6 things to consider when planning our first RDA sessions back after Covid-19

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

No, I don't know something you don't: RDA is still suspended until further notice, and we're all still living in a strange sense of suspension of our own. I can't remember the last time I went this long without touching a horse, and that hasn't got any less unsettling. Why bother with plans? We don't know when or they will be able to be enacted, after all. It has, however, occurred to me that planning is one of the most constructive things that we can do for ourselves during this awkward (is "interminable" too much?) period of time. Plans don't have to be rigid, with fixed dates; they are used to distil thought processes and set the scene for intentions. Sit on our planning capabilities too long, and we'll be scrambling wildly when life judders back into action. So, this week, I've been thinking about planning my first RDA sessions back.

How safe can I make this?

"Safety first" could not be better, or more garishly illustrated, by the shadow of a global health crisis. I have felt over the last couple of weeks a great deal of anxiety over when the current government restrictions will be lifted, and whether it will be too soon. For most organisations, restarting will be a more difficult and delicate process than closing down, and RDA is no different. We can assume that merely restarting as we were operating before with the addition of a few extra bottles of hand sanitiser isn't going to happen, although additional hygiene measures will be necessary for a time. How far should we go? I think it would be prudent to wipe down reins, saddle seats, and any other equipment with which riders make direct contact between sessions, although this will mean that any sessions I run will need to be shorter than usual because of the extra time it would take.

But then, if social distancing is still required (which it most likely will, at least initially), how will it be possible for us to enable all of our riders to make contact with a saddle in the first place? A side walker can't walk six feet away from a rider for an entire lesson, especially if the rider needs physical support to sit up in the saddle. Two side walkers wouldn't even be six feet away from each other, unless all RDA ponies have gained some serious width from their lockdown turnout, and that's without factoring in the rider.

One of my classes, at 100% attendance, has six riders and requires seven or eight volunteers. Another class has five riders and requires up to twelve volunteers. Of all the riders I coach, there are two (three at a push) who I could coach with no physical contact. Whilst many will want to try and be more independent, not necessarily in the saddle but whilst mounting and dismounting, for the sake of being able to ride again as soon as possible, I have already made an objective-as-possible assessment of my own. Even if I could coach all of my riders with no contact, a group setting provides another dilemma. Then, if the solution to that dilemma is individual lessons (the status quo for only one of my riders), I would probably have to say "no" to teaching 10+ of them in one RDA day, both for my own sanity and because that still brings me into contact with a large number of different households.

So, who gets the private lessons? If I offer them only to the riders I've identified as safe to coach contact-free, will my other riders and their families see this as unfair? (If I were one of my younger riders, desperate to see my favourite ponies again, I'd be livid...) If it's a whole class that's ruled out, that's one thing, but what if needs are vastly different within the same class? Some riders will have conditions which mean they are advised to stay at home for longer; others will not, but may still require a not insignificant level of physical assistant to access riding lessons. What about independent adult riders who require more than one person to assist them on and off a horse, but need no assistance at all when they are actually riding? If we make rules: no riding for those requiring side walkers, no riding for those whose mobility means they cannot mount or dismount independently, etc, we risk being seen as making rules on the basis of age or condition. This would feel very uncomfortable from an ethical perspective, although the reasons behind it would be objectively logistical. (On the subject of logistics, I should also consider the fact that I use public transport to get to RDA...) We are going to have to tread honestly and carefully in not only the decisions that we make but the way in which we explain them. No, this year really hasn't been fair on anyone, but how "fair" our return to RDA comes across will rely heavily on how we communicate.

Working out our way through this maze is going to require uncharacteristically dispassionate thoughts and decisions. I am hoping that National Office will be able to take the sting out of at least some of our choices by guiding groups decisively: the higher an edict originates, the easier it is to justify and to follow. I know that our friends at NO are already thinking about what their advice might include, and am grateful for how they have reacted so far to support the UK's 500 groups.

Are our horses ready?

This consideration is more straightforward, but effort-heavy where the answer is "no".  Different groups will find that their equines are more or less ready for the return to work depending on their capacity for working them and maintaining their routines, but at the most basic level, nobody's horses are as accustomed to regular RDA work as they otherwise would be. I know of groups who have turned away their entire herd; groups minimising risk by exercising their horses without riding them; groups operating on the sparsest of skeleton staff (as mine is). I am passing judgement on none of these decisions; these most unusual of circumstances have forced different emergency strategies, and there is no way that upholding an intensive schooling plan for any RDA horse could really be classed as "essential" when we are having to "make do" for so many things. Not to mention, I am unable to take any active part in caring for my group's horses at present.

It remains, however, that safe, schooled horses will be more essential than ever to RDA activities when they are able to resume. Our riders will most likely be weaker than when they last rode, maybe stiffer, or less coordinated, and yet may also have to ride more independently to maximise distance and minimise contact. It may be that a group has an old faithful or two who will amble out of the field and hop gracefully back into action, looking after such riders royally. It's unlikely that anyone has an entire yard full of them. Horses are essential to our work as RDA groups, and I would happily push back my first sessions back to enable them to be able to work safely and comfortably rather than to start back in earnest with unready equines.

Will my volunteers be ready?

