Well... how did I get here? My RDA story so far

RDA volunteers are a very interesting bunch. Our enthusiasm for our work comes from any number of different places, and RDA groups have a very special ability to bring people together who might never have met otherwise. To me, people are endlessly interesting, and I loved reading the stories that formed the RDA 50 Faces campaign for their golden anniversary year. Everyone involved in RDA has a story of their own, and I think there is a real spirit of inclusion which encompasses even the stories of able-bodied volunteers.

My own story started, unofficially, many years before I first came to the Abingdon Group. I spent a lot of time as a child with the son of some family friends, who I had known since he was a few hours old. Marcus has a severe form of cerebral palsy, and at the time had horse riding as part of his weekly schedule of intensive physio. I tagged along a few times (to get an extra pony fix more than anything else), watching how much he enjoyed being around the horses, and how riding helped his tight muscles relax little by little. Due to the extent of his disabilities, riding was very much a therapeutic activity for Marcus, but it was clearly the kind of therapy he enjoyed the most. I thought about those few experiences in the intervening ten years or so, but not specifically of "RDA" as I now know it.

In 2011, the riding school where I spent most of my teenage years closed down due to the owner's retirement. A friend from my riding lessons had taken me up to the Abingdon Group one day in the summer holidays, where she was helping in an evening class. As it happened, my instructor also got a job at the group as their yard manager, starting the week after the riding school closed, and I decided to follow her. RDA, I reminded myself, had been great for Marcus. It would be a meaningful, and inexpensive, way of being around horses in my free time.

This seemingly chance decision dropped me into a world which I am yet to want to leave. I was so won over by the well mannered horses and ponies, and the diverse group of riders who were handled so encouragingly and unpatronisingly by the volunteer coaches and helpers. I found that being able to focus on horses and helping our riders simultaneously made it impossible to think about any other sort of stress or worry which might have otherwise been occupying head space. I would come home on a Saturday afternoon full of stories about the achievements in which I had become immediately and unwaveringly invested. Whilst I threw myself into helping with yard work too (the riding school had me well trained), it was working with the riders which really made me realise that I had fallen into something which was perfect for me. Riding school clients were riding school clients. RDA participants and volunteers were part of a ready-made, horsey extended family.

For many teenage RDA volunteers, starting at university often means a move away from their "home" group. For me, my move to start studying at Oxford actually brought me closer to the stables (previously I had been travelling from my home town of Swindon). I told everyone that I might not be able to come during university terms because of my workload, but lasted approximately four weeks before I couldn't stand it any longer and appeared back on the yard again, seemingly out of thin air, to help with Saturday morning lessons. I kept up RDA throughout my studies, save a six month break to see myself through my finals in 2016, and spent huge chunks of my long university holidays helping out at the stables. The RDA bug had bitten me hard.

The part of my RDA story which leads me to coaching (I am "Coach India", after all) is pretty unremarkable. After visiting the National Championships for the first time in 2012 and realising that I was more than old enough, at 18, to give it a go, I decided I wanted to teach; asked our chairman; and got stuck in. I was 19 when I started my training, the youngest coach my group had seen in a very long time (although older than our current youngest coach, who I was lucky enough to help with her training). Teaching is something I really enjoy, but have never wanted to pursue in a professional context, and as such I think it would've been very difficult for me not to have been drawn to RDA coaching at some point. 

I started my training with a group of riders with Down's Syndrome, and now spend my Saturdays teaching a huge variety of riders with an array of different needs, ambitions, and conditions. At the moment, my youngest regular rider is 4, and my oldest 17. I like to help out other coaches when I can and usually find myself acting as a helper in their lessons, especially for the other Saturday coaches or my current coach in training. I get involved with organising and running school holiday "Own a Pony Days", which, aside from being a productive use of my time off in lieu from work, broaden my understanding of our group as an entity even further. I also jointly run my group's social media platforms. For me, RDA is very much a lifestyle choice, although nobody needs to be as all-in and crazy about it as I am to gain a lot from their experience.

It is very difficult to convey the sense of belonging and purpose that has kept me so dedicated to the world of RDA for the past 8 years, but I have yet to be part of anything else so rewarding. I have made friendships I hope will last a lifetime, watched generations of riders grow up, and helped (even if in a very small way) to improve others' lives through RDA. I've developed a whole new level of respect for horses, an animal I have loved for my entire life, as I've seen the freedom and confidence ours instill in our riders. I've learned (slowly) to be able to let go and let my riders do it for themselves, and how powerful it is for them to be the only person in their family, or their class at school, to have the skills that they learn in their riding lessons.

The lessons I have learned from teaching my riders have made me, in turn, a better person: more selfless, empathetic, better and clearer at communicating, kinder, firmer. I continue to try to be the coach and ally that every single one of them needs, even if that does mean being five people at once and preparing to be told when I get it wrong. I have watched other volunteers grow in confidence and revel in the enjoyment gained from some of the same experiences I have been lucky enough to have with RDA. I hope I am able to introduce many more to the community in years to come. There are plenty of things that I want to try in the future, but my long term plan for RDA is straightforward: keep learning, keep enjoying, and keep talking about why the experience is such a good one.

This year I have felt a particular momentum behind my enthusiasm for RDA, and intend to harness some of it into maintaining this blog. I work in the HE sector with no professional involvement in equestrianism (I don't live at the stables, as some of my riders seem to think!), and have always given my time to RDA voluntarily. It is incredibly empowering to be able to tell myself  that I do what I do because I want to; if I ever wanted to walk away, then I could. This assertion is always followed by an inward chuckle. Me, walk away from RDA? We all know that's never going to happen...

At Regionals in 2013, with one of my current riders