Why writing has made me a better coach (and how you can make it work for you too)

You may have to forgive this week's post for being a bit self indulgent and more than a bit meta, because I want to talk about writing. I'm a big advocate for words: the right ones, the most sensitive ones, unusual, organised, honest. In the nine months or so that I have been running this blog, I have had a lot of opportunities to reflect on the nature of communication within my remit as an RDA coach and volunteer, and felt that now would be a pertinent time to discuss them. Partly, yes, because we are all having to rely more on communication which isn't face-to-face, and partly because I am finding writing unusually difficult at present.

My writer's block is straightforward enough: RDA inspires me, challenges me, gives me purpose. All of these things are on hold, I'm not even able to help out with the horses, and I'm feeling their absence. I know there are very obvious things that I could write about: lockdown activities, communications and experiences, but I think it's easy to feel overwhelmed and oversaturated by the huge volume of similar content already out there. I am far from criticising the efforts of others (I've really enjoyed following some incredibly creative and touching ideas, schemes, stories), but I know that I'm not feeling inspired enough by my new normal to contribute something genuine or useful (or original!) to the raft of bright quarantine ideas bobbing around in cyberspace. And that's completely fine.

Writing, however, is never not useful and never not important. There are many ways that writing enriches my experience of RDA, and I think anyone involved in the organisation could benefit from developing similar writing habits. If there was ever a good time, it's now.


I've been collecting suggestions for future blogs and feedback on past ones. I've had quite a few responses so far and am really grateful for the ideas people have been willing to share (definitely worth blogging about in the fullness of time...). If you've got an idea you'd like to send me, you can do so (anonymously) here.


Dear Diary...

I could forgive the assumption that when I say "writing", I am referring exclusively to blogging. My blog is my outside voice; a written down equivalent of public speaking. To cover my inside voice; the India that mutters things to herself when walking home or formulates off-the-wall ideas to distract herself from household chores; I have my coaching journal. This isn't a unique idea: reflection was part of my New Year's resolutions; my group requires brief diary write ups of each session to keep everyone on the yard informed of what is or isn't going on each week; and I actually took the idea of keeping an RDA journal from one of our teenage riders, who conscientiously records details of her weekly lessons. (I asked her very nicely.) I also know plenty of coaches who do this already: it really isn't rocket science. I have, however, devised some journal guidelines for myself which have really enabled me to make it as useful a tool as possible:

Be consistent: no excuses for not filling it out. Writing up my coaching journal takes between 45 and 90 minutes of my time, depending on how many lessons I taught that day or how much of a debrief I need to give myself, and I do have to make a conscious effort to make that time rather than welding myself to the sofa on a Saturday evening. I find it completely worth it to have the information I write down available for my future self, and that in turn helps me to help my riders and volunteers. Unlike that cringey diary you tried to start writing every day aged 12, this really does have a purpose beyond embarrassing you five, ten, or twenty years later.

Be organised: I was always that person at school who was praised for their organised notes, but the truth is, I can't stand looking for information when I haven't organised it properly and will probably give up before I find what I need if I've put it here/there/everywhere. (Ironically, I enjoy the challenge of hunting out information that's been stored like this by others...) My coaching journal is colour coded (by highlighter) for each type of session I teach. I make sure I write down a short overview of what I did for each session (we'll call it a "lesson plan", and pretend that the contents of each and every one is consistently preordained). I also keep all my notes for regular teaching, training days, and other opportunities for learning in the same notebook. I keep rough notes at things like conferences and then copy them up into the main journal later, which also allows me to review and synthesise what I've learned more effectively.

Be thorough: each rider is dwelt upon equally when I am writing up an RDA Saturday. If they were unusually challenging, I write down what I think was different (did grandparents, rather than parents, bring them to the stables? Did I switch up the helper? The horse? Did they really hate the game we played to warm up? Were they tired?). If they were a star pupil, how might I push them that tiny bit further next time? What made their ride so good? I also check off each horse. Were they all OK? Did the session expose a need for a younger mount to receive additional training in XYZ? Then partnerships: did a rider really not respond well to a particular helper? How is X new helper getting on? Do I really like the new, left-field horse and rider pair I decided to put together on a whim? There's no chance I'd have the time or inclination to go into this level of detail when writing up my version of events for the record at the stables (I only get so much room in the diary...), but that's why it's even more important that I take the time to make detailed records for myself.

Be reflective: Did it work? Was it good? Am I happy? These questions will mean different things to different people, but should underpin any sort of reflection on RDA sessions, whether you are a coach, volunteer, or participant. My journal isn't the public side of my RDA comms, so you won't get to see the times I've written "not trying that one again" and underlined it thrice. Trust me, it's there.

Be open: nobody else has to read an RDA journal. You don't have to worry about writing in a way that's clear or appropriate for anyone but you. Be open and be honest in what you write. No matter what your role, it will be worth its weight in gold to your future self.

Right on, rather than a write off...
Photo credit: Siobhan Dennis

What's my name again?

We don't give enough advice (if any at all...) to new or existing RDA coaches on how to develop a unique coaching identity. Who are you? What are your aims? What are your non-negotiables? What is your style? I'm not saying that writing one, ten, or a hundred reflective notes to yourself will answer all of those questions, but it might help you to start to do that. Identity is a nuanced and fluid concept in any context; it's precisely for this reason that gradually recording your thoughts about your own can be so useful, rather than trying to catch and preserve it in one go. Some elements of my identity as a coach now are very different to my teenage trainee self; I only wish that I'd had the foresight to reflect properly on the hows, whats, and whys of what I was doing back then. Although I think I would've seen progress and definition in that identity without writing so much, I do think that the progress I have made has been catalysed by my writing, and therefore my ability to explain my actions and thought processes to others.

