Giving up: when, what, and how to make it OK

Everyone loves a success story. They raise money, inspire support, give hope, generate momentum. Success stories play into our very human sense of pride, of wanting to win and not wanting to be seen to have failed. Winners never quit, quitters never win! I love using my own platform to share stories of when everything has worked and an RDA participant has triumphed over the odds and had their whole life improved. Why on earth wouldn't I? I do think, however, that it is important to give a bit of thought and discussion to the idea of "giving up", and what it means both for RDA participants and those who teach and assist them. It's awkward, it feels like a let down, it feels like it goes against the spirit of RDA, and it's something we all encounter from some angle, at some point. Let's give giving up a fair hearing.

It isn't uncommon for pony mad children who begged their parents to start riding lessons to find their interest waning as other interests and priorities emerge. (My parents are still waiting for this to happen, but that's beside the point...) The difference for most of our RDA riders is that riding finds them, rather than the other way round. This makes it especially uplifting when participants fall completely and utterly in love with horses, riding, and their group, but it also means we have even less reason to be surprised when another participant loses interest, or even admits that it wasn't really there in the first place.

I see the physical, psychological, and emotional benefits of RDA first hand every single week, so I can completely understand why waiting lists are so long and why healthcare professionals and educators are so eager to recommend it to would-be participants, their parents and carers. What we acknowledge far less, maybe because it's common sense, maybe because it's awkward to talk about, is the fact that a participant needs fit RDA well in person and not just on paper. In essence, it's not going to be the productive, enriching, life-long relationship with horses that we dream about if a new or long-time rider realises that, actually, they really don't enjoy riding at all. It may be that a group is able to offer a change of discipline, such as from riding to carriage driving, which rejuvenates the individual's enthusiasm and offers refocused therapeutic benefits. It may be that all parties have to admit that the whole horse thing just isn't working. Why should that be seen as a failure, if the possibility was explored in the first place?

There are two main issues, commonly encountered, on which I think parents, carers, and RDA groups should take the lead from the participant: fear and indifference. I have during my RDA career met riders who have been, whether from their first experience of riding or developed over time, too scared of horses and/or of riding to gain any tangible therapeutic benefit from their sessions. This, I really get: my mum is terrified of horses, although she likes looking at them from a distance, and is slowly coming round to the idea of befriending the horses at my group. I can say with complete certainty, however, that I could force her onto a sweet, biddable pony, give her a gaggle of sympathetic, attentive helpers, as many times as I wanted; she would still be scared of riding. A bad experience with her uncle's donkey during her formative years has really made this fear stick: cheers, Neddy.

I'm not saying that we should write off participants as unsuitable for RDA the moment a flicker of fear is detected: every one will encounter something that tests their confidence and makes them uncertain at some point, and equestrianism is fraught with risks. It is, however, part of our responsibility as RDA groups to make sure that no participant is consistently enduring their fears to access their sessions. It's completely fine to take a step back and say "I really don't feel like X is benefiting from their sessions, they seem very scared of the horses." Some fears improve over time (perhaps they were caused by something like a fall, but the person in question still wants to ride), and some don't. Fear of making a judgement call shouldn't come into the equation either: it's important to take some sort of action to support a participant who is scared, whether it involves continuing the activity or not.

I like to think I'm a "feel the fear and do it anyway" sort of person, but actually, I'd much rather work with my riders to make sure that they feel as little of the fear as possible, and that they develop a methodical and intelligent way of approaching challenges rather than gung-ho abandon. Most importantly, I don't think that RDA sessions should be a feat of psychological endurance for someone who is truly scared of riding. And I'm completely OK with the fact that it isn't within my powers as a coach to be able to make every single person I teach fall in love with equestrianism.

Indifference, or a lack of interest is more clear cut for me. As a rule of thumb, an RDA participant who attends a session pitched at the right level and allocated a suitable mount should be able to enjoy and take an interest in the majority of those sessions, with a margin of "not" for those weeks when everything is a bit "off". This might be communicated directly or indirectly, verbally, physically, or however works for them and their coach. Number one red flag? Hearing "I don't want to ride any more". "This is boring." "I want to give up but my mum makes me come."

