A question of impact: why it's important to help our RDA groups come back strong from Covid-19

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow
I'm writing this blog from a locked-down (sort) of nation which has spent the best part of a week contemplating what "essential" means. I've missed three RDA Saturdays now and continue to mourn their absence without begrudging the need for it. I'm taking the extra thinking and writing time (I was able to gain my group a feature in the local press this week) as a positive. Hopefully it will all contribute to making me a better coach when I am actually able to coach again.

I do not dispute the necessity of RDA groups closing, nor did I before government guidance became stricter this week. I also, however, am acutely aware of the unforeseen difficulties which such a period of closure will create for RDA groups and other charities across the UK. We need to rally together: communities and local businesses around their local RDA groups, groups with other groups, participants with fellow participants, to make sure that all of us are ready to make a winning comeback when normality resumes. This is why.

Lending two pairs of legs

The first thing I ever knew about RDA was that it has an almost unique physiotherapeutic quality. The way that a horse moves, and the way that a person's body responds to those movements, can promote the stretching and strengthening of muscles that an unsuspecting non-disabled rider did not know existed. For a rider with a physical disability, this can be the missing piece of a puzzle for building strength and control, and even in some cases to help manage discomfort, increase spacial and body awareness and coordination, on horseback or otherwise. Matthew, pictured above, has Down's Syndrome, and started RDA at two years old (sixteen years ago!) to help develop his core strength. Nowadays, his balance in sitting trot is as killer as his smile; although you can't see in the photo, he rides without stirrups, and doesn't budge a centimetre out of the saddle.

For the overwhelming majority of my group's physically disabled riders, RDA is a cornerstone of a rigorous physio regime involving various different activities and therapists. This is probably the easiest, most scientific way of proving our impact as an organisation; it just happens that our most important pieces of equipment have lovable personalities of their very own. When I was speaking to our chairman on the phone just as our yard was closing, she was incredibly sad that some of our most vulnerable riders would "stop walking entirely" until they were able to access riding again. Neither of us disagreed that putting this sort of physio on the bench for the time being was the right thing to do, but it does mean that we will feel our responsibilities more acutely than ever when the country is able to re-mobilise.

Withdrawal symptoms

A statement on group closures from RDA CEO, Ed Bracher, said this:

"I am very conscious of the many people who are having to forego their regular “horse fix” – whether as a rider, a driver or a volunteer – and how disappointing this will be; and for some of our participants it will be hard to understand and accept what is happening."

"Horse fix" is so right. The physical benefits of RDA are easier to theorise, but the emotional and psychological impact of riding and being around horses is no less real or important. For Woody, horses (especially Bryn) have a significant impact on how calm he is, even for the six days a week when he doesn't have contact with them. This will be a confusing and stressful time for him (and his school teacher parents) and it pulls at my heart more than a bit that there is next to nothing that RDA can do about it at present. Participants may well enjoy seeing photos and videos of their favourite RDA horses; taking quizzes about them; drawing them; writing about them, depending on individual needs and capacity for understanding why we can't just go to the stables. I think, however, that it's hard for anyone to believe that anything of the sort is a worthy substitute for the real thing. RDA riders who are reliant on groups and centres operating to get their "horse fix" will struggle when we are all locked down. Spare a thought for those affected by this withdrawal of access if you are fortunate enough to be able to continue riding and caring for your own equine friends.

Running down reserves

Money and medicine. Scarcely an hour passes without both of these things being discussed on the news, and without a collective sense of anxiety about either.  The digest is that it still costs money to exist as an organisation, even if you have been forced to scale down or become inactive. For charities who are not involved in supporting key workers and essential services (such as local hospital charities), this creates an odd limbo between having to spend reserves to make sure the charity still exists when the virus tails off, and being unable to raise the charity's profile with current action. Priorities change at times of national emergency, and so do contingencies: RDA groups need to plan for how they will handle staff becoming ill (often in already skeleton teams) or routine services (vets, farriers, tractor servicing, equine dentists...) being temporarily withdrawn. It is a difficult and hasty adaptation to make, no matter how long a group has operated in regular circumstances. It is also a hard sell to attract financial support to scaffold the future of an organisation currently on standby, rather than to ask for here-and-now donations to help mitigate the current crisis.

