10 Ways to Utilize Volunteers

Second to horses(because you can’t do adaptive riding or horsemanship without 
horses!), I would venture to say that volunteers are the backbone of any quality, sustainable EAAT program.

This blog post was inspired by Volunteer Week and is the written accompaniment to a live video from the Hoof Falls & Footfalls Facebook page. If you don’t have time to watch the video or are someplace where you can’t turn up the volume then this post is for you!

Below are some examples of different ways you can utilize volunteers. These are volunteer jobs that I have heard about through others in the industry or have personal experience with.

Sidewalker & Coach

One of the most common volunteer positions at a center that provides Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies is that of a sidewalker. The sidewalker is a key part of the volunteer team that verbally and/or physically support a rider. Some riders may need two sidewalkers (one on each side), one sidewalker, or none depending on where they are at skill wise. 

So what does a sidewalker do? they can be used to verbally reinforce the steps to a 

“Full Team” setup

pattern, give physical prompts or hand-over-hand assistance….basically they are the instructor’s extra hands and eyes for each rider. They may do a type of supportive hold on a rider such as a thigh hold or heel hold. If a rider has two sidewalkers with them then often times one is the silent sidwalker and one is the verbal sidwalker (to help avoid too much talking)

Some centers (like the one I work for) distinguish between the verbal and nonverbal sidewalkers by calling the verbal one a “coach” and the silent one the “sidewalker”. Traditionally the coach is on the left side of the rider behind the Horse Leader and the sidewalker is on the right. However, a coach could walk on either side of the horse depending on the needs of the rider. A coach could walk on the side opposite from where the rider leans (if that is something you are working on) as it is usually an unconscious response of the rider to lean towards the verbal member of their support team. If a specific side for a coach does not matter for a rider, I like to have the coach on the inside of whatever direction we are tracking. This enables them to hear me better and we can communicate non verbally if needed.

Horse Leader

I’ve heard a Horse Leader also called a ‘handler’ or ‘leader’ as well depending on the center’s preference. It seems that a strong Horse Leader is becoming harder and harder to find with groundwork skills becoming more of a lost art in the mainstream equine world. Would you agree? Some great Horse Leads I have worked with have come in with little to no horse experience and learned through observation and applying themselves to training offered. But a ‘home grown’ Horse Leader takes time to cultivate.

A Horse Leader is the volunteer responsible for leading the horse for the rider during a class. Depending on the need of the rider, the Horse Leader may or may not be holding on to the lead rope and may vary their distance from being within arms reach of the horse or lead rope to being more of  ‘spotter’ in the center or corner of the arena. Horse Leaders may also be responsible for getting horses ready for class.

Horse Prep or Equine Pit Crew

Horse Prep volunteers are those who are responsible for getting horses ready for class and who can groom, lead, tack, etc but may not have the skill set or physical capacity to lead a horse in class for a rider. Horse prep is a great way to have a volunteer work up from a sidewalker or barn buddy (see below) to a more horse involved role.

I love having extra Horse Handlers (that is what we call those that can prep and move around horses) during my class times because they help take horses in/out of their stalls, tack up horses for the next class, groom down horses, etc. They are the oil that helps everything move quick and smooth between classes.

Arena Crew

This is often where I start new volunteers who have gone through coach/sidewalker training but are still new to the program and are just getting their feet wet. Arena crew volunteers can help open and close gates, run sprinklers, turn on/off arena lights, set up the arena prior to class, set out games for a certain class, tear down the arena….and so much more! 

Tip: If you have them setting up your arena for your prior to class, explain how to read an arena setup and then apply it to physical obstacles in the arena. Sometimes us horse people (yours truly included) forget that reading an arena layout/map is a very foreign concept to some people.

Living Cones

This volunteer job was one I learned about through other Instructors in industry and it has totally changed how I use my volunteers! Living cone volunteers can be used in several different ways. Living cones are a great way to still incorporate your volunteers in classes but not have them ‘holding back’ your riders. I know I have left volunteers with a rider longer than necessary because I felt bad taking away another job from a volunteer as the rider progressed (even though that is a good thing!).

Volunteers can take the place of cones in your arena, be markers in the corners for your riders to go around so they don’t cut their corners, they could be a station of a game in the arena, or even a place for riders to check in and get a horsey quiz question.