For participants and non-coach volunteers, I still think that keeping some form of personal record is a good use of time and writing energy. Coaches' records and plans can really lighten the mental load of being responsible for the organisation, safety, and fulfilment of six riders, six horses, and perhaps twice as many volunteers during a session. If you are considering your participation in RDA activities as an individual, you are in a great position to take charge of your own progress. What you want to gain from RDA is a fundamental part of defining your identity within your group (and beyond), and spending a bit of time working that out is beneficial for your personal development, whether or not you ever decide to share your aims with anyone else. "Sharing is optional" is still key: writing is no fun whatsoever if you are stressed about other people reading it. Remember that you don't just have to recount your experiences, although that can be fun, interesting, even cathartic to do. You can create a space to explore the experiences of others, contemplate the future, or work out your feelings about something (they usually work on a larger scale than a single story).

All social media seems to be telling us at the moment is that lockdown is the perfect opportunity to try something new. I have no expectations for my friends, acquaintances, or blog readers to seize every strange spare moment and channel it into an entire new CV of skills, but if you do feel like trying a bit of exploratory writing, I'll give you a title to start something off:

"Who do I want to be when we can go back to RDA?"

Remember, sharing is very optional, but I can offer myself as a thoughtful and encouraging audience if you would like to find one for your writing. I'd love some company in the RDA blogosphere...

Make it count

Writing regularly about my relationship with RDA has made me many, many times more accountable for what I do to nurture and strengthen that relationship. Since building up a modest regular readership for this blog, I do feel the onus of making part of my experience and personality public. More so, however, is the sense of accountability I feel from my own words. If I write in my coaching journal "I want to try X rider on Y horse in the next few weeks", I need to have a good explanation for myself if I read back the entry six weeks later and haven't made any effort to act on it.

Few people have the mental capacity or clarity to make complex, progress-orientated plans completely in their head. As a self-confessed non-superhuman, I've found that my RDA plans have become markedly easier to act upon when I've written about them. This doesn't mean hours of planning time each week; I manage to pin down most of my new ideas when I'm writing up my coaching journal and am riffing off what I've just achieved (or not) in that day's sessions. I'm a staunch believer in volunteers choosing to give time to RDA when they want to, so I wouldn't prescribe this little bit of extra, off-yard thinking time too strictly. I do, however, think that progress becomes slower, less complex, and less meaningful when we don't take the time to make ourselves sketch out our new ideas and feel accountable for the existing ones.

I think progress is the crux of my belief in writing for those involved in RDA. We love progress of all varieties, but rarely prioritise our own ahead of that of our riders, horses, groups, or even facilities. It is also very easy to enjoy feeling the RDA buzz without thinking too deeply about progress, because we know that we're doing something nice by making sessions possible in the first place. If we're OK with nice (a word literally banned by the headteacher of my infant school for its limp mediocrity), we aren't going to be giving much head space to reflecting, evaluating, considering our next moves. Even if we are making our own records, these still need to be reflective, even constructively critical, to give the actions that come after the words focus and impact. Turning up is fine, but writing up might just boost "nice" into "dynamic", or "creative", or "thorough", or "goal-orientated". I know what I'd rather give to my riders.

New combinations: written into existence

Keeping in touch

I have had one bright quarantine idea which I think is worth sharing. It's straightforward (so much so I did contemplate whether it was actually worth sharing at all...), it doesn't raise money, awareness, or public profile, but I think it spreads exactly what we need at present. I've been writing, the old fashioned way, to my riders, and to some of my RDA friends and volunteers. I tread carefully in how I do it; I always think about how an individual rider would feel about receiving a letter or postcard from me, and I make contact with parents or carers first to ask if it's OK. (I know it'd be very unlikely for the answer to be "no", but it's good practice to check.) Some say everything happens for a reason, and whilst I don't especially subscribe to this idea, it did certainly feel like I had been hoarding sheets of unicorn stickers for years and years for this very purpose.

These letters aren't especially deep, especially the ones going to primary school aged children. They talk about how it's OK to miss doing things like horse riding, how the horses are enjoying their break but asking after their human friends, and how much I am looking forward to being able to see them in my lessons again. I try to write so that each missive can be read as independently as possible by its recipient. I've enjoyed writing to adults, too: even a short postcard can lift a person's mood and make them feel appreciated, valued... missed. It's simple: that's the entire point. I'm staying alert to what my riders might need, whilst keeping a respectful distance. The beauty of post is that it can be opened and enjoyed at a time convenient to the recipient; I don't necessarily think that trying to schedule (for example) something like a video call RDA session for an entire class is a particularly helpful move when all of our families are working with a new normal that doesn't have any need to fit around activities like riding lessons. The family of one of my youngest riders did ask me especially if I would be happy to have a video call with them, because the rider in question really wanted to speak to me; of course, I was more than happy to do this.

Although my unicorn sticker stocks are starting to deplete, I haven't written as many of these letters as I would like to quite yet: please do consider this an open invitation to tap me on the shoulder (digitally, natch) and ask me to be you or your child's pen pal. You don't need to be part of my group; anyone who has got this far through one of my blogs has to count as an RDA friend of sorts. I don't write with any expectation of receiving a reply, but I always promise to write back to any further correspondence.

Words are one of the oldest ideas going, but now and always they are among the most powerful things in our arsenal. Let's get writing.

Pony post in action: Thomas (photo taken by his mum) reading one of my letters


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.