Lessons in listening: Matilda's story

It's been a while since I wrote another Rider Story; not for want of wanting to write one, because they are my favourite blogs of all, but because I was taking some time to appreciate the stories growing and unfolding in front of me each week. When teaching one of my groups I found myself flipping between the present and this time last year in my head to contemplate the progress of one particular rider, who made a small cameo appearance in this previous post. It's time to introduce you to Matilda.

Matilda and Maple

Matilda found herself in one of my Saturday morning classes for a very common reason: she was finding her previous evening slot very difficult because school was making her so tired. This isn't an unusual phenomenon; it's been the reason for many of my riders (including Thomas) ending up with me, but it was one reason for there being a lot for me to work out about her. The biggest reason however, was probably the fact that Matilda is the first profoundly deaf rider I have ever coached. Matilda's deafness comes as a result of pneumococcal meningitis contracted when she was 11 months old. She has cochlear implants which do enable her to hear, but should not be dismissed as a simple "fix" for her needs, which run a bit deeper than just hearing: she also has an acquired brain injury from the trauma sustained when in hospital (more specifically in a coma) being treated for the meningitis. On top of this, her profound deafness was diagnosed several months after her determined parents thought it might be the case: her early years involved 11 months of regular noise, then the best part of a year of silence, then a confusing period of time when her implants were being tuned and she had to connect up what she thought she could remember of the hearing world, with her ABI as an additional obstacle. As a result, Matilda is working at least twice as hard as anyone else (including... especially... children her own age) to interpret the world around her and find a meaningful way of communicating with it. That's some mental weight for a six year old to carry: no wonder school was writing off her evenings when I first met her.

Matilda has been with my group for some time now, and is one of those children who will hop onto any horse and not worry especially about who it is or what it does. I sometimes hear a bit of an exclamation from her when a pony turns around to give itself a scratch, or flicks its mane from side to side, but she isn't especially concerned by it. Over the course of last summer we discovered that Matilda also has a bit of an adrenaline-seeking streak: she and Maple (pictured above) won every single race at a holiday pony day, with a smile that got bigger and bigger the faster her helper was able to move the unit along.

It surprised me all the more, therefore, to see a photo of Matilda's first ever riding lesson. She was crying, clutching a stuffed animal, and being held on by a reassuring side walker. Her mum tells me that RDA was the first place that she ever communicated properly: having been taken out of her comfort zone for the first time and plonked on a horse, also for the first time, her response was to start signing: "help me!" I doubt that older, braver Matilda even remembers. For her parents, who didn't know if she would ever be able to communicate (it seems that very little was possible to know when she was first hospitalised, including whether or not she would survive in the first place), it was a huge corner turned. I have already seen multiple leaps and bounds in how, and how meaningfully, Matilda communicates in only just over a year. I was also incredibly surprised to hear that when Matilda first started riding, she was mildly hemiplegic (again, as a result of everything her body had been through). Riding meant that this was evened out in a relatively short period of time, and I consider her a very strong and balanced child in the saddle. In any case, every week, I think we're gaining distance from that first "help me".

Left: tears during Matilda's first riding lesson (her mum says her reaction was "keep her on! She's signing!") vs. right: Matilda at a Pony Day last Halloween. Bryn (the pony in both photos) knew she'd be alright in the end. 

Although a completely different rider to Woody, Matilda is another example of a place where I've needed to scale back my naturally wordy nature, although not completely. Underestimating how much she understands and oversimplifying communication means that she has fewer opportunities to bank the slightly more complicated stuff and process it. Doing the opposite and making communication complicated means running the risk of Matilda zoning out or getting frustrated because she is unsure of what's going on. She quite often copies words or noises other people make around her, including occasional spot-on impressions of the random noises I sometimes come out with when teaching her. Not everything is understood, yet, but I can near enough hear the process inside her head when she encounters a new word or instruction. We're teaching each other how to listen to each other.

When I started coaching Matilda, I was anxious that I'd have to find time to learn to sign at least the basic stuff to be able to tap into how she worked. Although I have picked up a handful of riding-related signs since, I've actually found that I don't have cause to use them if I'm mindful about how I handle the verbal stuff. I think she also deserves credit for how much she picks up from watching and being in her riding lessons. As a member of my biggest (in number and personality!) group, sessions can be busy, but Matilda is in the midst of it all working out the patterns. She has come to understand the difference between the "on" parts of the lesson when she needs to sit up, listen, and try her hardest, and the "off" parts, perhaps when she is waiting for her turn to complete an individual exercise, and can have a bit of a joke with her helpers. That's not to say, of course, that there's no room for silliness throughout every now and again, but I'm not going to begrudge her a few funny faces when it's clear that she feels safe on horseback. As for the unfettered glee that is provoked by a pony farting in her lesson... it's really, really hard not to laugh at that with her.

