Six assumptions about RDA that frustrate me (because they're wrong)

Please, tell me more about how uncompetitive disabled equestrians are... Photo Credit: Michael Martin Photography

One of the reasons I wanted to start blogging was to help educate those from outside the RDA community about what the organisation really does. This week I am (light-heartedly) debunking some of my (least) favourite RDA assumptions.

1. RDA does pony rides for little disabled children, how sweet!

If I were running my sessions as pony rides, I don't think I'd have the guts to call this thing "Coach India's Blog". RDA sessions seek to use riding (or other equestrian activities) for physiotherapeutic purposes, as well as to promote and develop mental well-being, confidence, social skills, and a list as long as a pony's tail of other things. Nothing so passive as a "pony ride".

Whilst we're at it, please don't reduce my riders to "sweet little disabled children". There's far more to them than that, not least the fact that some of the kids I teach are outstandingly fierce in and out of the saddle. "Cute" is the number one thing I want you to know my riders are not. See also "it's so rewarding because of their happy little faces"... Please don't let the fact that my riders can be very smiley and appealing prevent you from recognising the often astounding mental and physical progress they make in their riding lessons. RDA sessions can be genuinely frustrating hard graft, real blood, sweat and tears situations (and that's just from me). If an RDA rider is "just" riding around an arena for a few minutes at a time, it's probably because it is taking every ounce of strength and willpower to keep themselves sat up and balanced. Riding isn't for the fainthearted in the world of able-bodied sport; don't think it's going to be different when the riders are disabled.

2. RDA is non competitive

RDA can be non competitive, but that doesn't mean it is always non-competitive. The option is very much there for participants to take their discipline(s) seriously if they so choose, and there is even a well-established pathway from RDA competitions into para dressage for those who compete at a national level and want to push their training to the next level. RDA Nationals is a larger event than the Paralympics; one of the biggest events for disabled equestrians in the world. A lot of other sports, including some represented at Paralympic level, haven't quite grasped the idea of disabled people being genuinely competitive across all levels.

Aided by an all-star cast of understanding equines, RDA riders are able to seize the independence that riding gives them and do battle on a huge, even playing field. I defy anyone to spend five minutes at the championships (they are being held 10th-12th July 2020 at Hartpury College, Gloucestershire) and tell me again that RDA can't be competitive.

3. RDA is a great retirement job for geriatric equines; they only need to plod around and be fussed

RDA can be a good way for a slightly older horse to step back from a more active life on the competition or Pony Club circuit, whilst keeping active. My group has owned many horses in this category who have been fantastic RDA mounts. This doesn't mean, however, that a doddery, unsound, generally fragile 30-year-old will be suitable for us, even if "he is very sweet and loves children". Observing comments on various social media platforms about what non-RDA folk perceive RDA to be really does hammer it home for me that the equestrian world needs more education on what RDA does and the sort of horses it needs to do that well.

It's lovely to be able to give an older equine a new purpose when they are past their prime, especially if they are sweet natured and will enjoy the love and fuss they would receive on our yard. If said equine isn't going to be able to carry out the sort of work we need to make our sessions worthwhile, however, we aren't going to be able give them a home (I think some people seem to think that we will without question, as if being a charity ourselves makes us naturally inclined to find a sad story irresistible). A good RDA horse needs to be at a bare minimum sound, responsive, and sensible. If they are going to be used for our competitive riders (see point 2), decent schooling and competition experience, or at least the attitude to pick things up quickly, is an additional necessity. An increasing number of RDA riders need horses who are able to canter, perform lateral movements, and even jump. Sadly, the number of people who don't seem to believe me when I tell them this is not decreasing quite as fast.

I suspect many would be surprised by how fussy we need to be about our horses. Knowing the full extent of what we need our equine team members to be and do, I think we owe it to them and to their riders to be as choosy as we can.

A purple unicorn: what we may as well be looking for when we go about sourcing a new RDA horse

4. RDA coaches are all riding instructors for their day jobs

This one just isn't true, although there will be plenty of RDA coaches out there who also teach in the mainstream. RDA coaches all hold RDA-specific qualifications, but there is no requirement to have additional qualifications on top of this (e.g. BHS Stages) to coach for an RDA group. This is completely reasonable, given how many RDA coaches give their time to the organisation for free. I have a full time career completely separate from the equestrian world, and was always very certain that horses would be a "free time" kind of pursuit for me. Although I was able to pick up a good level of horse knowledge working at a riding school (and at a trekking centre in Scotland in the summer holidays) during my teens, the equine exams some of my peers opted to take would not have been a worthwhile investment for me. There are RDA coaches out there who started out with next to no experience with horses at all, and built up their skills and knowledge through the organisation.

