6 awkward questions & conversations RDA coaches might recognise

OMG awkward!!!

People who can handle awkward situations and conversations are valuable in all sorts of settings, and I've been learning all about dealing with "awkward" from RDA since I was a teenager. The fact that anyone involved with the organisation could find themselves dealing with something sensitive or thorny isn't something which should be feared or off-putting: any kind of set-up used and run by such a diverse spectrum of people will always have the potential for these sorts of challenges, and handling them well can make a huge difference to the service we offer. Let's get awkward...

Oh, you don't work here every day?

My RDA group has a very small number of paid staff who deal with the management and maintenance of the yard and its equine inhabitants. They are outnumbered considerably by volunteers. I don't find it awkward at all explaining that I, like most of the people who are involved, am a volunteer, although I do feel like I have the conversation quite a lot. I think that receiving such an explanation can make people feel a bit awkward, especially if their initial expectations of a volunteer were based on the assumption that they weren't. Even if you expect to be surrounded by fellow volunteers, some people are quite often surprised that the person "managing" them (or their child, for younger helpers) is donating their time to a higher responsibility role.

I'm not convinced that viewing someone as a volunteer as opposed to a paid employee would make a dramatic difference to your impression of them as a person, and I definitely don't correct people who ask me if I am the latter to make them feel uncomfortable. I think it's actually quite an empowering piece of information to make transparent: if we're all willing to give our time to RDA, we have something powerful in common. But no, I'm not here every day (and I don't stop when I am on the yard), so please don't sigh when you have to wait a week for your paper D of E report to be completed and returned.

What will happen to your commitment to RDA when you have kids? Won't you want to move away?

I've been asked both of these questions many times, including by fellow volunteers who have fitted RDA and/or horsey activities around having and raising their own children: the irony hasn't been lost on me. I have stock answers to both of these questions:
  1. No I don't want children/no I never have/no I don't think I'll change my mind/yes I do think it's rude when people ask me this and ignore the response they get/disregarding all of this there are lots of RDA volunteers with families out there - what's the issue?
  2. I've already "moved away" from my home town, like where I live, and have a good job there (as does my partner)
My own answers, however, are irrelevant; they would be just as irrelevant if my life's ambition was to relocate to the Scottish Highlands and raise seven charming children there. Why on earth should we be questioning volunteers' good will, when in the here and now they are in a position to donate their time/energy/expertise? Don't get me wrong, I'm always interested to hear how a volunteer has decided to come and help us out, and it can be very useful for new volunteers to be upfront about the fact that they are likely to be moving in 18 months for a new job or that they have a toddler or two so might not be available every week for childcare purposes. What is awkward is questioning a volunteer's potentially non-existent future plans or commitment when it isn't necessary. If the good will and generosity is there, that's what's important.

I can take a joke as well as anyone ("Your office must have forgotten who you are!" after a busy summer of using annual leave for Pony Days is amusing) but let's not look gift horses in the mouth when we don't need to. A good volunteer may well find that geography or other circumstances take them away from their RDA group at some point; their worth isn't determined by that, nor or by the potential for that, and they are free to make decisions regarding their role and responsibilities which work for their own plans.

Oh, but I wanted to sidewalk with X child this week...

Volunteers helping in RDA sessions can get to know participants really well, and even form some really solid bonds with the riders they help. This isn't a bad thing at all when managed right; I've written in a previous post that good partnerships are something to be nurtured where possible, when a particular volunteer works out how to get the best out of a particular rider. This can cross the line into "problematic" when volunteers stop showing an interest in any other riders, or if favourites are picked because a child is particularly able, communicative, "cute" (seriously, stop calling my riders cute), or generally easygoing. In these cases, volunteer bonds (unsurprisingly) tend to be less genuine and productive, and depending on how preferences are expressed can be inappropriate or hurtful to riders and whoever brings them to their sessions. I do not expect the world from my volunteers, even if that's what I sometimes get back from them. I do expect a level of respect for how I plan the sessions I deliver, including how I choose to distribute helpers. I do so as fairly as I can, keeping in mind where partnerships have and haven't worked in the past, so I think it's a justified request. There are plenty of conditions we all have the right to place on our voluntary efforts, but limiting our generosity arbitrarily to one rider isn't a good one.

