" this week, although they are valid and important all year round!

1. It wouldn't happen without them

Count the volunteers helping out with the next RDA session you attend, then try to imagine what the session would look like without them. It probably wouldn't be happening, even at groups with paid staff. RDA really does run on volunteer power, and that's something worth celebrating.

2. They don't think twice about thinking outside the box - or ignoring it completely

RDA volunteers are ordinary people who deal more often than many with the extraordinary. Creative, and sometimes slightly bonkers, ideas are often needed to make it work, whether "it" is enabling a rider to hold their reins comfortably or stay focused, or working out the logistics needed for a session to happen in the first place. Not every idea will be a good one and RDA represents a learning experience for however long you are involved with it, but we all need at least a couple of non-box-thinkers in our lives, and your group is a good place to find them.

3. They willingly give up other things to be there for their slot or session

By definition, a volunteer you encounter doing any voluntary role could opt or have opted to do something else during that time. This could be an extra hour or two in bed (at either end of the day), time spent relaxing or on a different activity, or time spent with loved ones. Do they mind or expect sympathy for this sort of thing? Absolutely not: RDA was their choice. Even so, it's nice to remember that there is a bit of personal sacrifice involved in volunteering, even if it is done with great willing.

4. They stay cheery in all seasons

The first box that gets signed off on an RDA volunteer's training record refers to "appropriate dress" for a stableyard environment. I usually sign this one with a flourish and say "congratulations for not wearing your flip flops", but the reality of dressing sensibly for helping out at an RDA group can involve multiple seasons in one single day, a devil-may-care attitude towards random and unexpected stains, and a usually failed attempt to keep loose hay out of every available crevice. RDA sessions can be held in rainy outdoor arenas, on the side of hills, at the end of ankle-depth-muddy tracks, and with summer heat bearing down on us. My group is fortunate enough to have an indoor arena (almost two...), but we often joke that in the winter it somehow manages to be colder than outside. Regardless of all of these things, RDA volunteers tend to remain their cheery composure whatever the weather, and however many sessions they have to weather that day.

5. They want to focus on the "cans", not the "can'ts"

Our volunteers live the organisation's motto of "it's what you can do that counts" to the extent that saying so feels a little bit cheesy,  but they really are more interested in seeing the potential, power, and positives about any participant they encounter than focusing on how their disabilities might limit them. It isn't a case of "not seeing disabilities and differences" (that's not helpful, really) but embracing how far a participant might go. In so many cases, it ends up being further than that participant or their family might have initially imagined.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

6. They've waited patiently for the great restart

If you're encountering RDA volunteers in action at this precise point in time, they are likely to have ridden the Covid storm with their group and know how important it is to get everything and everyone safely back in action. There will have been new procedures to learn, and in some cases relearn, and maybe a bit (or a lot) of stress getting heads back in the game, but thousands of loyal volunteers have been willing to get stuck into pandemic-era RDA and helping participants to access their sessions again. That's dedication.

7. They are excited to share their sport

...and make it a better, more inclusive place. I wonder how many RDA participants would never have even touched a horse if they hadn't found their group? One of my favourite things about the organisation is how it can bring people into equestrianism from the most unlikely of places, and keep them flourishing there for life thanks to the enthusiasm and skills of the volunteers they encounter. 

8. They've almost certainly cleared up horse poo with a smile on their face

Well, it has to go somewhere after we've all enjoyed some toilet humour in our RDA sessions...

9. They're often there for the important moments, and they appreciate how important they are

I'm not exaggerating when I say that sometimes RDA volunteers get to witness life-changing, life-affirming, and generally life-improving moments. These moments can take a million different forms, from a rider sitting up unsupported or communicating clearly for the first time to a personal best at a national competition, or a first step towards international para dressage. I know I've had riders' families say "this might not seem like a big deal, but..." Often, our volunteers just know that they're part of something significant, and if they don't realise, they really want to know and appreciate the whats and whys. They are in it with you and they love few things more than watching participants grow and succeed.

10. They probably aren't expecting it

Thank yous are never a bad idea, and I always make sure I thank the volunteers who help out with my sessions on Saturdays at least when they are on their way out at the end of the day. I still don't think that many RDA volunteers actively expect to be thanked for every good, helpful, or kind thing they do during a shift at the stables: they might say that they like doing XYZ job, or that they are just happy to spend time with the horses, or that being able to see a rider achieve something is enough thanks in itself. All of these things are almost certainly true, but that doesn't mean a heartfelt thank you isn't a wonderful thing to give, whether spoken, on paper, virtually, or via some other more creative means (I don't know, carrier pigeon or something). Volunteers' Week is a great reminder to take that little bit of extra time to thank someone who has made a difference to you or your family: we have thousands of these someones across RDA. 

A big thank you of my very own to the volunteers I am lucky enough to encounter and work with in my own experiences of RDA. Happy Volunteers' Week and happier volunteering!