Bad day at the office? What every RDA coach (or volunteer) needs to hear after a tough day

All in a day's "work"...

I am a great advocate for RDA, and specifically RDA coaching, as something which has a positive effect on people's well-being. I know that coaching my riders and watching their progress is something that makes me a happier, more understanding, all-round better person. It is important to acknowledge, however, that every coach has tough days; days that don't necessarily fit the world-shifting, life-affirming, blue-skied idea that we build coaching up to be. I'm often reminded of this fact when the clocks go back and I find myself leaving and/or returning home in the dark for an RDA Saturday, or when the rain starts to feel genuinely cold for the first time and I nearly lose a boot in the gateway to the field. Or maybe when on top of these things, it just isn't working. This week's post is for everyone who knows or fears the bad days at the "office". Keep going.

I'm too tired for this

We've all thought this. I often realise it, grudgingly, when I am already in the middle of a morning's teaching, or a school holiday Pony Day. It could be that you are the type (as many dedicated volunteers are) to take on too much and burn yourself out. It might be that, actually, life outside of the RDA bubble has just been a bit too fast, loud, and full of people this week. It may well be a bit of both. In any case, it is important to acknowledge the fact that we all only have so much to give. Some weeks, it may just be a case of weathering out the heavy eyes and making it work; sometimes, we do have to be honest with ourselves if "too tired for RDA" becomes the default. RDA coaching requires a lot of a person: mental, emotional, and physical energy, often with the elements thrown in for good measure. Work out how best to replenish these types of energy (easier said than done, of course), and don't deny it inwardly or outwardly if you need a break or a change. Nobody is measuring your abilities or worth on the basis of how many hours you are committing to, or how well you are balancing RDA with a minimum of six thousand other things. This isn't a plate spinning competition, and I know that the biggest thing I want for my fellow coaches is for them to enjoy what they do without burning out or having cause to resent their generosity of spirit.

My lesson plan didn't stick

Who hasn't spent a week's worth of evenings lovingly inventing a new lesson activity, only to find that it falls flat the moment you put real riders into the plan? (If you haven't, I suspect you are a much better coach than I am.) Horses, of course, also have a real talent for bringing the unknown and the problematic to even the most familiar of activities. Sometimes, if we're lucky, we get both of these happening at once. It's very easy, especially for new coaches, to get bogged down in the minutiae of The Plan. Let yourself gracefully accept that The Plan is bigger than one twenty minute game or hour-long class, chalk it up to experience and move along. Nobody but you is likely to dwell on the underwhelming, confusing, or downright abortive parts of The Plan: I sometimes cringe thinking of half baked games I came up with three years ago, but my riders certainly aren't losing sleep over them. I had a series of such games in my first assessment to become a coach, and I don't think even the county coach assessing me remembers them.

There are two things to be learnt from these situations: the first is that resilience and adaptability are two of the most useful things that an RDA coach can be, but nobody is going to judge you for not developing them overnight. The second is that your riders, arguably the most important part of The Plan, are unlikely to hold a flopped lesson against you. You've given them safe access to horses, to freedom, to friendship. That's a version of The Plan we can all get on board with.

My rider(s) just weren't riding like I hoped they would

It's no bad thing to have plans for your riders, but they are all too human for you to write and then tick off an entire to-do list of achievements each time they ride. Progress in RDA is seldom linear, and it isn't your body, or your brain, being put into action on that horse. I know the frustration of feeling like a rider has taken a step backwards since their last lesson, but it could be for any number of reasons which are far beyond your (and your rider's) control. Ultimately, you can only coach the rider, and horse, that you have right now, and it isn't a failure or a lack of progress to admit that. In the spring, I had a private lesson scheduled with a rider preparing for her first regional show. Unbeknownst to me, she had been off school sick all week with a virus, and had powered through because she was so desperate to ride in her private at the weekend. Being the tough type, she wasn't prepared to admit this to me; being the tough type myself, I asked a lot of her and found myself frustrated because she seemed to have forgotten half the stuff we'd worked on in her last lesson. When her mum quietly told me why she was a bit "off", I was furious with myself. I had been coaching the rider from last time, not the rider who was actually in the arena with me. We've made a pact not to be so stoic in the future, and I've made a pact with myself not to let my hunger for my riders' achievements cloud how well I actually know them.

My older riders usually run their own warm ups, which lets me watch and work out which version of them I need to coach that day.

One of my riders fell off

I'm not going to pretend that fallers are easy or fun to deal with, but I'm also not going to say that falls only happen to bad coaches. If you ride for long enough, you will fall off at some point; if you coach long enough, therefore, you will have a faller in one of your sessions eventually. I think falls are harder on RDA coaches than mainstream riding instructors, too: partly because they have greater potential for negative impact on disabled riders, and partly because they tend to happen less. As a teenager, I lost count of the number of times I bounced off my favourite riding school pony, and bounced back on again. Often, more than once in a single lesson. RDA riders learn under much closer supervision, with much more input, for longer, from helpers on the ground, and often on horses who are a bit more sensible and sympathetic than the norm for non-disabled riders. We are so careful about RDA horses and sessions because we don't want our riders to get hurt or be put in danger; when they do fall off, it feels like we've failed them in some way.

In the moment, however, feelings of failure need to be swallowed for the sake of the procedures we are trained for. Your worth as a coach doesn't deplete with every tear shed by a rider, but the best coaches aren't the ones who are laissez-faire about filling out the accident book or who don't bother putting their first aid training into action (treat for shock, even if it is a "minor" fall!). When that moment has passed, make sure that you give yourself the chance to have a debrief with another coach or somebody else suitably experienced and understanding. More often than not, it helps everyone if all the processing doesn't happen entirely in your own head. Process and progress. It happens.

Yard politics are getting me down

For all the positive effects RDA can have on a person's well-being, it still remains that stable yards are the perfect breeding grounds for amateur politics, personality mismatches, and bad feelings. It often seems that having strong opinions about everything, including others' actions, is a prerequisite for involvement with horses, and no yard is truly perfect and drama-free (I think... if yours is, please tell me, I have questions!). Even with the most good-willed of groups, running costs (and, therefore, fundraising needs) or horse issues (like the linchpin of the yard coming in hopping lame the week of the regional show) can test the resolve of any RDA volunteer.

If you've come home frustrated by petty tack room dramas or any of the other politics which can invade our experiences of RDA, take a deep breath and remember why you became a coach in the first place. Did you make a difference to your riders today? Did you help a new equine recruit take a step in their training? Did you empower a volunteer to do something they never thought they could? Did you feel the buzz of the good RDA can do? This is the stuff that really matters. Coaches are leaders, and as such, have to deal with some of the less enjoyable things that come with a leadership role. That doesn't mean that the less enjoyable stuff has the right to take up the majority of the time and energy you give to RDA. For me, I've spent the last few years building coaching into a space where I can switch off the rest of the world (or even the rest of the yard!) if necessary. Being able to focus on your riders and everything that concerns them for that hour or half hour isn't just good for them; it's good for you too. RDA is so important to me because it keeps me grounded, focused, and (even on the chaotic days) sane. We owe it to ourselves as coaches not to lose sight of any similar priorities. Even if through gritted teeth.

I don't think I was a good coach today

You are generous with your time and your thoughts, and care about giving your riders the opportunity to ride. You are always learning. You are resilient, patient, and kind. None of these things are the mark of a "bad" coach: keep going.


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