When I mentioned Matilda briefly in this blog post, I also gave a well-deserved shout out to her regular side walker (and microphone-wearer, to connect to her implants), Leo (pictured below left). It would be wrong to give myself all or even most of the credit for Matilda's progress within RDA, because Leo has developed such a beautiful partnership with her. She translates my words, often from several feet away in the middle of the school, into a hybrid physical-verbal instruction that Matilda never has any issues with understanding. They have, from what I can see, an entire library of inside jokes. It's the sort of volunteer-rider partnership that doesn't come along often, and I am immensely grateful to Leo for her dedication to Matilda (although not at the expense of any of my other riders, who she loves as well!). Matilda herself refers to Leo as "my friend", and with increasing clarity over the past few months. A good coach is only as good as the volunteers who assist them.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Just because Matilda has graduated from her early, tearful riding lessons to being a fully fledged member of the "I love ponies" club doesn't mean that everything is plain sailing, although I am very confident in her riding confidence. Most recently, a tricky obstacle fell into her path: headwear. Matilda's implants create an added complication when wearing any sort of hat, but she had previously been wearing a particular size and make of skull cap which seemed to work well for her. All very well until, of course, she had a growth spurt, and her head got a little bit bigger. We have plenty of hats for our riders to wear, but finding the new "just right" proved a bit challenging for this particular Goldilocks.

The first week Matilda was particularly resistant about hats, in hindsight, she was stoic beyond her years about it. Her dad asked me for some help to fit one to her head; Matilda might have a glorious sense of humour, but she is not the sort of child to mess her coach about, and he hoped that a different adult might get on top of the wriggling. I was able to put one on her which ticked the boxes from my perspective whilst she stood very still. "Is that OK, Matilda?" A slightly tight-lipped nod in response, and off she went to get on. Problem solved, we thought. A few weeks on, however, and Matilda was becoming increasingly agitated when it came to fitting a hat, culminating in one week where she got so upset about wearing one that she wasn't able to ride at all. Given that she is possibly my most fearless of small jockeys, anxious about nothing to do with actually riding, this was a concern: something within my control was going really wrong for her.

Matilda's mum, Jill, gave me some very useful ideas about what a non-just-right helmet would feel like to Matilda. Her implants create an extra bump towards the back of her head, so physically there is more to fit a helmet to and around, but a helmet which is the wrong shape or size also presses down on the implants, which aside from being uncomfortable creates extra noise, like somebody blowing very hard directly into your ears. As somebody who whinges about wearing a riding hat that isn't my preferred brand, I am staggered that she put up with it for as long as she did. We had a look into potential makes and shapes which have worked for other deaf riders, and I agreed to break from the usual routine the following week and meet Matilda from her car, taking a different route up to the mounting gallery (where I had lined up a few shortlisted hats which I hoped were more likely to work than the previous ones). The deal was that any vague sign of discomfort displayed, the hat would be whipped off instantly.

As it happens, the magic third candidate turned out to be our new "just right". Matilda is wearing it in the photo below: for anyone going through a similar process with a deaf rider, it is a Champion Ventair, which has a different cut around the ears to the majority of our skull caps, is wider inside than some other brands, and has a lace up adjustable harness at the back of the head which I altered slightly for her. Matilda, now reassured that she was in control of the situation (and that the grown ups were ready to listen to her), declared it "good", and off she went to find her pony. She was back.

All smiles again: Matilda and Bob

Solving the hat problem really made me realise how much credit Matilda is owed for the way she has to handle the world. It also highlighted to me how far she has come in just over a year. Her parents tell me that she may always be recovering in some way from her brain injury, and on top of this she has the constant exertion of chasing after the hearing world to make it align with her own. With the burden of all she has survived in mind, it's heartening to see how carefree she is when she is riding: laughter, words, and, increasingly, sentences, come easily when she is at ease and enjoying a lesson. On her current trajectory, I think Matilda's future as a rider is a bright one. She is physically strong (despite her early weaknesses) self-assured, and instinctive in the way she rides. I just need to work out how to help her connect the dots in a way that keeps her hands, not mine, firmly on the reins, and that doesn't push her to join any dots which she isn't ready to join. I'm in no rush to see her fly; I just hope that when she does, she chooses a pace that I can just about keep up with.

With thanks to Matilda's parents, Jill and Tom, for trusting me with their daughter and helping me to learn how to listen to her.


Have you enjoyed reading this blog?

All RDA groups are currently closed as part of the response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. My group, Abingdon, is likely to suffer financially as a result of this closed period: our busy fundraising calendar has been wiped clean for the foreseeable future, meaning that we will lose thousands of pounds which are desperately needed for the upkeep of our yard and the care of our 14 horses.

Can you help?

We have set up a Covid-19 appeal for Abingdon RDA, and are asking in particular for people to consider donating a small sum of money which they will not be spending as usual during this difficult time: the cost of a trip to a coffee shop, or petrol you are not using for commuting or coming to the stables. We have been so touched by the generosity of our supporters to date. If you are not able to donate (and we appreciate that not everyone can), sharing this blog post is a great way of spreading the word and showing your support. It is all appreciated so much.