You can also incorporate the volunteers into your lesson plan and give them specific things to do like: 1) place a volunteer in the corner and they are the specific positive praise corner (ex: they say nice job looking around the corner to the next barrel Johnny) or 2) place  volunteer at a the start or end of a section where you may have a rider whoa or do a 2 point and the volunteer is responsible for giving reminders like keeping eyes forward, strong back, etc.

Tip: School your horses with living cones! They may try to stop or drift over to your volunteers if they don’t know the drill. I would highly suggest that a majority of the time you do not have your riders stop by a living cone because that will create a behavior pattern in your horses that is hard to break. Also be sure to school your volunteers and set them up for success by giving them exact details of what they need to do or what they need to watch for.

Barn Buddy

Barn Buddies are volunteers who help out around the barn. Often they are near the horses doing things like cleaning stalls, making supplement bowls, sweeping, etc. but they do not directly interact with the horses doing things like grooming, taking on/off fly masks, or other things along those lines unless they have gone through additional training (like horse prep training). 

I have experienced volunteers coming with only being a Barn Buddy in mind and not wanting to try volunteering in classes. If this is the case and the volunteer is physically able to fulfill the sidewalker job duties, I will encourage them to also try being a sidewalker for just one session (5-6 weeks) so that they can experience the program and understand why the horses are in the barn (they are not there just for the volunteers to play with). Often times all it takes is that little nudge and encouragement to try out sidewalking or being part of the arena crew to break through someones uncertainty of working with someone who has a disability. If, after a session it is just not a good fit as a sidewalker, then they can go back to just being a Barn Buddy…but hopefully with a better understanding of what the center does and more of a ‘why’ behind some of the policies we have regarding horse interactions. 

Mounting & Dismounting Assistant

What part of your lesson eats up the most time? I know for me, when teaching group lessons, mounting can take up a huge chunk of time. Did you know that according to PATH Intl. standards, that someone other than the instructor can mount and dismount a rider if they are trained and on a written list. Be sure to thoroughly train the volunteer (just like you would another instructor or instructor in training). I suggest starting them off with easier mounts before moving them on to more complex students.

This image shows that the rider's stirups would be on the 13th hole on the left and the 13th hole on the right.
This image shows that the rider’s stirups would be on the 13th hole on the left and the 13th hole on the right.

Setting & Adjusting Stirrups

Teach a ‘non-horsey’ volunteer how to set stirrups! This is a great way to empower any volunteer to do something that is more ‘horse’ related (because they get to stand right next to the horse). During your first class, record the stirrup numbers of each student on their notes folder or whatever information document you have for them. My daily schedule has the horse (H), rider (R) name with something like “(12/14)” listed next to their name which would mean that the left stirrup is set at 12 from the bottom and the right is 14 from the bottom. Teach the volunteers how to run down the stirrup leather, count from the bottom up (unless otherwise indicated) and then run the leather back up until it clicks home. 

Crafty Crew

If you have volunteers that are very gifted in craftiness then put them to work at special events, decorating your message board with upcoming events, etc. My dream is to find a volunteer who wants to be the official birthday card volunteer and send out cute cards ‘from’ the horses to the riders and volunteers for their birthday…..i’m still wishing!

Admin Volunteers

Admin volunteers are great! They can be used to make time consuming calls to confirm ride times for shows, calling other volunteers to see if they can help with a special event, etc. Admin volunteers can help with filing, organization, etc. depending on their experience and skill set.

Do you have a different volunteer job that is not mentioned above? If so, send me an email at saebra.p@hooffallsandfootfalls.com. I would love to hear how you use your volunteers!

Whatever ‘jobs’ you decide to offer your volunteers, be sure to have a thorough and clear written job description as this will set you, your center, and any potential volunteers up for success and clear expectations from the start. Develop trainings specific to each volunteer job and keep them short and sweet….often times the volunteer duties are second nature to us as instructors or staff at an EAAT center but are completely foreign to a new volunteer.

Do YOU have a unique way to utilize volunteers that is not mentioned above? Shoot me an email! I would love to hear from you!


 Written by Saebra Pipoly. Learn more about the author by clicking here.

Send Saebra an email at saebra.p@hooffallsandfootfalls.comsubscribe to the Hoof Falls & Footfalls newsletter, follow on instagram, and subscribe to the YouTube channel!

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