Why every equestrian should be an RDA volunteer


Getting a high five from Thomas, one of my riders!

I’m best described as a non-horsey horse person: a total anomaly in my family whose interest was grown from the equine actors in my mum’s period dramas. Riding lessons as a child were an ongoing negotiation, and living in the middle of a large town there was no chance of a pony at the bottom of the garden like I read about in books. Despite this, I consider myself very fortunate for my miscellany of weird and wonderful experiences in the equestrian world, even if I’m still not sure when I’ll get to the point of buying my own first horse.

Horse people tend to find a way of being just that, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. A few twists of fate eleven years ago led me to a way of being horsey I am yet to shake off: I’m a volunteer RDA (Ridingfor the Disabled Association) coach. Having been committed to my local group in Oxfordshire for my entire adult life, I think it’s something every single equestrian could benefit from doing. Can I convince you?


Too many people still don’t understand what it’s actually about

We’re getting better at breaking down unhelpful stereotypes and assumptions in equestrianism – “cobs can” is pretty mainstream nowadays - but I’m still hearing “isn’t RDA just for kids?” or “I thought it was just pony rides” too much. There will be some groups only able to cater for children of a specific ability level, but as a whole the organisation has no upper age limit, and offers progressive and competitive opportunities which have taken some riders to Paralympic level. British Paralympians Natasha Baker, Sophie Christiansen, and Georgia Wilson, plus Ireland’s Michael Murphy, are all RDA alumni. Some RDA groups offer jumping, carriage driving, or vaulting, and some are pursuing unmounted activities to extend the experience of their participants, and/or to include those who otherwise would not be able to ride. A large RDA centre will be busy, diverse, ambitious, and centred on the fit, well-schooled, mannerly horses who are essential to everything they so much as think about doing.

The fact that not every group will be quite so bustling doesn’t mean that getting to know one won’t be an eye-opening experience. What started half a century ago as a way of building physical strength for hospitalised children has evolved into a whole-person movement that wants to beunderstood. Every time a new volunteer tells their friend about what surprised them about their new RDA group, that understanding grows.


It’s making our sport more accessible

Volunteering is an act of generosity which empowers both the giver and receiver. In a sport which is known for being expensive and exclusive, an organisation which is committed to accessibility – in all senses – is something to be nurtured. My RDA group is in a horsey part of the south of England, yet the participants and families we work with who are “traditionally” equestrian are in an overwhelming minority. It isn’t just about the physical equipment or logistics required for a disabled person to become a disabled rider that an RDA group can provide: it’s bringing more people into the sport.

Even for the volunteers involved in supporting RDA sessions, doing so is one of the few ways someone can start learning about horses from the beginning without spending money. Save living in a place where there might be a friendly neighbour with horses, where else does that happen? I’ve never had the time or inclination to pursue coaching in a non-RDA setting, but I’ve been able to gain my coaching qualifications and learn from inspiring experts, for free.

Awareness of all the factors which might prevent someone from enjoying riding and horses is second nature for a community who are used to accommodating disabled riders from different backgrounds. If even 10% of everyone involved in equestrian sports – that’s almost 26,000 people in England alone (based on statistics from 2021) – got involved, there would be a seismic positive effect on the rest of the industry.


Natalie riding Maple without stirrups in a lesson

It makes us challenge our unconscious ableism

It’s uncomfortable to accept as a non-disabled person, but a lot of the assumptions people make about RDA and para equestrianism are rooted in unconscious ableism. Society tells us, subliminally or otherwise, that disabled people look and act a certain way, and what they are and aren’t capable of. I think this is why so many people are surprised to find that the Paralympics and Olympics are equally competitive, or why more than one new volunteer has watched one of my classes and been surprised that a child is more able to ride independently than walk. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve realised in one of my RDA sessions that there isn’t as much of a difference between a disabled pony-mad child and a non-disabled pony-mad child as they first thought.

