Experiences of a Volunteer

I’m a relatively new member of the RDA Glasgow family. I had my first stage induction on Sunday 25th September 2016 and my first voluntary session the following Wednesday morning. I love horses and ponies. I always have but for varying reasons I had no real experience with them. I’ve had a grand total of one riding lesson in my life so far and a couple of hacks on a family holiday; the type of hack where the horse knows much more than you about where to go and what to do. I barely knew how to hold the reins let alone anything else at that time. So I came to RDA Glasgow with no real knowledge or experience but a strong desire to learn.

Luckily for me volunteers do not need prior knowledge or experience of working with horses or ponies. All you really need is to be able to listen to instructions and that I can do. Mucking out and sweeping a stable yard may not be everyone’s idea of fun but in spite of it being pretty hard physical work I came home from those earlier sessions working in the yard with a real buzz. At last I was spending time with real horses and ponies!

One morning in the New Year I was asked to help out in a class and that was my first experience of side walking. From that morning I started to help out as a side walker in lessons during the two mornings a week I come to Sandyflat. A few weeks later and I now sometimes lead during lessons. When I began, I wasn’t sure if I’d like helping out in the lessons and it can be more challenging than mucking out and sweeping. There’s nothing quite like it though and I’m really pleased to be in lessons although I still quite like a bit of yard work as a change of pace.

On one morning I was there when a new group came for their lesson. This group had two children that had never been to Sandyflat before. I’m not sure how old they are but I’d guess 5 or 6 and both are autistic. One of them was beginning to get distressed. It’s not easy for an autistic child to go somewhere completely new, smell new things, see new people, and see ponies and, for this wee soul worst of all, to have to wear a riding hat! I’m going to refer to this child as T for the rest of this little story.

T began to have a meltdown. We tried to get T on a pony but it wasn’t working out. T was not going to be able to cope with riding that day. One less rider and lots of volunteers that morning meant I wasn’t needed to remain with the riding class and I chose to stay with T and T’s teacher for that hour. As T calmed down we began to play with a riding hat. I encouraged T to touch it, smell it, knock on it and gradually T became more comfortable and relaxed. By the end of that hour T accepted that riding hat on for five seconds. That may not sound much but it was a major step forward. T’s teacher accepted an offer from the instructor of a hat to take with her so she could continue to work with T during the following week.

I should explain here that I have two autistic kids of my own as well as autistic friends. I’m used to autistic meltdowns and I understand how difficult it can be to cope with new places, sensations and smells.

During the following week I wondered how T was doing and I hoped I’d see T again at the next lesson for that group. From the time T next arrived it was clear things were going to be much better. T was now willing to wear a riding hat and this time was much calmer being helped onto a pony. Clearly the school had been able to do some great work with T that week. I side walked for T during that lesson. Initially T was very clear that I had to keep in contact, if I let go T reached out for my hand. T is virtually non-verbal so you have to keep an eye on body language and little changes of expression. By the end of the lesson T pushed my hand away. It was clear from the way T hummed and the smile that this had become a good experience. T even grinned when taken on a short trot down one side of the arena. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about the transformation T has had and that I was able to play a small part in that.

Not all my experiences are quite as heart-warming as the one with T. There’s C who recently said I looked like Santa and when I asked where my beard was it became clear that C has very keen observational skills and had spotted hair growing on my chin! There’s J who is uncertain and worried about what others will think. There’s the day Ollie decided that he was going to carry on moving towards a grass bank for a snack. No harm done at all and the rider remained calm but it was a bit unsettling for me as it happened when I was still new to leading, during a lesson.

When I leave Sandyflat after one of my mornings there I am always thanked. It is a wonderful feeling knowing I am part of something like this and that I am useful but I want to say thank you too. Thank you to all those who play a part in keeping Sandyflat open and working because without all of you I wouldn’t have had the wonderful experiences I have had so far volunteering at Sandyflat. I’m looking forward to gaining many more of those experiences and memories!


By Pauline Pitchford