What's fair anyway?

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

I don't know what it is about people in the RDA community, but the overwhelming majority of those I meet seem to set a lot of store by fairness. We care about it in competitions on local, national, and international stages, in the games we play in regular sessions, in how our participants are treated away from our groups, in how opportunities are distributed. More recently, we have had to begin thinking about how we might be able to begin restarting sessions in the future, and the way that the "fairness" of any exit strategy might be perceived was quick to surface in the conversations I've had or overheard about that, too. The thing is, fairness is one of those concepts which seems to become harder to pin down the more it's discussed, and more important to seek out the more people and complex interactions are involved. What is fair, anyway?

In my recent interview with Clive Milkins, Clive made the shrewd observation that "we can't make something that's unfair, fair." Some people will always be more talented, wealthier, less busy, healthier, than others, whether they are part of an RDA group or not. Perhaps we are as an organisation so collectively interested in bringing fairness to an unfair world because we routinely encounter people whose experience of disability, and therefore of society, can seem incredibly unfair. When I've profiled my own riders, there are always parts of their stories which make me think "that's unfair": the hours that Thomas has to put in for physical achievements which most take for granted; the mental effort that Matilda has to make to tune in to communication from others; the frustration Woody must feel when we aren't interpreting his feelings correctly. It can't be unusual to wonder when an RDA family is going to catch a break, or feel bewildered by quite how unfair things seem to be for a particular participant.

I think what has kept me so hooked by RDA is that its purpose is proactive. The participants I've known over the years haven't been especially interested in people's sympathy at the unfairness they have experienced or are experiencing, but welcome the (for the most part, fair) opportunities that RDA activities provide. For those of us involved in running those activities, it's also empowering to be able to participate in something which is helping to redress the balance of that unfairness. Much of this sentiment is echoed in my day job, which involves (in more ordinary circumstances) working to redress another balance of inequality in the education sector.  Both work and RDA regularly bring up frustrations that some injustices are difficult or impossible to put right. I think we are all aware on some level that our power comes from making realistic, achievable changes to make the smaller, more pliable things fair; it's the complexities of actually doing this which are the nuanced, confusing, difficult parts.

What might come as a surprise, however, is that just showing up to RDA and doing our thing without thinking too hard it isn't necessarily going to make the world a fairer place by default. Even the most fair-minded of volunteers will have preferences for particular people, horses, ways of doing or being. Humans will often drift towards the easiest way of doing something, probably because it feels fairest on our own brains, which could end coaches in sticky, potentially unfair situations if they default to "easy fair" too much or for too long. Making "fair" a genuine part of our routine takes thought and honesty, and will require many iterations to apply to the many different people and sets of needs we encounter as part of an RDA group. 

Routine fairness may even hit its first hurdle on the way our groups are set up: in a completely ideal world, all RDA groups would have the same facilities, the same access to resources (financial and material), the same type of horses trained to the same sort of level. Let's be honest: the only place this is going to be happening is in the "utopian" section of our brains, and even then it would require the hypothetical sacrifice of our groups' abilities to self-govern, which I know is very important to many. I look at some of the things my group is able to offer our riders and realise that some groups are able to offer something larger scale and more exciting; others would never be able to replicate what we are doing, perhaps because their facilities are not set up for it or because they only have access to horses for a couple of hours a week. Some individual participants may have connections which enable them to benefit from more RDA activities than others (perhaps as a member of two groups concurrently, or because of a personal connection with a coach or trustee) which can also complicate a straightforward definition of "fair". None of this, however, detracts from the fact that we are all able to make the effort to make our work that little bit more fair.

I've seen this image in so many places representing the difference between "equal" and "fair", and think it's always good to draw upon in a discussion of fairness:

Original image credit unknown

The reason that it's so important for us to have a handle on fairness when we are dealing with more than one RDA participant at once is that there's much more to it than making all of our riders "equal". Our equivalent of the equal boxes on the left hand side of this image is every single one of our riders riding the same horse and using the same tack, and communicating with them in the exact same way; never mind the fact that this rider needs a horse who is a bit narrower, that rider needs an adapted pair of reins so they are able to hold them independently, one needs everything in "audio format" to compensate for a visual impairment and one needs to lip read and sign because they are deaf. I might teach a child with limited leg function to ride with a whip, but not teach the same skill to another child in their class with no lower body issues when they ride the same pony. It isn't unfair to treat our RDA participants differently if they need different. I've seen a rider in a friend's class be given a special sticker chart for goals in riding lessons; only her, and none of her peers. Was this fair? Absolutely: the rider in question needed a boost after a fall had precipitated a confidence crisis. Her group was pretty mature with no precedent for sticker charts (I've known coaches keep them for an entire class for less specific goals: also fair), and her peers took an interest in their friend achieving her goals without being especially interested in a chart of their own. Different, but fair. 

