Notes for my riders' parents


I'm not going to pretend I know anything about parenting, and even less about parenting a disabled child, but I figure I'm in a good position to make a reasonable job of being an ally to those who do. I talk a lot about my riders and the ways I get to know them and how to work with them, but little about their parents or carers. Given that many relationships and decisions in RDA begin and end with these people, I thought this was a bit remiss. So, this week's post goes out to anyone who parents an RDA rider; especially the ones I coach.

The relationship between RDA coach and RDA parent is an interesting one, because it is both very similar to and very different from other relationships between educators and therapy providers. We aren't a million miles away from teachers (it's definitely not unusual to find RDA volunteers who are teachers) but also occupy a different space in parents' heads from those who spend five days a week in the classroom with their child. Our time with our riders is shorter and what we are teaching them more dangerous than the contents of a school day, although it's more bonus extra than core curriculum. And, although education professionals aren't renowned for being well paid for what they do, we aren't paid full stop.

When I quizzed a captive group of fellow coaches from across the UK about what they would most like to communicate or emphasise to their riders' parents, the voluntary status of RDA coaches and their assistants was the most recurring theme. This is completely legitimate. I'm very much about respecting the status of volunteers, even (especially?) when there is a charge for RDA sessions which gives the impression of purchasing a service, but in fact scarcely covers a horse's weekly food bill and the tack it has to wear for a riding lesson. Without volunteers donating their time to these sessions, I suspect my group would have to charge at least three times as much as it does. For me, however, this stance is a notional one as I rarely meet an RDA parent who doesn't appreciate what I, or any of my helpers, are giving up to enable their child to ride. I have to spin a lot of different plates at RDA, including some which are tricky or not particularly fun, and that small acknowledgement of my willingness to give up my time makes a huge, huge difference. I really don't need grand gestures (no coach worth their salt does), but if you've ever written me a thank you note or something kind in a Christmas card, you can guarantee I still have it tucked away somewhere.

I think most coaches appreciate more things about their riders' parents than they would ever find the time to say. One coach told me that she'd love to tell her parents "we know it's taken a whole load of hassle to get your child here today, so thank you".  I know that riding can be another box to tick in a seemingly never-ending cycle of school, physio, siblings' activities, medical appointments, and generally advocating for your child in ways which parents of non-disabled children don't even have to think about. I know that there are sometimes stand-offs about coming to RDA from even the keenest of riders if they are tired, anxious, or frustrated. I know that often, me getting the very best out of a rider comes at a parent's expense, perhaps the "tired and emotional" aftermath of a child pushing themselves to the limit because they love riding that much, or the fallout from the effort it takes to rise to the expectations for safe behaviour around horses. I know that I've chosen to be at RDA on a Saturday morning; you haven't chosen the circumstances that bring you to the same place, even if you wouldn't necessarily choose to change them.

If you're prepared to go to all that hassle for the sake of one of my riding lessons, the least I can do is be ready to try and make it a fun, enriching experience for your child, no matter how many plates we're all spinning. I see you, I see at least some of what you're trying to do, and I respect you.

I won't repeat what I've already said in the post I wrote about trust earlier in the year, but I am acutely aware of how important it is that parents and carers are able to trust me. You're handing over a child who isn't necessarily the most straightforward or physically robust to someone who, in the beginning, you barely know, to put on top of an animal with a mind of its own weighing several hundred kilos. Even if you're horsey (and most of my parents aren't), I get that it's a big ask. Your trust and theirs weigh as heavily on my mind as their physical safety. RDA groups manage risk to a far greater extent than other riding centres, so trust is usually the harder thing to build. I'm trying to build it in two directions: one kind of trust in me as an individual and as a coach, and another in the whole process of RDA. You can get by with one of the two, but having both benefits your rider the most. There will most likely be good, bad, and just plain bizarre experiments and judgement calls made along the way. I sincerely promise that I am keeping your child's best interests at heart for all of them.

Alongside trust, I am also trying to build up an understanding of your child which is as detailed as possible. When I meet a new rider and their parent or carer, we occupy two distinct camps: the parent is the expert on the child, and the coach is the expert on the riding stuff. As time goes on, these two spheres might become more of a Venn diagram. There's no expectation, of course, for my riders' parents to swot up on horsey stuff, but it does make me happy when a previously unhorsey mum or dad picks up on a detail of their child's progress. "Hasn't his leg position improved?" "Doesn't her rising trot look good now?" "They rode more independently today than they ever have before!" Yes, it does/they do/they have, and it feels good that we can share that pride.

As with any activity, of course, there is the need to balance this with realistic, mutual expectations. I spend a lot of time thinking about my riders (I'm writing this on a lunch break at work...), the goals I want to set for them and the hopes I have for their progress. Usually these match up with those held by my riders' parents, or they are happy to be guided by mine (I know how lucky I am!), but every coach at some point in their career will have to manage a situation where a parent's idea of progress diverges from theirs. I find that most coaches take the same approach as I do: starting with no expectations and letting the rider set the bar; pushing progress where possible; and, most importantly, keeping things safe. I'm also all about appreciating achievements of all shapes and sizes, which is important given how diverse my riders are. I make no promises of transforming your children into Paralympians, but I do want them to fulfil their potential in the saddle and hey, maybe we'll get closer than we imagined. Wherever it starts and ends, I would love nothing more than to embrace and celebrate that process with you.

RDA is an exciting path to follow. It helps to unlock non-equestrian skills in other areas of participants' lives, and also has the power of being a new and exciting skill in its own right. It is also, rightly, proud of its family ethos; our groups are big families in their own right which always have room to embrace another normal sized family. For me, there is a lot of magic in watching the children I coach grow into their abilities and empowering them to feel proud of that growth.

I saw a social media post a couple of weeks ago which said (paraphrased) "coaching is a full time job because once you invest in a kid, you never stop". It's funny that this could ring true for something that isn't even a real job, and for someone who has never even been particularly child orientated (I have never had any interest in having a family of my own). But here we are: praising a first attempt at writing a favourite horse's name or proof reading a university application. Designing strange Blue Peter-like adaptations to equipment to make them more accessible or starting up conversations with strangers whose experiences might be helpful for our RDA plans. Feeling genuine sorrow and anger when things aren't going right for your rider or genuinely elated when something really does work for them. Sharing the excitement at achieving a long-held goal (equestrian or otherwise) or crying quiet tears of pride at the back of a prize giving and blaming it on being tired/warm/allergic to things.

I'm never going to stop investing in my riders because they work hard, trust openly, and always have new things to teach and challenge me. They are funny (generally funnier than me), smart (often very instinctive), interesting, and share one of my greatest passions: horses. Their individual needs might mean that they need a bit of a boost beyond the norm here and there, but that's no big deal. If I keep listening we can work all of that out along the way.

In sum, me teaching your child to ride (or even just helping them in the occasional lesson) means I'm on their, on your team for life, even if riding stops being their thing or circumstances take you away from our group. Our relationship is like any other: it has to be worked at and based on a strong foundation of communication and mutual respect. I think that having shared focus on an RDA rider (your own rider) is a pretty unbeatable reason for making it work. I want the best for every rider I coach, whatever that means for them: acceptance, freedom, resilience, achievement, happiness, love, and I want that to extend to you too. Maybe I can only do the smallest bit to pave the way to one of those things on an hour's session a week; maybe we can build up something which stretches a bit further. It's a privilege to follow so many families' journeys, and even more so to be a small, slightly eccentric, slightly horse-scented part of them. You have my respect, my gratitude, and a pretty big piece of my heart.


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