8 things I've changed my mind about since becoming an RDA coach

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow
It's taken me longer than I would care to admit to come round to the notion that although it's great to know what you believe and commit to ideas, it's also completely fine to change your mind every now and again. Now I've got the benefit of a few years' hindsight in my RDA coaching career, I have realised that there are a fair few important things that I have changed my mind about since I was a 19-year-old trainee coach who was completely convinced she was about to change the world. Some changes are u-turns, some a more nuanced version of the thought that came before; all represent the things I have learned so far, and hopefully set the scene for what I hope to continue to learn en route.

1. Giving every single rider the goal of riding off the lead rein

I think that it's easy enough for anyone who has spent any time at any yard without provision for disabled riders to start off thinking this way. Learning to ride is about learning to do it yourself, no? It's also hard to deny the appeal of a whole ride full of independent, confident coachees, bobbing along without a legion of helpers on the ground and without crashing into each other, randomly stopping, or falling off. For plenty of my riders, independence in this traditional sense is absolutely the goal, and I don't like to leave a lead rein clipped on unless I have to. With that said, this isn't going to be universal in the RDA world, and nobody is a lesser rider or coach for it. Some riders may be more than capable of riding a very complex lesson independently in walk, but need a bit more support in trot. Some will love every moment on horseback, but won't be particularly interested in (e.g.) holding onto the reins, or understand the idea of controlling the horse completely by themselves. If everyone is safe, everyone is happy, and everyone is being stretched to suit them by an RDA session, it doesn't matter if not everyone is riding without a lead rein. It works both ways if one of those things isn't happening, too.

2. Good lessons mean using lots of equipment

Confession: I am absolutely guilty of, on the odd occasion (fairly frequently in my early coaching days), relying on equipment to teach a session for me. Follow up confession: I've always realised it doesn't work as well as I expect it to. I'm not saying that a busy lesson with lots of equipment and interactive elements is a bad thing; it's just not automatically a good thing. For me, I think that having too much equipment out, too much of the time actually makes me a bit lazy. Plus, there's the lingering sense of regret when you're still sorting things into boxes in the games cupboard 30 minutes after a session has finished. There's a lesson in here about balance, I think.

3. I have a "type"

The very first class I taught happened to be made up of riders with the same condition. I also had a lot to do with assistant coaching a number of other riders who had the same (different) condition. This initially gave me the idea that I had a "type": a kind of rider who I can assume with reasonable confidence that I will be able to make a decent job of coaching. As time has moved on, I've realised that I was conflating "type" with "comfort zone". One of these things exists to be challenged, and the other is completely unnecessary. The final blip on my comfort zone radar was my uncertainty when I first met Woody, but just over a year on and we're making it work between us. By chance rather than design, I'm now coaching the most diverse range of riders I ever have, and it suits me down to the ground. There will always be conditions I know more about and need to think less about how to handle, and there will also be personality types that I gel well with when coaching becomes a bit more advanced: neither of these are bad things. I am, however, keeping my head and my heart permanently open to the riders who come my way. There's always something both sides can bring.

4. Competitive riding is the ultimate end goal

Similar to insisting that every rider aims for complete independence in the saddle is holding up competition (especially at regional or national level) at the zenith of all achievement in RDA. For those who express interest, and display commitment and ability to a suitable level, competing should be made an option as far as a group is able to accommodate. Producing riders for RDA competitions also remains one of my favourite parts of coaching. It isn't a big deal, though, if that's just not part of the plan. Aside from the simple fact that riding in a competitive context is not going to suit every single rider on our books (for many different reasons), I have known some incredibly talented RDA riders who have gone off competing, and others who weren't interested in it in the first place. If competing (at any level) is at the back of our heads as the only worthwhile or communicable goal for our riders, we owe it to everyone to have a bit more of an imagination.

Showtime: a big deal if wished, but never the only deal
Photo credit: Michael Martin Photography

5. My group is an island

I never intended to take an isolationist approach to being part of an RDA group, but truthfully, I just didn't really think about anyone else's when I first started volunteering, and then coaching, with mine. I think it's fine to admit: stable yards of any size or shape are their own bubbles, and there's always enough going on to hold your focus within one particular bubble.  There are certainly times when I am if anything too focused on my group. Remembering that my group, my team, are part of something bigger has meant only good things for my relationship with Abingdon and with RDA as a whole. Focusing on things outside the bubble doesn't take dedication away from whatever is inside it, and it's a wasted opportunity not to observe, share, or make friends within the wider RDA world. We have plenty in common, after all.

6. You can only go forwards, and anything less is a failure

At this point, "progress isn't linear" is probably going on my headstone. I distinctly remember as a trainee coach feeling very strongly that the riders I was working with had to be progressing in a conventional forwards direction, all the time: anything other than that would mean I had failed them. What I learnt pretty fast was that the opposite was true: I'd be doing my riders wrong by pushing constant, conventional progress, and also by projecting my own ideas of what made me good at what I do onto them. Sometimes, we get to seize "forwards" with both hands, together, and celebrate the payoff. Sometimes, progress is more of a sideways, diagonal, zig zag, or incremental thing. Sometimes, "backwards" has to happen too, usually for reasons far beyond anyone's control. All of the above is completely OK and part of the process. There are things we should concern ourselves with far more than plotting progress on a neat, straight line.

7. Your expectations of yourself should be translated onto other coaches

Comparison is the thief of joy, as this post of advice for new coaches highlights, but expectation can have similar side effects. In a community where coaches are so refreshingly different, there is no reason for you to operate exactly like another, or for them to mirror your approaches and priorities (no matter how high your opinion of them). It's all too easy to think "why don't they do this/that/something else with those riders?"; "why do they never use that horse?"; "I would've done that so differently" when faced with another coach's work, although we've no reason to be surprised when another individual is different to us. Sharing advice and opinions should be encouraged, and having access to these things from different people can be an incredible resource for an RDA coach. Sometimes wildly differing approaches can benefit from, for example, a group policy which sets out universal expectations. It doesn't mean that we can't all accept that every coach will have different amounts of time and energy to give; different comfort zones and levels of technical expertise; different priorities; different dreams. Whilst we're at it, maybe it'd be good for us all to lay off on the expectations we have for ourselves too... (In all honesty, I'm always working on this one.)

8. Riding is the most important part of my riders' experience, and the only one I can influence

I have to work at being convinced by this one too, to some extent. I have shed genuine tears of frustration over riders who I know are having a tough time at school/home/physio/ wherever, because I care about their well-being and feel that I can't do much to help fix it for them on an hour of riding a week. Riding is, after all, the raison d'ĂȘtre for my presence in my riders' lives in the first place; wouldn't it be better for me to keep developing the heart of stone I claim to have and focus wholly on that? Human nature doesn't make it that easy, and nobody tells you about the emotional energy you end up expending on being invested in your riders (probably because nobody ever regrets it). The actual riding, even for the most pony mad of participants, is often a tiny piece of a huge jigsaw puzzle. For every time I feel a bit useless because I only see a rider for an hour a week and "can't do much more" for them, I remind myself of the magic I have seen happening and the conversations I have had with parents and carers about the power that hour a week has. An RDA coach might see their session as a stolid paddle through the odd wave; we don't necessarily see how that paddling lets our riders stand up and surf for the rest of the week. I'm not taking credit for all of it, because in many cases I'm just the person who puts together horse, rider and helper safely. But it still feels good to know that I'm helping to make those waves.