Six more incorrect assumptions about RDA (which are also frustrating)

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

I wrote this post in September to debunk some common misconceptions about RDA, and was really heartened and inspired by the response it received (including a guest spot as Olivia Towers' first ever guest blogger). There is, however, still plenty to say about how people wrongly assume all sorts of things about all sorts of parts of the organisation and its work. Here are six more incorrect assumptions about RDA, which frustrate me just like the first six do...

1. RDA is just for kids

This one crops up a lot, but I was most surprised by hearing it reported by one of our most established adult riders. Apparently her work colleagues thought that RDA was "just for kids", despite having known this rider, and the fact that she rides, for many years. (How?) Child and young adult participants are certainly not minority groups in the world of RDA  but that's not to say that they are the only groups. At the National Championships, many classes have a senior section which dwarfs its junior counterpart.

I can see how people might view RDA as more orientated towards children than adults: because there are so many young people participating in RDA activities, they are more likely to feature in promotional material or on social media. Smaller riders starting out on their equestrian journeys may also need a greater level of assistance in the saddle to keep them safe, whilst many of the adult riders at my group are capable enough to need minimal help from a leader or side walker. This means that new volunteers are often sought out specifically to help children's sessions. Many RDA groups work with special schools (for some, for most or even all of their sessions), or only have access to smaller equines, or simply find that adults, even adults who would love to ride with them and reap the benefits, can't fit RDA sessions into their lives as easily as a ten year old and their family might be able to. That's not to say, of course, that no adult can find the room in their diaries or in their hearts; I just wonder how many potential adult participants are out there who would love to ride with us if it wasn't for work, family, transport...

There is nothing wrong at all with the fact that RDA does so much for so many children, and is a fantastic "family" to grow up with: just don't assume that it can't be for those who have already grown up too.

2. RDA only wants horsey volunteers

In short, no. You will be dealing with horses in the RDA world, yes, so it is helpful if a new helper has a passing interest in, and is neither terrified of nor terribly allergic to them. (There are even workarounds for this if need be: Alice is allergic to horses, and gets on pretty well with her Piriton bulk buys and tactical avoidance of grooming during moulting season.) All of our volunteers have to go through our training procedures when they're new, and how fast that happens doesn't necessarily have a bearing on the quality of the volunteer or their service. RDA is in many ways a great way into being around and learning about horses, because it costs nothing. Some of my best volunteers started with my RDA group with no experience of handling horses whatsoever (or working with disabled people either in some cases), and have more than found their feet over months or years of commitment to the group. RDA needs (and therefore wants!) volunteers who are reliable, conscientious, and willing to learn: we aren't counting their Pony Club badges.

3. As RDA coaches are all volunteers, any old person can do it

In the first "six assumptions" post, I talked about how there was no prerequisite for RDA coaches to be professional riding instructors, and how refreshing it is to see the variety of routes volunteer coaches take into the organisation. On the other side of the same coin is the fact that although RDA coaching is open to anyone, not just anyone can rock up and start teaching just because they happen to be doing so voluntarily. (Of course, there are some RDA coaches out there who are full time professionals, whether they coach non-disabled, RDA, or para riders.)  RDA has introduced a new Coaching Pathway since I first qualified. Whilst I don't think it's perfect quite yet (mainly due to the distribution and frequency of training sessions on offer: in some parts of the UK this is far greater than in others), it does represent a shift towards professionalising the work of non-professional coaches like me. Established group coaches are reviewed every three years. I had my first review under the new system this year, and was heartened by how slick, how thorough, the process was. The standards of the organisation seem to rise every year: competitions are more competitive; higher standards of technical knowledge are expected of coaches; volunteers are trained to do more. I don't think that these standards are rising so fast or so high that RDA is losing sight of the fact that so much of its coaching workforce are volunteers, but it means we are all challenged to keep thinking forwards. I'm all for that.