There's nothing scientific to prove it, but I wholeheartedly believe that a rider with no desire to ride will not get as much out of the experience as one who is keen to engage with riding at a level that works for them. Take away the enthusiasm to engage and you have the recipe for a lacklustre and unproductive riding lesson: inattentive rider, demoralised volunteers. Volunteers and coaches are, of course, doing something selfless in offering their time and don't do so on the condition that participants are having an outwardly good time, all the time (or at least, nobody should be...). Nor should volunteers take it personally if a rider is having a bit of a bad day and isn't enjoying their lesson as much as they usually do (or used to).

That said, it does help. I know that my helpers go home some weeks and tell their parents, partners or friends that RDA was so great that week because X was really pleased to see them and did really well, or that they had a great laugh with Y and that it was so much fun. I'm not kidding myself that the conversations don't often go down the route of "A was really not into it today and told me that they found riding really boring. I still had a wonderful, super fun, life-affirming morning." Knowing as a volunteer that you have enabled someone to access an activity they love is life-affirming. If that someone isn't actually that fussed about riding and would perhaps rather pursue other interests it's a bit more difficult to get invested, and even potentially demoralising.

As a coach, I am motivated by my riders. Sometimes I need to remind myself of this when I get wrapped up, as we all do, in achieving something which I find exciting, but it still comes from them. I gain momentum for my coaching from understanding that those I coach are getting something from their sessions, whether they are able to tell me "that lesson was fun", "I learned a lot today", "I love riding" themselves or not. I don't think it's controversial to admit that it's hard going if nothing much seems to be gained, especially if I've been working harder in my coaching to compensate for it. It isn't a common occurrence, thankfully, but generates a feeling which sticks with anyone whose path it crosses. Like bad days, it'll come along eventually if you coach for long enough. Process, progress, and do what's right for the rider who isn't really feeling it. Clear conscience, and maybe an extra space in your class for someone else to fall in love with riding.

There is also the minefield of "giving up" for volunteers themselves. I have always championed the position of a volunteer as an empowering one: if you don't want to do it any more, you don't have to, simple. Simple? Is it simple? The way I see it is that volunteering has "giving up" at its very core: to do it, you have to give up something. Time is the most obvious example, but it can be viewed in specific, individual ways: for me, my volunteering habit means that I give up going to bed late on Fridays and sleeping in on Saturdays; spending half of pretty much every weekend doing things with friends and family who don't happen to be at the stables (including my partner, who is allergic to horses so will never be spotted at RDA); and a reasonable chunk of head space for things like lesson planning, reflecting, running social media pages, etc.

This should not be read as a plea for sympathy, however, because I would rather give up all of those things than give up volunteering: it gives me, in turn, so much. If the balance ever shifts the other way for a volunteer (we'll use a hypothetical one, because I don't think it's very likely to happen to me...), there is no shame in deciding to hang up your group colours. It can be hard to move on from a voluntary position because you can see that you are leaving behind other people who are happy to continue giving up the time you want or need to regain. Just like resigning from a paid job, it's very much your right to do so. Remember that your group will most likely welcome you back in the future if things change again, or that you might be in a position to take an opportunity with a new group in different circumstances. RDA will still be around for the next time you pick up the reins.

There are, of course, other reasons why RDA might cease to be a good fit for a participant. Some might be pragmatic but difficult to broach, like a group no longer having a horse which fits an individual's needs. (I know that this is an unjustly brief summary of a topic worth many more words...) Some might be organic and bittersweet, like a rider leaving to move away to college or university, or relocating with their family. Some might even feel needless or petty from where you stand, but are clearly significant enough to catalyse the decision for somebody.

At one of my group's clinics with Clive Milkins last year, I remember overhearing him say to another coach: "Everyone is on a different path. Our paths don't always add up with the paths of the people we teach." It's like that saying (or is it a prayer?) "grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change". We set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration if we build up the idea of a rider giving up as a huge negative concept, when actually it could be a good thing for all parties, or herald some sort of exciting change in a rider's life. It's also important, especially for coaches, to keep an objective head for considering such things. Often we are as reluctant to give up coaching a rider, for any reason, as they might be to give up riding; maybe it isn't always about us. Sometimes dropping the curtain on a relationship with RDA, whether temporarily, permanently, or as an exchange for a different kind of relationship, is one of the most constructive things we can facilitate for those we aim to help.

Like most things, it's about give and take. We've got to learn to handle both.

This blog post is for anyone who has grappled with the dilemma of when giving up is a good idea, but also for anyone who has felt like giving up when actually they don't need or want to. Keep going, on both counts!