I think it's fantastic that RDA coaching brings together a very unlikely mix of people, professional dressage coaches rubbing shoulders with nurses and teachers (butchers, bakers, candlestick makers etc) at training days. It takes a fair effort to qualify as an RDA coach, but not prohibitively so for the overwhelming majority of those who are generous enough to give it a go. And no, there is no reason for a participant (or participant's parent) to be alarmed if their coach is not a professional horseperson. I promise.

5. RDA is really picky about the kinds of disability they accept

I've definitely seen and heard this before: "RDA wouldn't help my child, who has XYZ disability". Demand for places at an RDA group typically outstrips what they can offer, whether that is due to time, volunteer numbers, the size and type of horses, equipment and facilities, or specialisation (which is usually due to one or more of the above). I can see how this could mean that would-be participants are disappointed, and perhaps perceive the organisation as being "picky" about who they want on their books. The reality is that RDA groups generally have long waiting lists, and when a place becomes available in a class need to work out who would be a good fit for that place to ensure that their time as a participant is meaningful and suited to their needs.

Sometimes an element of prioritisation might be necessary: my group is lucky enough to have purpose built facilities which mean we are able to accommodate a wider spectrum of physical disabilities than many other groups in our area. As a result, we might be more inclined to accept a new rider whose needs cannot be accommodated by any other local groups than one who would be a good fit for two or three in the county. Some RDA groups might operate for a couple of hours a week out of a regular riding centre, and as such will be incredibly limited as to the participants they can take. Many groups, for example, will only serve groups of children from local special schools because they only have access to horses and facilities during the school day, and the school provides a number of its own volunteers to assist with sessions.

I know it must be frustrating being on the waiting list for an RDA place, or being told that your local group can't accommodate you or your child. An organisation run mainly by volunteers and often on a shoestring budget, however, can only stretch themselves so far. A group might say "no", but they won't feel good about it and it certainly won't be for want of trying.

6. RDA volunteers are all old(er) people

OK, there might be some truth in this one. RDA released a report this year, 'Horses, Health and Happiness', about how good volunteering for the organisation can be for people. It showed that just over 3/4 of the RDA voluntary workforce were over 50 (over half between the ages of 50 and 69). 16-29 year olds (my age bracket) took up 10%. I get plenty of teenagers coming to volunteer at the stables during my Saturday riding lessons, but most drift away after a couple of years when awards have been gained or exams and social lives take precedence. There is, of course, nothing wrong with having a majority 50+ voluntary workforce; I think that most charity volunteering would show similar trends, with many people opting to give it a try when they are cutting down on hours at work or retiring. I do, however, think it's sad that it seems like many prospective young volunteers just aren't getting the message about how much there is to be gained.

When I attended my first coaches' training day as a 19 year old trainee, I stuck out like a sore thumb and was repeatedly mistaken for someone who was only there to help move the horses around. Things have already changed a fair amount since then, but it would've been very easy for someone more easily fazed than I am to have been put off right there. It has nothing to do with RDA groups being an unfriendly, unwelcoming environment for younger volunteers, and far more to do with being able to connect with others at a similar life stage to you. Nobody would be surprised if a 65 year old commented that they didn't feel particularly part of something where the average age was 21, but nobody seems to want to talk about it when it's the other way round. Widening our pool of volunteers across all age brackets would be of universal benefit to RDA, where teamwork keeps the wheels turning.

I intend to write more about young RDA volunteers and coaches because it's one of the topics that inspired me to start blogging about RDA in the first place. I love the fact that RDA has allowed me to make wonderful friendships with people from different age brackets, but I am also very keen to do something about the fact that there could be so much more representation from my own and younger. There are young people out there who are incredibly committed to RDA, but I think there is a bit of onus on them to shout louder about it. There are so many platforms now that can be used to educate people about the organisation we call home: speak up now, and we will feel the benefits in the future.

Our youngest coach, 18 year old Fiona, taking out a hack whilst training with one of my classes