8 life lessons from 8 years of RDA: part 2

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

I am celebrating my eighth year of involvement with RDA with eight big lessons I have taken from my experiences so far. You can read last week's post, about the first four, here. These are the second four.

5. Play the long game

I used up my marathon analogy in my first four lessons, but over the last couple of years I've become a staunch believer in coaching for the long game. I am constantly getting excited about the futures of my group, volunteers, and (most of all) riders. Maybe eight times out of ten, however, I will be directing this excitement one or two years in the future. I am a planner (part by personality, part by work necessity) and find the ability to think six months (or more) in advance increasingly useful for RDA. I use it to keep my riders safe, chipping away at new skills week by week. I use it to keep my riders motivated: "Keep working on your balance and the strength of your aids and we should be able to look at learning to canter in the spring." I use it to keep myself organised, because Regionals always comes way too quick if you don't give some prior thought to how much attention each of your riders are going to need. RDA riders are by nature more complicated than the average rider at a mainstream riding school; it's why the organisation exists. As such, long game progress needs to be protected and appreciated as part of the process, alongside (of course) the often astounding shorter-term achievements.

I currently teach a six year old rider who I feel will grow up to be an outstanding rider in RDA competitions (at least). I'm sure you will meet him soon enough. The same rider watched at our regional show last year and was a bit take aback by how much of a big deal it all seemed, although he loves to be challenged at home. I know he will tell me when he's ready, and I'm excited for when he sees in himself what I have seen all along. The long game is a good game.

6. Be horse smart

"Horse smart" is an attempt to summarise a thousand different ways our faithful RDA equines need to be interpreted, respected, and managed. It's easy for the uninitiated to assume that RDA horses are patient, bombproof, able to adapt seamlessly to fifty different riders with different weaknesses and aids, capable of Paralympic level dressage, and completely devoid of vices... simply because they are "RDA horses". The reality of good RDA horses is that they have to be both born and made, need consistent schooling and handling from experienced able bodied riders, and often require some sort of visit from a fairy godmother to be found in the first place. The essence of "horse smart" is a coach, volunteer, or participant who understands that they can't just rock up and expect a full-package perfect ride, with no acknowledgement of the ongoing work behind the scenes to build up a good, healthy RDA mount. You don't have to be a professional horse producer, super groom or top trainer (I'm certainly not!) to take an active interest in the equine side of RDA. We are in an unusual position, providing therapeutic activity for which live animals (the odd mechanical horse or vaulting barrel aside) are an essential part. We're only going to be able to make the most of that unusual position if we make a collective effort to stay horse smart, no matter how complex a job that might seem.

7. No man is an island

Replace "man" with "RDA coach, volunteer, participant, parent, trustee, fundraiser, supporter". RDA works best as a shared experience, especially as it can be shared between so many different groups of people. I wrote in my recent post 'Dear New RDA Coach' that fledgling coaches should seize every opportunity possible to connect to their peers, whether at their own group or further afield. Really, that advice is applicable to anyone who has anything to do with our organisation. Not only is shared experience far more meaningful and moving than making it a solo mission, there is so much that we can do to assist and encourage others. One of the best things I have done for my own experience over the past 18 months or so is communicating more with others across the RDA world. I am no wallflower and meeting new people is no issue for me, but I still feel I was guilty of being a bit insular in my approach to RDA: I had my group, my volunteers, my normal ways of doing things, and I was happy enough with that. Embracing the organisation on a bigger scale has taken my experience to a new level, and the same can be achieved by anyone by doing as little as joining a conversation on a Facebook group, or replying to a tweet. Not to mention, there are some amazing people (and potential new friends!) to be found in RDA communities. Put yourself in the bigger picture.

8. Cut to the feeling

RDA generates a set of feelings which are deep-running and hard to match. I might not feel overcome by pride, uplifted by achievement, or excited by progress and future prospects every week, especially as winter draws near and I find myself trudging up the drive to the stables in the cold/wet/dark. That said, those same feelings are always just present enough, regardless of the time, place, or season. When everything else is stripped away, RDA runs on love and care. There will definitely be times when that love feels pretty eclipsed by paperwork, by money, by outside factors. If the last eight years have taught me anything, though, it's that so long as that love and care are there under the surface, it's always worth keeping going.

It's the feeling behind my friend Alice shouting "I NEVER WANT TO GO HOME!" at me over the music at the Nationals disco.

It's trying to draw a rider's favourite pony on a card for their fifth birthday at 11pm on the night before their riding lesson, desperately hoping it actually looks like the pony in question.

It's being able to celebrate an achievement, physical, mental, or emotional, which would seem insignificant to a non-RDA bystander, but which means everything to those involved.

It's the huge grin you get from a rider when you let them spread their wings and try something exciting for the first time.

It's watching a volunteer bloom in confidence, skill, and self worth, even though they joined your group to help others, not themselves.

It's feeling part of something genuinely meaningful.

It's going to bed early every Saturday evening, tired out by a day at the stables but knowing you've done something good with your time.

It's something I hope I will never stop feeling.

To the next eight, ten, twenty years of RDA and beyond. There are many more things for me to learn.

Read Part 1 here