I have different relationships with every single one of the riders I coach or help, because they are all different people and respond to me in different ways. I communicate differently with all of them, and I think that is the fairest way of building those relationships. I have also found over the years that, as in the rest of my life, there have been some personalities which I have clicked with faster than others. This "difference" only becomes an issue when it crosses a line into "preference"; an incredibly uncomfortable phenomenon which I'm sure we have all watched happen in some capacity and setting. "Preference" doesn't mean inviting X rider to compete at a show and not Y rider, if the decision can be justified: Y rider isn't interested in competing right now (and has expressed this), or hasn't yet reached the required minimum standard because they started riding three years after X. "Preference" is ignoring the needs and wishes of rider Y in favour of rider X. It still doesn't necessarily mean that Y is ready to compete, or to ride a certain horse independently, or or to canter, but the decisions made are justified and communicated, and both parties are heard. 

Participants will, of course, have their own preferences too: favourite horses. I remember too keenly the jealousy my eight year old self felt coursing through her veins when another child got to have Lucky (my first favourite pony) for my first ever own a pony day. As a result, I try my hardest to rotate favourite ponies fairly, especially when the same one is popular with multiple riders in the same class. At the same time, I draw out my expectations as clearly as I can: it's my job to choose ponies, and my aim that my riders learn to ride as many different ones as possible. But, honestly, I will be relieved when another child outgrows Bryn and I can make the rota smaller.

Despite RDA folk being some of the fairest-minded I have collectively encountered, we should be mindful of our responsibility to challenge unfairness if it creeps into our work. Hindsight certainly likes to remind me that I could have challenged some things more actively during my RDA history.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Maybe it would've been easiest to start talking about fairness in a competitive context; not because it's any less of a minefield, but because formal competitions of any level have already had to evolve guidelines (if imperfect ones) to keep things fairly fair. "Fairly", because there are still categories which don't exist, imbalances of resources and, frankly, luck, and the requirement for human judges (we won't hold it against them). Some of our RDA riders will be able to move up through more levels of competition than others due to the disability (or disabilities) with which they have been diagnosed. Some will fit into the existing parameters of the classification system for physical disabilities, and excel in graded classes up to RDA national level, but won't necessarily have access to the right resources to access the next steps. A further number might hit a wall trying to fit into the same system of grading, and will have to wait for the system to evolve to be able to get a foot on the ladder. 

Some groups will be disadvantaged by the horses they have available, by the cost of travelling to competitions, or even by their collective confidence. RDA competitions are part of my group's DNA; win or not, they've been going since the very earliest ones. This established history made it very easy for me to be swept up into that part of the RDA world, even when I'd never had the opportunity to compete in the mainstream myself (save the competitions my riding school put on). I wonder if I'd have found it so seamless and exciting if I'd been part of a group embarking on their very first competitive outing? To put our groups out there we do have to accept a certain level of unfairness, and hope that for us and for our competitors the pay off is worth it.

Unless a rider is bound to a particular class by their grade profile or other specific needs (a visually impaired rider will have disability-specific classes, for example), choosing which class to enter can be a difficult task for a coach (I don't speak for other disciplines such as carriage driving or vaulting, because I don't know enough about them). How easy or hard should our riders find their test? Should we take into account what we know about other competitors, e.g. avoiding entering a nine year old rookie in a class populated by fifteen year olds about to age out of the junior category? Should we avoid classmates competing against each other where possible? 

When riders are old enough to understand the competitive landscape in sufficient detail, I think it's fairest to discuss these things directly with them. Sporting competitions will never be completely fair, and certainly not when you've got live animals and incredibly diverse athlete profiles to consider along with everything else. Acceptance of this phenomenon comes with age and experience. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how I valued the way that competition teaches us all to handle disappointment. Perhaps our first-timers can feel that disappointment so keenly because it is their first experience of a type of fairness other than their group's own? I think the key for all levels of competition is that serious questions should be asked when perceived unfairness cannot be explained ("the judge just felt like giving you two marks lower than everyone else for everything, not sure why", "we just can't include that type of disability"). If multiple explanations are requested for a similar issue, then the questions should be asked with increasing urgency. Fairness isn't static: it evolves constantly. At competitions and everywhere else, we can influence its evolution for the better by talking and listening.

