Five things my RDA riders are not

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

1. My riders are not here to be cooed over

I'm not going to pretend that my riders aren't cute (mostly). Their photogenic natures are very handy when choosing posts for the Abingdon RDA Instagram page, and you'd need a heart of stone not to be affected by the huge grins you get at the end of a successful riding lesson. But focusing too much on "cute" means that it becomes very easy to miss the bigger picture, and cloud your overview of what a rider needs to do to progress. Therapeutic to competitive, "cute" is necessary at no stage in the journey.

Do I still get a bit misty eyed when I see a small rider in their competition gear for the first time? Obviously. Do I think that RDA volunteers need to keep the "aww"s to themselves when they come to help in our sessions? Absolutely, although some of my riders will probably police this themselves. I once made the mistake of referring to a then five year old as "small" and was politely but firmly put in my place: "I am nearly six, and I have grown this month." That's me told.

2. My riders are not weak

Yes, some RDA riders could be described as "weak". As a coach, you see the wobbly legs after a session, or the effort it takes to swing a leg over the horse's back to mount. Some participants might refer to their own disability as involving "weakness", and as an able bodied coach I am in no position to dictate how they communicate their own needs. I refuse, however, to support the stereotype often assumed by those outside of RDA that my riders are pale, frail, and mild mannered, like something out of a Dickens novel.

I have an eight year old rider who tells me breezily about her two hour intensive physiotherapy sessions in the school holidays as she tries to get me to remember the names of all of her model ponies. Both feats are daunting to me, an able bodied adult. Regardless of physical conditions and needs, RDA riders will often need a higher than average dose of resilience (no choice involved) to weather seemingly ordinary experiences, like going to school or sitting exams. More often than not, our riders do not have easy lives, and having difficulty with (for example) walking, or sitting in a classroom might just be the very tip of the iceberg. Being at the stables, around people and horses who understand their needs, should at its best be an oasis of acceptance for our riders. Sometimes it's the place where it's OK to show a little bit of "weakness" where the greatest strength is unlocked.

3. My riders are not above discipline

RDA might have grown from therapeutic roots, but that doesn't mean that my riders are here to plod around with limited direction or structure. I'm not saying that I manage the arena like a military boot camp, but I've yet to find a rider who isn't able to understand (in their own way) that horses are living creatures and should be respected, and that my first job as a coach is to keep them and their horse or pony safe during their sessions.

Discipline at its most basic level is synonymous with safety: standing quietly at the mounting block or gallery as the horse moves into position; moving slowly and calmly away from the horse after dismounting. As riders become more accomplished, expectations of "discipline" branch out into checking their own position, remembering multiple instructions, or being aware of their position in an arena. For many of our riders, this will develop further; perhaps into understanding and competing a dressage test, or a show jumping course.

It doesn't matter if some of these stages aren't reached, as they will not be by all. I try to model the discipline I'm looking for in my RDA sessions as much as I can, aided by helpers who are worth their weight in gold and patiently repeat and relay my verbal and physical instructions. Discipline is part of the deal, although never to the point where a rider has cause to resent it.

4. My riders are not all on the same path

As I have already noted, not all of my riders will tick off the same achievements in their journey with RDA. And that's fine. Inside and out of the RDA community, we love a success story: "overnight" successes; children learning to walk with the aid of a plucky, hairy pony; the rise of a future Paralympian. Ultimately, every rider's experience, just like their natural riding ability, will be different.

Listening to legendary Para & RDA coach Clive Milkins earlier this summer made me realise that coaching is not about trying to be a different coach for each rider, as I have definitely tried to be in the past. The basis of what you teach is a formula; it's the goals and the creative approaches to overcoming barriers which are variables. I might have written earlier this month about my superlative enthusiasm for the RDA National Championships, but I coach such a broad spectrum of riders that I would be doing all of them a disservice if I made it my goal for all of them to compete, let alone win, at the championships. At its most basic level, if they are safe, if they are having fun, and if they are making progress at a rate which is accessible for them, then I am happy.

5. My riders are not "teachable moments"

I read a fantastic blog on The Mighty earlier this year about how it's nice when those with disabilities are able to teach those without about being accepting, or patient, or open minded... but it's nicer when disabled people and their loved ones can shake off the onus of being a real life "teachable moment" and just get on with living their lives. Feeling inspired and feeling good about yourself is a pleasant side effect of being involved with RDA, but it's not the reason our participants come to their sessions every week.

It's OK to be curious about the needs and conditions of the RDA participants you meet, as a volunteer or even as a fellow participant. It's not OK to expect them to educate you on the ins and outs of their disabilities, unless they've ventured this info voluntarily. It's definitely not OK to tokenise RDA participants as heart-warming success stories, "triumphs of the human spirit", when doing so isn't for the benefit of the participants themselves. When I celebrate one of my riders for their achievements and progress in or out of the saddle, I make sure that they know I am celebrating with and for them.

The best way of feeling good about RDA is getting stuck in with an open mind and flexible attitude, and getting to know the people who come along to ride (and often the people who accompany them, too). Focusing on the individual, rather than their condition; or what they can teach you; or how "inspired" you feel by the whole concept of RDA, means that you will end up learning the most from the experience. Most likely, more than you could've otherwise imagined.

Understanding my riders is one of my biggest tasks as a coach, but it is also one of the most enjoyable parts of the job; even if I don't always get it right first time. And for every stereotype they prove wrong, every thing I realise they are not, I find ten more things that they absolutely are.

Much more than "cute"