6 observations of one RDA group in lockdown

My "usual" Saturday view, taken about a year ago

The past couple of weeks I have been hit by a particularly large "missing my RDA group" wave. We've had boredom, resignation, frustration, strange bursts of motivation followed by the exact opposite, uncertainty, anxiety, and cautious optimism. (Some of these produced last week's blog.) Right now, however, I just really miss RDA. I miss seeing the horses, catching up with other volunteers, working on goals for the future. I even miss the body-and-mind weariness I feel after a busy day at the stables, and the stress of the run-up to regionals which should be what's at the front of our minds at the moment. I think it's our riders that I miss the most. I'm finding myself worrying more and more about how they are getting on without their riding lessons, and feel genuinely sad that I can't make even my usual hour-in-the-saddle's worth of difference to them each week. I may be publishing this post on a day where lockdown restrictions are expected to be altered slightly in the UK, but it's fair to assume that our RDA groups will be non-operational for at least a few weeks longer yet.

My thoughts led me to set up a short survey for members of my group to gauge how we are doing in lockdown (alongside making more meaningful personal contact to check in with people; I'm not recommending surveys as a superlative measure for getting in touch with your feelings...). I received responses from riders, riders' parents, and volunteers: a good cross-section sample of our community. Although this wasn't a large-scale, formalised statistical study, I wanted to use this week's post to share some observations I made when looking at those responses. Perhaps others from other RDA groups or other RDA roles will be able to relate to some (or all) of them...

1. In numbers

50% of respondents said that being without RDA was having a negative effect on their/their child's physical well-being; 63% a negative effect on mental well-being; and 33% a negative effect on social skills. Non-disabled volunteers are included in these numbers, and were most likely to cite a decline in mental well-being as a result of RDA closures. Riders' parents were the most likely to cite a decline in physical well-being, which was what I expected of the survey.

63% of respondents said that they/their child were less happy for being without RDA, and 94% said that they miss RDA. 17% of respondents indicated that all six statements applied to them/their child; all respondents in question were participants or the parent of a participant. 

I also asked respondents to identify what they/their child missed the most about RDA (with the option of selecting up to six things):

  • 94% said that they particularly missed the horses
  • 83% said that they missed the exercise benefits and physical challenges of RDA sessions
  • 78% said that they missed interacting with coaches and volunteers
  • 72% said that they missed socialising and friendships (including between participants)
  • Intellectual challenge/stimulation and competitive opportunities were both selected by 33% of respondents
22% of respondents indicated that they missed all six options.

I think that these numbers support my own existing understanding of what RDA means to members of our group: the physical benefits of riding are central to connecting many of our riders with us (one young rider noted that she "missed the physio aspect of riding"), but the horses are what really win people over. For non-disabled volunteers, the horses may also be the biggest draw for starting a relationship with an RDA group. I think that the fact that over 70%, if not 3/4, of respondents indicated that they missed at least some of the social elements of RDA is also demonstrative what a positive force the organisation can be. Intellectual challenge is a more difficult category to define, and this option was only selected by adults (including parents answering about their children), and competitive opportunities are not appealing or accessible across the board, so I am unsurprised that these options were selected less. It is, however, still telling that all six options were selected. We certainly have a lot to miss.

2. RDA is good for our social lives: across the board

Even if we don't necessarily seek out RDA for the sake of our social lives, it's great at improving them anyway. I received responses from all three groups (riders, parents, volunteers) which indicated how much these social benefits are missed. I've long championed RDA as a great way of meeting people whose path would not have crossed yours otherwise, and the common aims of those involved acting as a great leveller. Our groups' enforced time apart is certainly proving this.

"[My RDA] volunteering was the highlight of my week. It's a good feeling to know you are doing something good and having a positive effect on our riders' mental and physical well-being. I also miss the social aspect with the other volunteers which feels like a family."

"I miss everything about riding but I know it had to happen to stop the spread of the virus. I can’t wait for riding to start again and to see my friends, they have had birthdays during lockdown and I haven’t been able to see them, I text and call them all the time but I can’t wait to see them properly."