Shared favourite ponies: a potentially thorny issue!

Most recently, it feels like the majority of conversations I've had about RDA are about restarting sessions. Recent guideline changes from the government and from our governing body mean that this is a glimmer on the horizon... for some. Any groups who resume sessions in the next few weeks will only be able to do so following stringent hygiene and zoning procedures being put in place on their stable yards, and after their horses have reached an appropriate level of training and fitness following their enforced break. Even then, participants will only be able to ride if they are already fully independent in the saddle, including when mounting and dismounting. Coaches will need to keep a distance of two metres or more, and side walkers and leaders will not be permitted. No sharing of hats (as my riders gradually return, I will be strongly encouraging families to purchase their own hats for their riders, even if hygiene requirements have been lowered). Following BEF guidelines, sessions will have to take place outside, so centres with access only to an indoor school will be unable to restart, even if they have riders on their books who tick all of the boxes. Volunteer numbers will be limited. Some disciplines, such as carriage driving, will for the time being be impossible. 

Will these temporary guidelines preclude perhaps 90% (working on numbers for my own group) of participants from returning to RDA? Yes. Will the 90% unable to ride include those who arguably need the therapeutic benefits of RDA the most? Yes, probably. Will some groups have no completely independent participants, insufficient volunteer numbers or venue issues (for those who do not have their own horses and/or facilities) which means that they still can't operate at all? Absolutely. Is this a fair situation organisation-wide? Of course not. Although few people are willing to say it out loud, so many of the comments in Facebook groups I have been reading over the past few weeks have an undertone of "this isn't fair", and it's more than OK to acknowledge such feelings.

With all that said, I don't think it's unfair for those groups to restart who are in a logistically and ethically viable, safe position to do so. Those who have riders who fit current guidelines are in main still working towards readying themselves for partial reopening; it isn't a knee jerk decision for any group. These strange circumstances have highlighted to me how safety can both trump and boost fairness in the same conversation as we forge paths through present difficulties. It will be safer for some groups to operate than others, will be safer for some riders than others. As it stands, RDA groups have two options which maintain any semblance of fairness: continue with total closure, or partially open with robust, safety focused justifications for to whom "partial" applies. I have seen some fantastic flowcharts drawn up which explain the process for considering riders for current circumstances. In any case, both options require a safety-orientated judgement call. Even if we've never had to deal with a global pandemic as an organisation before, we have lots of practice in making those, and won't always make the same ones as our peers. 

For a time, "fair" will be more dispassionate than we are used to. One of the strengths of RDA groups on the whole is that they are very eager to please as many people as possible, and of course I worry that the new limits on the numbers of people we can please will put strain on relationships inside and out of our groups. Will one group end up resenting a neighbouring group which is able to restart earlier than they are? Will there be dissonance at trustee meetings or on regional committees? Will rifts grow between riders who are able to start back in their group's first wave and those who have to wait? (My group has lots of teenagers who are not immune to being competitive and falling out with each other, even if they get on like a house on fire 99% of the time.) I know that many groups, including my own, are fortunate to have had riding fees donated during the shutdown period. Will that good will from non-riding riders continue when it becomes apparent that others are able to ride again? It has never been more important that we are ready for those conversations about fairness, nor could it be less important to support those who are making preparations for a staged return to RDA. The actions of those in the first wave of returning groups will benefit the organisation as a whole and enable us to understand our necessary adaptations better. Fairest of all is ensuring that nobody is forced to do anything they don't want to do.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Considering the tricky issues of going back to RDA has made me realise how much of an ethical responsibility I hold as a coach. We are acting on these responsibilities all the time without even realising it: it's X rider's turn to ride Candy this week. Y is an outstanding volunteer but has assisted with two challenging riders in a row this morning, so I'm going to give her a break. It's great that Z wants to compete, and they will be able to access that opportunity when they have reached the following goals. I am concerned about ABC situation; could you possibly explain the reasons behind it?

In some ways, it will always feel like we are swimming against the tide. Many big things beyond our control are inherently unfair, and we can't change that. I do think, however, that we can all take responsibility for creating and promoting fairness where we can. This means transparency, good communication (in all directions), self-awareness and empathy. It means willingness to take on some awkward questions and not always follow the herd, and it means being prepared to change views and move with a concept which is never in the exact same place twice. It means being prepared to act decisively on incidences of unfairness and offer justification for our own decisions and actions. 

The pursuit of "fair" is unfairly difficult, but if any organisation can pin it down, I think it might just be us.

This is far from a conclusive view of "fairness", in RDA or out of it: please continue the conversation!


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.