Striving for the best for RDA magic: an interview with Kyle Palmer, Elisabeth Curtis Centre coach & trustee

Kyle, left, pictured with one of his RDA classes (with permission of all included)

Kyle Palmer joined his RDA group (Bedfordshire’s only group, the Elisabeth Curtis Centre) in 2009 as part of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, having stopped riding after a big move from the North of England. He started training as a coach aged 17, and trained gradually as he juggled weekend work commitments. When work circumstances changed, he was able to qualify as a coach and get stuck into regular sessions. He is also a trustee of the group, chairs their coaching committee, and turns a hand to everything else (including DIY, IT, and a lot of other useful acronyms) he can. Kyle shares my enthusiasm for young coaches in RDA, the progress of the organisation, and the heady whirlwind of fun that is Nationals weekend. I really enjoyed sharing a panel with him as part of the Virtual Coaching Conference, and have since realised that he has a lot of great insights into the things which matter to the RDA community. As such, I decided he’d be a great person to chat to (even if he doesn’t necessarily agree) for my first interview of 2022.

As a young, male coach, you’re part of a really underrepresented group in the RDA community. Has this been challenging, and if so, how?

Overall, my experience in RDA has been pretty neutral. I don’t feel that I have been treated any differently for being a young male volunteer, but then I know I am quite strong willed and was less likely to be put off!

During our webinar I chose to explore how some male volunteers do feel that they are shoehorned into stereotypically male roles and tasks: fixing things, driving the tractor, that sort of stuff. I think there’s work out there to be done, because there’s no reason why men and boys in RDA wouldn’t want to get involved in lessons, or helping out with things like fundraising and communications; or that they wouldn’t find that rewarding even if they hadn’t considered it before. This is something we are now looking at in our centre now, and really making an effort to be open, transparent and encouraging about the roles we need help with.

How do you think RDA could make itself more welcoming to new male volunteers? Do you think there are reasons for it being a predominantly female organisation?

I do think male volunteers can bring value to RDA, and I know that participants notice how starkly men are underrepresented. I was asked by a rider only the other week: “do you have boys here?” The gender balance is likely to be much more equally spread for participants than it is for volunteers.

From the (somewhat limited) research I’ve done and the people I’ve had conversations with, male representation in equestrianism has a bit of a diamond shape. There are quite a lot of young male participants in things like Pony Club, and there are lots of notable male professional riders, but representation between those points is a bit sparse. Focusing on RDA and younger volunteers, I think a partnership with the Pony Club or local riding centres in general would be really productive. I also think that we need to look at the way we open up the experience of award scheme volunteers, like I started out, and see if we can recruit and retain more guys that way.

What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a younger coach with a full time job?

I think one of the worse things is the fact that I’m not realistically able to give more time to coaching, especially when it comes to what’s expected or required to progress formally with it. It isn’t an option for me not to work full time and it can be a challenge to make my RDA commitments work around that as it is – I know you feel the same way, especially as you also give up all your Saturdays for RDA! (I definitely do…)

The best thing about being a young coach is having the ability to connect with my younger volunteers and understand the pressures they face in things like school, and with mental wellbeing.

Do you have any goals, long or short term, for your coaching and/or the riders that you coach?

For me, as I work full time, I don’t have much more capacity to coach outside my group or take on any more coaching sessions, even if I’d like to. I would like to progress my knowledge for the benefit of what I already do, and to improve the experience for my existing participants. I really do want to know and learn more, but I wouldn’t be able to commit to other groups. I’d really like to see something like the Coaching Academy include people in the same situation as me.

You’ve got a full time, non-horsey job. Do you find that elements of your work help what you do with RDA or vice versa?

Majorly. I’m an IT project manager but have done various roles within the bank I work for: working on the front line; working to train colleagues and managing staff. The financial sector is a heavily regulated industry, and I think all of the training on and awareness of things like GDPR, controls, and data management have enabled me to solve problems and streamline processes for my RDA centre. If I look at it the other way round, I can see the ways RDA and coaching benefits my work life: different ways of working, giving support and helping participants achieve their goals is something I feel really comes through when I’m supporting my work colleagues.