"I as parent miss seeing the enjoyment of seeing [my daughter] ride and how happy she is when around the yard, it means so much to her. I also like coming myself as it’s like a family and you are all the same. We cannot wait for you to reopen."

In collating these responses, I realised that perhaps the most underrated social benefit of RDA is its effect on riders' parents. Nobody would think to draw attention to the quiet conversations between families as they sit and watch their children's lessons, but, depending on existing social circles, an RDA group could be the first place a parent is able to feel like they have something in common with other parents. If I think about it, I've seen as many friendships develop between RDA parents over the years as I have between my group's riders. Parent or not, the relationships we build as members of our RDA groups are important, and good for us. I'm glad that so many people are doing what they can to maintain them remotely.

3. PE perceptions

A small trend that I noticed (I would need to conduct a much bigger survey to work out if this is really "a thing"!) was that younger riders (16 or under) were much less likely to indicate that missing RDA sessions was having a negative impact on their physical well-being, even if a physical disability was the main (or only) reason for them joining our group. Parents, on the other hand, selected the "negative physical impact" option almost without fail, and older riders were also more likely to do so. In a couple of very interesting examples, a parent and their child both filled out the survey, which particularly highlighted this difference in physical perception. It is also my understanding that coaches across the board are concerned about the physical impact of an extended enforced break from RDA; a couple of responses to the survey and conversations with fellow coaches certainly suggest as much. 

This got me thinking about how disabled athletes (riders and otherwise) understand their bodies. We understand our bodies and their functions the more we use them, irrespective of disability, and for a young person with a disability there is more than the average to understand. The amount of understanding required will multiply if the condition is progressive or acquired (especially if acquired at an age which can be recalled by the child, as opposed to as a baby or toddler), and decrease according to age and, to some extent, cognitive and communicative ability. I think there will be a lot going on in our riders' heads right now. I know one of my riders, who is very bright for his (small) age and has a good age-appropriate understanding of current circumstances and his own body, is starting to feel a difference in his mobility which is making him anxious and confused. For slightly older riders, perhaps those in their early to mid teens, there may be the assumption that they will snap straight back into being "ride fit" the moment their riding lessons restart; if they've been riding with us for most of their lives, they may not even remember what it feels like to go a long time without using their riding muscles. I think this highlights two things for me: firstly, the importance of checking in with parents ahead of any sort of return to riding to get a good idea of what to expect physically from our riders; secondly, the importance of managing those physical expectations for and of those we intend to coach. 

4. To worry or not to worry?

The survey asked if respondents had any concerns about the eventual return to RDA. Of those who answered the question, the responses fell into two broad categories: "no, because I trust that the group will follow all appropriate guidelines and make the right decisions for us", and "yes: social distancing". I contemplated similar concerns in last week's blog, which sparked a few conversations, including a number on how social distancing will or won't (mainly won't...) work in a traditional RDA context. On the whole, volunteers were most likely to express concerns about social distancing. This makes sense to me: volunteers are the people who make the most physical contact with RDA participants during RDA sessions. They side walk, support legs and backs, help to position hands to hold the reins, hold hands when returning smaller riders to their parents. We have always been rider-centred, for obvious reasons, in related and unrelated strategies. I don't think that volunteers will not be considered in any plans for the eventual future of RDA activity, but I think that this "worry trend" does emphasise the need to keep volunteers in the loop and reassured.

Fellow coaches also echoed many of my own concerns: about how to bring riders back, about whether our volunteer numbers will be adversely affected, about horses not used to being in work. This comment stuck with me: "If you look at good old Maslow's hierarchy, I (and I think many) are (understandably) sitting in safety and security. This means that we can't quite get our head around all this time we have to plan, be inspired and learn because we can't quite be bothered (it is not bothered, it is psychologically something else). My worry - will I (as a coach) really get it back?" This fear of "getting it back" has followed me for weeks, as has the feeling of being slumped at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy without the usual routine of activity, inspiration, and general business to keep the brain whirring. I think many of us have had the odd wobble about not feeling like we are doing much to help (which is why most of us choose to coach in the first place); about missing the stimulation of coaching practice; about the possibility of not having anything much to go back to at all. All feelings are valid, and we as coaches owe it to ourselves to discuss any like these as honestly as possible.