Why didn't my child win?

I spent last week's blog singing the praises of my RDA parents, and with that context in mind it may not be a surprise that I've never actually had this conversation myself. I'm including it, however, because I have overheard or watched it happen more times than I could possibly count at competitions. Sometimes the question isn't directed at a coach: I've seen my fair share of parents and children falling out at shows over the same subject, sometimes with a coach trying either to mediate or slip quietly away into the nearest hedge. For any sporting family, the excitement of progressing to a competitive level can be all-consuming. It's also completely fine to like winning (or seeing someone you love and care for winning), but winning is never a guarantee. No matter your age, experience, training; your horse's age, experience, or training; the number of times you've competed before; your understanding of the discipline; your opinions of the other competitors... Winning is not a given. Ever.

There is a subjective element to the judging of all RDA disciplines, which also means it can be less than clear cut who will win a class: no obvious highest or fastest. Sometimes coaches will have an idea as to why someone hasn't won or placed, sometimes not. In either case, going into details may not be palatable for either party, and may detract from the real lessons that a competition setting can teach about goal setting, resilience, and sportsmanship. Unless there's something seriously awry (like an incorrectly calculated score), I know I'm interested in discussing achievement independent of rosette colour.

My child loves Dobbin/Tinkerbell/Dave. Why aren't they riding them? (Any resemblance to real equines living or dead is entirely coincidental...)

As above, I am lucky to have a group of RDA parents who seem to get where my plans are going, so don't have to have this conversation often myself. Also as above, this conversation does boil down to respecting what a coach is trying to do when they distribute horses for their sessions. Approaches will vary, but mine is very much based around making "universal riders". I want the riders I coach to be able to get on any horse suitable for them and ride well. This will be limited by the rider's height and weight; a horse's level of RDA training; physical need (e.g. a narrow built horse for a rider with hip issues); and sometimes things like confidence levels, although I can work with that. For some riders, these limitations may mean that there are only one or two horses who they can ride. For others, it might be that the entire yard is their oyster. From this, I also have to consider where to put helpers, who are also limited by their levels of experience with horses and/or RDA riders. All of this has to be considered before I even start thinking about how much a particular child likes a particular pony. I'm always aware of when one of my riders have a favourite, and where possible I do try to make sure that they ride them fairly regularly (perhaps on a rota, if three in the same class adore the same pony...), but there are going to be times when they don't.

As having a favourite pony (which I plan to write more about in the near future) is often the least pragmatic reason for a child riding it, it sometimes has to be my lowest priority when allocating horses. And that's without factoring in things like riders outgrowing their favourites; riders seeing photos of other riders doing exciting things on Mr Snuffles on social media; and the overall workload of a particular equine. All horses are lovely, and (just like humans) extra lovely for their differences. Please, trust the process.

That's a bit different!

I think that RDA has grown over its last fifty years to a point where it's ready to take on some new ideas. Not a complete sea change which throws out the hard work which has given the organisation its heart and soul; just a willingness to give the out-of-the-box-and-off-the-wall ideas a bit of a fair hearing, or to embrace how the world outside of RDA has changed. I've had my fair share of conversations where I've suggested a new idea of my own and been told that it's "a bit different", "not how it's traditionally been done", or "will never work". Even if it doesn't work (I'm not saying that all of my ideas are perfect), as someone who's definitely up for seeing out the next fifty years of RDA I think even trying the stuff that doesn't quite work out should be encouraged, if only for the learning experiences. "Different" can mean fun or achievement, it can mean a rider finding their balance, it can mean new friends, new disciplines, new opportunities. "Different" can be as practical as it can be creative. We all deserve to work with a version of RDA which works for us, our riders, and the world in which we live. If that means "different", I'm ok with that.


  1. Agree as usual! With 2, as a counsellor, when you get personal questions which are not relevant to ones practice (they rarely are if you're practicing correctly) one might turn the question around. "Why is it important for you to know that?"
    "Why didn't my child win?" That's always going to be asked, for adults too; even at FEI dressage and high level showing, preferences inevitably play a part, however small, and the judge only has one set of eyes, looking from one position. Even some RDA showjumping has a style component; I prefer BS rules, where timing and faults are all that matter, and it is irrevalent whether the spectators hearts were in their mouths!


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