RDA at 18 vs. RDA at 30: twelve lessons for twelve years

Last week, I celebrated my thirtieth birthday (yikes). It's also the time of year for marking my anniversary of starting out with my RDA group (does this make my RDA career also a Libra?). I was just eighteen when I first started as a volunteer, so the arrival of another milestone has made me very contemplative about my twelve years with the organisation. So - here are twelve of the best lessons I've learnt in the last twelve years.

Coaching - with company. Photo by Lucy, one of my young volunteers!

1. RDA is at least as much about people as it is about horses

Just that, really. RDA can't exist without each part working in tandem, and it's no good being outstanding at one half if you aren't interested in the other. RDA is such a force for good because it exists in this intersection between horses and people, which few other organisations have the chance to occupy. It's actually the reason I've been so compelled to stick with RDA for my entire adult life.

2. Retaining and motivating participants is the easy part

What nobody ever told me when I decided to start my coach training was that building relationships with the people I was coaching wouldn't be that hard. What would be tricky would be juggling horses; making sure you have enough volunteer cover for that tricky timeslot each week; keeping hold of the right volunteers; and reacting to issues on the hoof. Like it or not, it's all part of the job.

3. Experience is great, but it doesn't guarantee anything by default

I definitely feel like a better coach now than when I was a teenager, but that's because I've been actively learning all the way through. The experience I have also doesn't guarantee that I'm better than anyone with less: it only, just about, guarantees that I'm better than my past self. Greener coaches have rocked my world over the years with their different, fresher, or smarter ideas and insights, and there's always going to be somebody older, wiser, and more skilled than you are.

4. You can't insist on holding other volunteers to your own standards

Some standards are fine to insist on: don't kindle naked flames on the stable yard, don't wear flip flops to side walk, don't walk behind a horse or feed it sausage rolls, etc. Where we can go wrong is by expecting others to conform to the same levels of commitment or skill as you. RDA is one of the few genuinely mixed bags in the equestrian world, and one of the only ways left to get experience with horses without paying a hefty price. RDA volunteers are also fitting their time with their group into lives as diverse as they are. Not everyone is going to be able to give the same time and energy as you, or bring the same skills to the table. Even if it'd make your life easier if everyone did the same as you do, it's not fair to make that an expectation.

At my first trip to RDA Regionals with Laura

5. You make a difference in the things you can control, not the things you can't

I spend way too much time pulling my hair out over the things I can't control - that's not an RDA thing, just a me thing, and I'll need at least another 12 years to fix it. In RDA, or horses in general, there will always be things you can't control, or things you aren't responsible for. You still have opportunities to make a huge impact in the things you can control, even when you're dodging curveballs. I value the friends I've made who are able to give me a shake when I'm complaining that XYZ didn't line up the way I planned and say "but you still made something good happen".

6. Everyone deserves to have their fun

RDA really should be fun, for everyone involved. So long as nobody is enjoying themselves unsafely or at the expense of others, fun should be a constant aim. I am so often told "you must enjoy it a lot, if you give at least half of all your weekends to it". Really, the emphasis should be "you must enjoy it": participants, coaches, volunteers, families. If someone isn't enjoying themselves, what needs working on? 

7. Different doesn't need to mean unfair or unequal

RDA is the definition of one-size-fits-none. We are all about working to the needs of an individual. This means that there will be natural differences in how every RDA participant experiences their relationship with the organisation. There will be some opportunities better suited to some than others, and some opportunities which are only applicable to or earnt by a certain type of participant. This is far from a bad thing: we can do different things for different people in a way that is fair, and that offers parity in fulfilment and satisfaction.

8. One person's "whatever" is another person's biggest deal

I have lost count of the number of times in the last twelve years when I have been told how much X means to someone, and it's not always obvious. It's easy to overlook the ambition of a quiet rider, or not to see the impact a successful RDA session has on a week of school or family life. Just because we don't always see something as a big deal, doesn't mean that it isn't absolutely huge for the people we're trying to help. I know I'll always choose "make someone's week/month/year" over "do an OK job or whatever". I've got some exciting plans in the works for some of my riders which might not sound like much to everyone. I'm buzzing to see what they mean to them.

In the arena with a blind rider on an early visit to Nationals

9. Let them do it themselves

I still think I could do this more, but there is so much value - and empowerment - in letting our RDA participants do it for themselves. Unclip the lead rein. Think beyond the basics. Let them have a go.

10. Kindness is the least expensive thing in RDA

In a sector where everything is so expensive, even in an increasingly pricey world, it's refreshing to have something so important to the core purpose of RDA which costs nothing. We hear "be kind" so much that it's easy to zone out what it actually means, but in RDA it is kindness that so often makes the experience for participants and volunteers. The parent of a fairly new rider to me was absolutely made up that I'd remembered her child's birthday last month - something that seemed so straightforward to me was important kindness for her.

11. Communication is your most important tool...

...and listening is one of the greatest skills you need in RDA: to our riders and their families, to fellow volunteers, to feedback, and to our horses. 90% of the trickier situations I've encountered in RDA could have been avoided with better communication, and 100% of the amazing ones that have come my way have involved great talking and greater listening.

12. There is such thing as too much of a good thing

It is possible to give too much of yourself to a hobby, especially if it's volunteering for a good cause. Getting the balance is important, and your group needs to meet you half way (at least) in finding it. You're only going to have a productive and long RDA career if you don't burn out. Nobody can give infinitely and it's fine to say no from time to time - even if you're doing something good.

Here's to the next decade - and the next twelve years of my life in RDA. I hope I can be the kind of person the organisation needs in the intervening years... and I wonder if I'll still agree with all these things by then...