5. Helping the whole person

One young rider wrote:

"I miss RDA because it is an opportunity for me to get out of the house and socialise with other people. It also helps me with physio so without it I feel like a 99 year old woman! Not being at the yard has had an impact on my mental health as ponies always have a way of making the big and little things better, whereas when I’m at home it’s hard to calm down when I’m mad or stressed. I also learn lots of things no college or school can teach me, I learn that I can do anything I put my mind to and nobody can stop me achieving what I can do. I think the longer I go without the yard the weaker I will get, and as I get weaker my anxiety strengthens. I miss the great friends I have at the RDA. I miss helping out on a Saturday and seeing all the kids improving and I love how much they love the games that they play and the funny things they come out with."

I don't feel I can add much to this response to illustrate how far our work is able to reach into our riders' lives. It's nothing short of amazing that so many areas of this rider's well-being are improved by RDA, although the flip side of this is how many areas for concern a lack of access to RDA and horses creates.  The "whole person" benefits of RDA have been something I've chosen to highlight when writing press releases or grant applications during the past few weeks, although it also makes me feel pretty pretty powerless to think that my group can't really replicate so many of the ways they would usually help a person. One volunteer described their interactions with the horses (one thing which certainly can't be substituted) as "emotionally uplifting", adding "for the riders I volunteer with which are mainly young children I worry about the effects of not being able to ride will have on them, they benefit so much both physically and emotionally from their riding." The young rider's words struck such a chord with me because they make consequences so clear: "I think the longer I go without the yard the weaker I will get, and as I get weaker my anxiety strengthens." It is bittersweet that RDA has, by their own admission, enabled them to express their feelings so well. 

6. Treading carefully

For my final point, I wanted to share the words of a rider's parent, because they have scarcely left my mind since I first read them. 

"I can see (my child) withdrawing into himself again. You notice because you have been there before. You notice because you are scared of where it might take this time. He is less willing to go out, try new things and the anxiety is coming back. He is getting more and more overwhelmed by the little things but to him, obviously, they are big things and these feelings are real. So much has disappeared from his life, so many people, so much love and support. He thrives on structure, of knowing what is happening today and connecting with people. He misses being stimulated, challenged and well, belonging. The love, the connection he feels when he is at riding lights a fire in him and I see this beginning to fade as the weeks pass. He doesn't know why he feels 'wobbly' and 'so tired all the time' and this upsets him, drains him. 

As for the physical side of things, I am trying not to think about that so much as then my anxiety will explode. We are doing what we can but obviously it is no where near what he was doing or needs to do. We have worked SO hard to get to where we are and sacrificed so much. But like I say, I am shelving that and just focusing on trying to make him feel loved and safe each and every day."

One thought which keeps coming back to me is how many parents, carers, or families who will be feeling the same way but, for whatever reason, don't want to open up as much. Reading this is sad, but I would rather know what I now do about the rider in question for having read it. RDA will mean something different to each and every one of our riders: some will feel the emotional connection to the horses and people of our groups as deeply as this one and then some; others won't necessarily miss that as much, but will become frustrated by the break from their routine, or by their decreased coordination or strength. Some might appear to be getting on fine until they are actually able to get back on again, and none of us really know how or when those feelings will manifest. We need to tread as carefully as possible in how we handle our riders, whether remotely (right now) or further in the future. No matter how willing they or their parents are to share their feelings, we can still make the effort to become experts on the people we want to help, and what shape our unconditional support of them may need to take.

We'll meet again...

With thanks to everyone in the Abingdon RDA family who responded to the survey and was happy to be so open about their feelings. Please, keep talking!


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.