I coach riders who are more naturally talented in the saddle than I will ever be, and given that I’m not at the top of any world rankings, why wouldn’t I? When my riders are comfortable with me, our volunteers and horses, I get every conceivable emotion out of them – it’s not a case of enjoying “their lovely happy smiles” and patting myself on the back every week. I am faced on a weekly basis by the challenges: coaching a totally blind rider who while wise beyond her years, can’t see the reins she’s holding or the white boards she's trying to stay inside, and has no idea what a horse even looks like. Communicating with an autistic, non-verbal rider, who gains so much from their sessions but can’t explain why they’re feeling anxious that week. Working out how best to explain the process of using the legs to direct a horse to someone who has had to work ten times as hard as I have to strengthen their legs and then sync them with their brain. As an RDA coach, I very rarely have the solution to these challenges immediately, but I know how to say “I think we can try…”, and I definitely know how to stand back and let a disabled rider school me on the help they actually want.


It’s fulfilling in a different way to everything else

I didn’t become an RDA coach because I had too much spare time. I work full time in a job totally unconnected to horses. Given that I started RDA when I was 18, my coach training took place while I was studying at a university known for its intense academic workload. For a time, I was actually voluntarily coaching a second sport on top of my RDA commitments. I have other hobbies (allegedly) and a long-term partner who is very allergic to horses (disappointingly). I keep finding the time for RDA because it offers a sense of fulfilment I don’t get from anything else I do.

I’m not typically child-orientated and have no wish to start my own family, but I would walk through fire for the young riders I coach, and in many cases, their families too. For that hour a week they spend with me in the arena (and sometimes beyond), their dreams are my dreams and their progress and enjoyment are my most closely guarded priorities. I spent almost every weekend of my teenage years helping out at riding schools, but felt a different kind of buzz almost immediately when I joined an RDA session and got a sense of exactly how meaningful what I was doing was. Riding can be a self-centred sport – most disciplines don’t have a compulsory team element, and if you’re not really into people you can literally just interact with your horse. There’s no reason why that can’t be combined with the perspective and fulfilment that sharing your enthusiasm for the sport as a volunteer can offer. RDAUK published a study in 2019 which found that 96% of their volunteers said their experiences had ‘improved their satisfaction with life’. There is a huge diversity of jobs needing doing in RDA, just like there is diversity in the people it helps. Even a group lesson of five riders will need different personalities and skills in their supporting volunteers to get the best out of them, and for every person in the arena there will be another person who would rather muck out, or fix fences, or even complete admin tasks. You don’t have to fit into any stereotype you have in mind of what a volunteer looks like to fit in and be useful. 

One of my group lessons enjoying the sunshine

You’ll never stop learning

No equestrian ever stops learning, full stop, but the length and gradient of my learning curve with RDA has been bigger than anything else I have ever experienced. Out of the box thinking is a tired cliché when every ride, and every rider, is so different that very little is actually in the box. Having to think positively and laterally – the focus is on what an individual can do, rather than the limitations of their disability – can be an insightful experience which is transferable to your own riding, training, and handling of horses. If a rider with limited mobility in their legs is taught to get the same out of a horse as someone with a full range of motion, that offers insight into the use of the seat which the non-disabled rider would not have gained otherwise. Understanding the people who benefit from RDA and why it’s important to them is also an important learning curve. It’s fine if we don’t share the life experiences of everyone we meet, but RDA volunteers are in a powerful position to help make a difference to those who aren’t necessarily understood or adequately supported by the status quo. One of the biggest things I’ve learntfrom being a volunteer coach is how to be a better human being.


Volunteer-powered organisations need volunteers

RDA is a large movement in the UK, with just under 500 active groups. In other parts of the world it’s operating on a smaller scale. We can all dream about a future where every disabled person, however defined, is able to benefit from access to horses and equestrian sport. The reality is, your nearest RDA group could probably expand its existing services - or get closer to it - if they had some extra committed volunteers on their books. The vast majority of RDA groups are volunteer-powered – my group employs one full and one part-time member of staff, but has almost two hundred volunteers of varying ages, skills, and commitment levels. Every group has an origin story, and it’s usually a tale of a volunteer or two with a generous dream. There’s thinking an organisation does a good job and wishing it well, and being part of its future. Both are nice, but I know which one we need the most.

Find out more about RDA in the UK: https://www.rda.org.uk/ Ireland: https://rdaireland.org/ New Zealand: https://rda.org.nz/ and Australia: https://www.rda.org.au/. There may be therapeutic and disability riding offered by other organisations near you.

A version of this blog post is soon to be published by Equitas Eire.