What I want my RDA riders to know about their coach

Taken at Regionals 2019 at the exact moment I told my rider Daisy how well she had ridden in her dressage test. Photo credit: Lottie-Elizabeth Photography

For my riders, the people who love and care about them, and for any fellow coaches who spend much of their time supporting, advocating for, and working out their RDA riders.

1. I care about you

We coaches come to RDA via any number of different routes, but in almost all cases it's the care we feel for our riders which keeps us so passionately involved with the organisation. If it's horses that motivate us, we can find horses almost anywhere; to find RDA riders, you need an RDA group. It is my responsibility as a coach to care about my riders and to keep them safe, but that is actually a pretty low bar.

I care about my riders' needs; their relationships with their helpers and the horses that they ride; their ambitions, and the decisions I ask them to make. I care about riding being a good fit for them; I've had riders in the past for a short while for whom this hasn't been the case, and it's been a better option for them to turn away from RDA in search of other activities and therapies. I care about getting it right for every rider who crosses my path, even if that takes a bit of patience and experimentation (just like it did for Woody and Natalie, in completely different ways) to make that happen. Even if you have some incredibly good luck, you can't get it right as a coach if you're half-hearted about it.

Of course, my biggest aim is for my riders to know this one without being told at all.

2. I think you are an interesting person

I don't think that there is anything on earth more interesting than human beings. When a new rider is introduced to one of my classes, I know that learning about them will be one of the most interesting parts of the next month. I don't mean "interesting" in terms of my riders' disabilities, even though some of them have benefited from ground breaking surgical procedures, or have conditions so rare that I am unlikely to meet anyone else with the same one in my lifetime. My riders are not scientific case studies. If they would like to tell me about their experiences of their condition, however, I am all ears. These are experiences which will go some way to defining their perspective on the world, and are also experiences which I do not have, even if I am two decades ahead of some of them.

If, however, a rider wants their riding lessons to be a time and place where they can focus on things other than their disability, I'm more than happy with that too. RDA (motto: "it's what you can do that counts") was founded on the idea of focusing on disabled people's capabilities; something which even fifty years after its inception is lacking from the attitudes of individuals and organisations outside the RDA world. I wrote last week about how spending extra time with riders at my group helps coaches and volunteers fit into our riders' worlds that little bit better. I find it's also worth getting to know my riders well just for the sake of knowing them well. I don't think you could design a metric to measure it scientifically, but I genuinely think that my riders are happier to work with me if they know I am interested in them as a person, not just as a rider.

Laura at Nationals in 2014

3. You don't need me as much as you might think

Don't get me wrong, it feels great when you know your riders enjoy being coached by you and feel confident in your sessions. I do not, however, want any of my riders to get stuck in a rut where they only feel able to do certain things or ride to their best when I am with them. I want riding to offer my riders a sense of independence that they don't get on the ground, and that shouldn't be contingent upon my presence or personality. Should I be unwell, working, or on holiday during their riding lesson one week, I want them to have a fulfilling experience with whoever is covering for me.

As my become older and/or more independent, I also want them to understand how to take a principal role in the decisions made about their riding. I want them to say "OK, I'll try it" when I tell them I'm going to step away and let them do something or work something out by themselves. It is completely OK to take pleasure from "clicking" with a rider and working out how to get the best from them; it's one of the best things about coaching. But it is also a good coach's responsibility to raise their riders not to need them for absolutely everything.

Laura, pictured above at Nationals five years ago, is a prime example of a rider who knows the worth of her independence. At eleven or twelve, when I wasn't her coach but would often work with her in lessons, we would walk around the arena waiting for the judge's bell to ring because she needed the moral support, the last minute pep talk, the final reminders. Now seventeen, she has it sussed. She runs her own warm up at home and away, gives me feedback about the horse she's riding, corrects herself as she goes. When I walk around the dressage arena with her now, it's out of choice for both of us ("Why not? It's like the old days!") rather than because she needs me there.

4. I have high standards, but no higher than your capabilities

Sport is about pushing personal limits. Once I've got to know my riders well enough to work out where these limits might be, I use them to inform my expectations. "Expectation" is quite a stern-sounding word, but can translate into "I would like you to try holding your reins for longer", or "I would like you to ride one more circuit of the school before you get off". With a completely new rider, my expectations start at zero. The more they show me, the more I am able to raise the bar. This makes me sound incredibly pushy, but my riders more often than not manage to get ahead of my expectations, making me think harder about how to keep them progressing. I'm always happy to be surprised like this. Knowing that their coach's expectations match their capabilities will keep one type of rider grounded and another boosted up to the sky. It's a flexible formula, and one that seems to be working for me so far.

5. I am your ally in and out of the saddle

You might not think that spending an hour a week with someone would be enough to have their back in pretty much any situation, but I feel a real sense of "us against the world" with my riders that I am not apologising for. An hour-long riding lesson can show me my riders on a remarkably large spectrum of emotions, given enough time. As the stables becomes a safe place for many of our riders, we start to hear more and more about struggles and triumphs in other parts of their lives. I want my riders (and, to be quite honest, any other coach's riders) to know that I am on their side.

That doesn't just mean being on board with their ambition to trot off the lead rein or praising a new rider for having the courage to mount up for the first time. It means celebrating achievements at school, in other sports or activities; lifting spirits after a tough week at school; understanding when a bit of extra moral support or a quieter riding lesson is needed.  It means me recognising my part in every rider's individual story and making it meaningful, even if it is only a very small part. It means investing in my riders as people and working out what they need to fulfill their potential and enjoy themselves in the sessions I run for them. Having an extra, genuine ally never made anyone's world a worse place, and I'm happy to take on that role for the long haul.

6. I am a very tough person, but...

... I get more emotional about my riders' achievements than most other things. I might not flinch if a pony decides to tread on my toes, or nip me on the arm, but I'm probably going to cry when you ride a beautiful dressage test at a competition. I might be playing it cool to keep the lesson as calm as possible, but I'm jumping up and down in my head when a rider manages a full lesson for the first time. (Just like Woody, from this post, did for the first time two weeks ago!) I play my riders' successes over in my head (or on my phone camera) long after I've left the yard for the day. I am not the reason that any of my riders started RDA, but I am grateful that we are all here to bring the best out of one another.

Lucy and Mr Brown after a lesson full of fun