I know you were as interested as I was to hear about the new RDA strategy that was launched last year. Which element do you think is the most important, and how do you think it should happen?

The growth is something that really excites me. We have, as I am sure everyone has, a large waiting list: the average wait time is a few years. The view and support that was suggested by RDAUK really interests me, as it would be great to have some clear guidance and FTE support to help us broaden our reach. For us at the Elisabeth Curtis Centre, while we are on a purpose-built site with our own horses, we only operate on a limited number of paid staff, none of whom handle admin, management, fundraising or general group support. It does make current views of expansion a bit scary, but I’m looking forward to hearing more.

The collaboration between other services also sounds like a very exciting move, I think it will be exciting to see how we can better utilise the existing capacity across member groups through the use of shared synergies.

What’s one thing you’d like to see more of and one thing you’d like to see less of in RDA in the next ten years?

More has to be done on collaboration, standardisation and a shift to more centralised support and funding opportunities. For me this means utilising other service providers: maybe using something like the BHS or Pony Club to help us with recruiting and training coaches. The standardisation of best practice and procedures would mean consistency on the legal and regulatory side of things: policies like fire and health & safety regulations, or data protection. This would need to come with support and training from RDA. I’d also potentially like to see the introduction of more standardised IT. Finally, I’d like to see more centralised support to make the RDA family as efficient as it can be: this could be from centralised fundraisers and bid writers, or even just basic admin support. Having a shared pool of people who are available for groups when they don’t have either the right resources, or ability to pay for their own would be so valuable and solve a lot of issues. I personally think this would help all areas of RDA, but in particular the smaller groups that perhaps rely solely on volunteer support.

What I’d like to see less of? I’d love to say I love the “it’s what you can do that counts” motto, but I think there’s a lot of “that’ll do”. For me, to meet our goals as a collective set of groups we need to strive for the very best, and collaborate between regions and counties to really harness the wider power of RDA.

If you could tell one story about your experiences with RDA which would win over potential new volunteers, what would it be?

I’ve got one which I think I such a perfect example of the magic of what we do. I had one participant who was non-verbal and had been riding with us for a few months when I started coaching his class. When I was doing my usual little parent debrief at the end of the session (usually me leaning on the gallery wall chatting to everyone, giving feedback and hints and tips while my amazing volunteers run around getting the next set of ponies ready), I asked how I could communicate with him better. She said he had started signing at school, and that’s what they were using at home. So I went home that evening and started learning to finger spell some BSL – there were loads of free resources online, especially compared to Makaton. When this participant came for his next riding lesson, I finger spelt my name for him as he was sat on the horse and his face just switched on and lit up as he finger spelt his name back to me. Honestly, my heart melted. After that, another parent helped me with Makaton for different signs around the arena, and the rider was able to develop the way he communicated with me and the other volunteers. He went on to say my name out loud in future lessons. Just magic.

You spoke in this week’s RDA webinar about the plans your centre has for the future. What are you most excited about, and how are you approaching your plans?

A big part of the plans we have for the Elisabeth Curtis Centre is looking at the things we aren’t currently qualified to offer. Like many RDA centres, the resources and volunteers we currently have are pretty stretched, and it would be great to diversify the things we are able to offer to participants and the skillsets of those offering the activities. The three ideas we’re focusing on are hippotherapy, carriage driving, and non-ridden sessions: these would be targeted at those with dementia, mental health issues, and those who are trauma-experienced – the latter would tap into the professional experience of one of our existing volunteer coaches. I think it’d be a first for RDA, so I’m really excited about that.

We’re also looking into how we can improve things like the admin for the day to day things at the centre, maybe digitising and streamlining more processes. We’re also keen to improve everyone’s experiences, whether that’s through better volunteer training provision, an annual survey for our participants, or a volunteer appreciation scheme which we’re just about to launch. It definitely feels ambitious at the moment, but I think that’s exactly what we need.


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