Riders turned helpers Rosie and Mia, both looking forward to coming "home"

Part of the club

RDA groups more often than not feel like families, and there is no prerequisite to be or be related to a disabled person to feel like part of that family. Disabled riders are, of course, our priority and our reason for being. I do think we owe it to ourselves to shine a brighter light on the sense of belonging and value that RDA can bring to anyone who chooses to involve themselves in it, disability not withstanding. Current affairs have never made me more acutely aware of the value of our support networks, social interactions and groups, and especially of the unique value of negotiating and operating those things in person. I can't be alone in feeling that I've taken for granted the ease of experiencing belonging from actually being with other like-minded people.

Many members of my group, myself included, make RDA an entire way of life. Rosie and Mia, who were featured in my review of 2019, certainly have: riding lessons with Alice on Wednesdays; help me all day on Saturdays; sleepovers on Friday nights before going to the stables; talk horses, look at photos of horses, write about horses in any time left over. Our yard is home to them: somewhere they can be themselves, feel welcomed, useful, and celebrated. RDA groups are networks of meaningful relationships; often understated, but never undervalued. Collectively, we have a lot of feelings as a society at present, and we will have a lot to process as we tread the path back to normality. I hope that every space that makes people feel the way that Mia and Rosie do at RDA weathers the storm: when social distancing goes out, being part of the club (a club... any club) will come rushing back in.

The future is here

In a sense, this entire post concerns the future and what it means for our RDA groups to be part of it. It is, however, worth tagging along with worldwide discussions about sport and the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. To use the words of British Dressage Para Director, Julie Frizzell, at the RDA Dressage Conference earlier this month: "the future of para dressage is in your hands: the hands of our RDA groups". Most RDA riders will not become Paralympians (and we shouldn't mind that: how many Olympians are produced by your local mainstream sports groups?). Many RDA groups will have limited interest in competing, even at RDA level. RDA has, however, made an extraordinary contribution to the development of parasport, including introducing Paralympians with glittering records to horses for the first time. We have a responsibility to the entire sport to ensure our groups are safeguarded for the future. Perhaps a gold medal or two might depend on it.

Social butterflies

Aside from serving local communities by offering RDA sessions to those eligible, it's often easy to find RDA groups moving and shaking in different ways, for different parts of those communities, as part of their regular fundraising calendars. Quiz nights, raffles, stalls at fairs, markets, and other events, yard-based fundraisers, school cake sales... A forced pause on all such activities, it turns out, is an excellent way of highlighting quite how much everything adds up. My group is predicted to lose a minimum of £6000 in fundraising revenue, and this is an optimistic guess: the real cost will only be evident when we know how long it will take for the pandemic to peak. (As a result, £6000 is the current target for our Covid-19 Appeal, the details for which are below.) Many charities are in the same predicament: annual fundraising fixtures crumbling away at a time when it is difficult if not impossible to put together something to replace them.

Purpose power

What all of this boils down to is an appreciation of both the necessity to cut out the non-essential from our routines, and the significance of the things we are missing in the process. Many of us seek things to give us purpose in our leisure time, and find that this purpose seeps into other parts of our lives. Others don't seek out an activity, but out of need or coincidence it finds them and plants a similar sort of purpose. RDA lives and breathes these phenomena of purpose and of life being enriched by something non-essential but important, enriching, and powerful. For many, RDA will border on essential for its therapeutic benefits.

In times like these when there is a mass shift in priorities, it is still possible to keep half an eye on the things that have been put on hold. We owe it to our future selves, and to the people we plan to help in the future, to safeguard the things that generate those enriching feelings: belonging, challenge, accomplishment, love. For me, RDA is my go-to example of all of these things happening in glorious technicolour. Our RDA groups, non-essential but not insignificant, deserve a similarly beautiful comeback.

Not essential, but not insignificant


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.



For more information on RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association), including how to find and support your local group, please go to www.rda.org.uk