Photo credit: Issy Buxton

4. RDA riders aren't allowed to do things like jump, canter, or ride on their own

This is a false, but nuanced statement that I hear a reasonable amount on social media. There are no rules that prevent RDA riders from doing these things, but it would be inaccurate to make a blanket statement saying that they all do. Some RDA participants would fit into non-disabled riding lessons pretty seamlessly. Some will require a fair amount of assistance to be able to access riding: I have encountered many who need a helper on each side of their horse to hold them upright and in place in the saddle, so they are able to benefit from riding as physio. Many more, of course, will occupy some part of the spectrum between these points, even moving along it as time goes on. Competitive RDA and para riders have the option to compete (in a self-selected class or a graded class, depending on individual circumstances) in dressage classes requiring one, two, or three paces, and there are walk-only dressage classes at the Paralympics.  RDA show jumping is also on the rise, although groups do need to be trained and assessed specifically for this activity to be able to offer it: it is still on the to-do list at my group, and I think our level of activity on platforms such as Instagram means that those from outside the organisation really notice the absence of activities like jumping from our posts. (Watch this space...)

The non-disabled equestrian world is used to measuring experience and ability on the "excitement rating" of the feats a rider can perform. Maybe if we're to make this world an inclusive one, we need to be a bit more imaginative about what "exciting" means. On the flip side, I don't think it would do those inside or out of the RDA bubble any harm to embrace progress where appropriate. One of the greatest lessons I have ever been taught as an RDA coach is to let your riders off the lead rein as much as you can. It won't work for every single rider, but independence can be a real gift to many.

5. RDA horses can cope with literally anything

The "perfect" RDA equine has to be and do a lot of things (I asked for one for Christmas, actually.), often more than might be expected, but it's very easy to assume that the good ones are true saints with no foibles at all. I certainly know RDA ponies who are nothing but amazing 99.9% of the time. But horses, like people, can't be 100% faultless. I have found in recent years that there can be a real naivety towards how much an RDA horse can cope with, simply "because they do RDA work". The making of a good one is part luck, part judgement, and part constant on-and-off-the-job training. Our horses still spook at certain things; feel tense in new environments; display discomfort with a particular type of rider.

On our yard of 14, only two horses are trained to use the hoist (for assisting wheelchair users with mounting/dismounting). For this to be done safely, they need to be able to stand completely still for longer than they generally would at the mounting gallery, and crucially not to be alarmed by the hoist and whoever is using it swinging in and out of their peripheral vision at height. This would be a test for many excellent RDA horses, and as a group we have to be honest about which horses are suitable for such a job. In an ideal world, we would love to have all fourteen horses trained to use the hoist, respond solely to voice aids when necessary, and work beautifully with a snaffle and any type of reins (bar or ladder reins, for riders using one hand, prove quite challenging for many horses). We are, however, working with large, live animals, with personalities and needs of their own. Just like anybody else in the equine industry. Sometimes, the challenges which an RDA session might throw up can just be a bit much for a horse or pony, and there is nothing to be gained from trying to improve others' lives using horses when said horses' welfare is not considered. We all need to respect the fact that even our tolerant, empathetic, well schooled, intelligent equines can't handle 100% of challenging situations. Could we?

6. RDA participants have to be obviously disabled

It's almost 2020, and somehow this conversation still needs to be had. RDA participants and their needs will all present and function differently, much like (you'll never guess!) any person who lives with a disability. Sometimes, a disability will be noticeable on the ground, but not on horseback, or vice versa. Sometimes, it might be evident in the way a rider communicates, or not at all. Sometimes the effects of a disability on a participant's ability to, well, participate can ebb and flow according to other factors. Some (but not all, as I have genuinely been asked in the past) participants will be wheelchair users, others not. Some will reap the benefits of being part of RDA with a disability that is completely invisible, although I think nothing is truly invisible to those who know an RDA rider well. We don't even necessarily have to understand a disability to make a difference to the person who lives with it, so long as we can work out how the rider's needs translate into the saddle. Some groups will specialise in different types of disability, or different age groups, and most will have lengthy waiting lists, but none will be selecting their riders on the basis of how obvious their disabilities are. I think it's good practice for life inside and out of RDA to keep an open, accepting, adaptable mind. None of our participants owe spectators a mirror image of what they assume an RDA rider is like. One of the great beauties of the organisation is the diversity and acceptance it has been embracing for the past fifty years. One riding lesson, one understanding volunteer at a time, we might just end up changing the world.