Volunteers often take a backseat when we are considering the impact of RDA (or, indeed, of not having RDA), but we would be unwise not to give at least some thought to how our volunteer body might be affected. How many older volunteers, who make up the biggest segment of the volunteer population by age, but are also most likely to live with high-risk health conditions, will remain in lockdown for medical reasons when activities resume? How many volunteers will feel anxious about returning? How many low-risk younger volunteers are living with parents or other relatives who are high risk and shielding? What will be the trickle-down effects of this closed period on future volunteer recruitment? "Unprecedented" is the buzzword of the year: we can't really be sure. A "soft reopening" with minimal, independent riders would require minimal volunteers to assist in lessons, but how would these small numbers be selected, and who would be responsible for their selection? We will need to tread carefully here, too. I have no wish to put volunteers in unnecessarily risky situations, just as I have no wish to alienate keen volunteers who are just as eager to come back as our riders; not least because we will desperately need their help when we are able to run at full capacity.

Where will my riders be?

One thing we should all get our heads around sooner or later is the fact that our riders are unlikely to mount up and go straight back to where they were in early March. Even taking into account exercise at home, whether PE with Joe or Physio by Phone, it's very difficult to replicate the physical effects of riding away from horses (unless anyone has been self isolating with a mechanical horse in their garage). Riding is a unique form of exercise and therapy: that's why we have RDA in the first place, and although our riders may well come back with a good level of health and fitness, I am expecting it to be clear in the first few weeks at least that riding has been absent from their routines for a while.

I am starting to make notes on where each of my riders may need extra support when we go back. Each one is very different: one, I expect to present with significantly decreased muscle tone and confidence, both of which were making incremental progress prior to the shutdown. Another, I expect to be stiff, but focused (a perfectionist in the making) on regaining skills; the mental and physical exertion will make them tire very fast in early lessons. Another one or two I am fairly unconcerned about physically, but am working around the idea that they may have an intense emotional reaction to seeing the horses (who they have missed and asked after) again. Another was working at a high technical standard before the shutdown; although they are a pretty stoic individual, I do expect some level of frustration over taking a few steps back which I will need to work through with them.

Progress is my holy grail as a coach, for better and for worse. I hate not seeing it where I feel I should (isn't "should" an awful word?). I criticise myself almost constantly for not giving my riders the right tools to progress as efficiently and correctly as possible. I feel the highs of a big jump forwards almost as keenly as a rider's family. In recent months I have strengthened my more philosophical "progress is never linear" thought process, which is healthier for all parties, but I've never experienced such a big deviation which is so far outside of my control. I expect that many RDA families are feeling the same way: used to the small steps and occasional (or more frequent) stumbles of raising a disabled child, but fumbling in the dark a little when access to all forms of therapy outside the home is cut off. Expectations will be hardest to manage for riders themselves, especially younger children and competitive perfectionists of all ages. We all need to rally around each other and remind that we will help our riders to get back to where they were, and then some. There will still be progress to celebrate.

What shall we do?

I am not committing myself to any firm lesson plans yet, but I am developing ideas for the basic principles of what my first sessions back will need to look like. I am keen for my riders to regain their core strength in the saddle, so plan to start them all off without stirrups where possible. A private or small group lesson context would be ideal for this as it would enable me to mitigate any risks concerning balance (or lack of). Some (but not all; I'm putting this in my notes too) riders may also benefit from work on the lunge, which would also need a private lesson setting. I want to take the time to acknowledge any feelings my riders might express about being back, which could mean letting them take their time to mount or giving them some opportunities to sit still and just be on their horse. Although I will come with an agenda, ultimately it's them who will shape it, not me.

When the prospect of group lessons is back on the horizon, these will also have to focus on the basic, the steady, and the grounded; not least because I may still need to allow less assistance from helpers on the ground (where physical assistance is essential, riders may need to start back later). I know that I will be making a conscious effort to keep use of equipment light, and will be avoiding any games or activities which involve riders handling equipment, like dropping toys into buckets or playing catch with a horse ball. I am likely to be washing down essential equipment anyway, so it makes sense to avoid adding extra items to disinfect, especially as it can be difficult to store such things in a sterile environment.

Some of my favourite games are ideally suited to this purpose, and promote use of the most basic of aids. I will feel a certain sense of the world returning to order when I am able to return to my duties as the Troll Queen (you will need to read the post linked to understand this reference...). Simple games involving stretches and actions can also be engineered to help regain strength, coordination, and confidence in the saddle. These will be my first point of call for most, to minimise uncoordinated, rough, or anxious contact on the reins, and to promote the use of the seat.

I spoke to one of my youngest riders on the phone the other week, and asked her what she'd like to play when we go back. Her suggestion of What's the Time, Mr Wolf? was actually perfect: simple, easy to space out, and easy to add personality and warmth. Grandmother's Footsteps, another old favourite, will also most likely make an appearance. It may not be RDA as we know it for a little while, but I can't cope with them not having fun.

Am I ready?

I know that part of me always has been. I'm a real extrovert and being without the extended family of my RDA group for so long already (video calls and social media are nice, but it really isn't the same, is it?) has left me feeling very out-of-sorts. I've had lots of time to think, I am desperate for the fresh air, and I miss my riders a lot; why wouldn't I be ready?

On the other hand, it's important to acknowledge that although very few things make me nervous, I feel deeply anxious about making a bad move when returning to RDA on the back of a pandemic. I'd love to imagine it as just like when I came back after finishing my university finals, when I walked straight onto a bustling yard and by the end of the day it felt like I'd never been away. But it won't be like this. It will still be exciting, it will still be happy (I might even cry), and it will still be a big step back towards "normal". But it will be cautious, it will be strange, and it will most likely be stressful. It will not necessarily provide the same buzz that we are used to getting from RDA. It will, however, be a step in the right direction: if we want to be ready for everything, we need to be ready to handle doing less than that first.


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.