Six small things I am looking forward to having back (eventually)

It seems like wherever I look or listen, there is a definite sense that this week hasn't been a very good one. I have been peddling the "another day closer to being back to normal/things being better" mantra for weeks and weeks, but right now I'm feeling tired, fed up, frustrated by government decisions and messages, and a bit conflicted over (some) things beginning to reopen. It's definitely been cheering to see evidence of some RDA groups being able to resume sessions with small numbers of independent riders, but thoughts of those who are not yet able to return still linger at the back of any such cheery images. It's been good to talk about the present, the immediate, and even mid-term future, but honestly? I need a break at this point. As a result, I thought I would look much further forward. None of this will last forever, even if some of the repercussions of current circumstances will last longer than perhaps we are hoping, and I think it's only right to allow ourselves some things to look forward to. These six things are only small, but I am looking forward to some weekend when I can enjoy taking all of them for granted again.

1. High fives

Remember when we could high five people? The non-socially distanced currency of so many regular RDA sessions, which although possible to replicate at home don't really work the same when you offer them to adult members of your household. It's very difficult to give a glum high five. They can be dressed up or down, even developed into a secret handshake for particularly tight helper-and-rider units, require no supplementary words, and are cheesy, but otherwise unproblematic. On a deeper level, I usually dish out high fives when something worth acknowledging, even celebrating, has happened, and that is definitely worth looking forward to. I'm not saying that being able to dispense a few carefree high-fives to my RDA riders will mean that all is right with the world, but it'll be a step in the right direction. However long it takes.

2. Aimless chats

It's often the most aimless of conversations, whether out on a hack, whilst grooming, or when waiting a turn, which teach me the most about RDA people: riders and volunteers. New riders can be very "closed" as they build bonds at their own pace, and it's always an understatedly special moment when they venture their first random conversation starter to you. These chats can be surreal, funny, poignant and telling all at the same time, even if they're only a couple of minutes at a time. No matter how well we have all adapted to the world of video communications, I don't think they work the same if you aren't in the same place as the other person. I'm certainly looking forward to the luxury of being able to walk, or work, alongside someone for a short while and tap into their world via aimless conversation. One of my riders, who has a particular skill for creative thought, will most likely tell me she's been to the moon whilst we were closed. I'm looking forward to hearing all about that, too.

3. Being there... then not needing to be

RDA coaching is no different to many other sports in the sense that it requires a lot of physical contact, whether corrective or supportive, in at least the early days. It's the biggest reason that the majority of our riders just aren't able to ride right now. As time goes on, this contact can become less necessary, although how much less is completely dependent on individuals: there are Paralympic athletes who need physical assistance to mount and dismount. A number of my riders are (or at least, were when I last saw them) at the stage where they are gradually becoming more independent.The excitement of seeing one of your pupils riding under their own steam is always tempered by the reassurance that you can step in if you need to. I have often sensed that the riders themselves understand this and are reassured by it too: it isn't a big deal if they get a bit wobbly or if they are slightly unseated by the pony putting their head down, because there will be a pair of hands there to put it right. 

Many words have been spent already on the fact that this completely routine part of an RDA session is, for now, out of the question. What I am looking forward to most of all when this is no longer the case is being able to be there, supporting, spotting, correcting... but then being able to step away and let my riders own their new skill. Thomas initially needed a lot of physical input, for stability and for confidence, when trotting. I like to be able to step in and do this myself for riders of this sort of ability (they trot separately), and he would always eyeball my hand on his ankle before we set off. Some weeks, he'd even check in verbally: "And you are coming too, aren't you?" As he got stronger and more confident, I gripped less and less, until one day I peeled off and watched from the middle of the arena. "See, you don't need me at all!" I told him, and received a nonchalant shrug back. Job done.

Sophia, handling it all herself.

4. Scratch and sniff

It doesn't really relate to anyone but me, but I cannot wait to be able to smell a horse again. From a broader perspective, the sensory experience that being on or around horses provides is hard to beat or replicate. It's often easier to dwell upon the physical benefits of RDA because they are easier to prove scientifically, and can set visible differences and improvements in motion (like a child walking independently). The emotional and sensory benefits of RDA are sometimes less obvious, but can be felt by anyone involved with a group: riders with any disability, volunteers, parents. I'm looking forward to everyone being able to claim their first post-lockdown pony cuddle to start reaping those benefits again.

5. I'll make a note of it

I wrote a few weeks ago about my coaching journal and how I like to record and reflect upon the sessions I teach. I've got the best part of a decade of archived RDA memories and experiences to reflect upon while things are on pause, but I'm looking forward to having some new material to think about. One thing that I really learnt to appreciate from starting my journal was the space it gave me to appreciate achievements, whether they were my own or not. In short, I love writing about RDA and am looking forward to have new things to write about. 

6. Line up time

I end every group lesson as many coaches do, with a line up on the centre line. I move along the line to dismount each rider, and like to use the time to dish out "well dones" (and maybe some more high fives).  If appropriate to a rider's understanding, I like to make the "well dones" specific: "you worked so hard on your leg position today"; "I'm so proud of all of your independent riding".  My biggest group has six riders in it, and it's important that each of them know that they are seen and their efforts are appreciated even when it's a full house. 

There is also usually a moment or so as the line up takes shape where I get to focus on the class as a whole. It's the sort of moment which is easy to miss but worth stopping, even briefly, to appreciate. It's often when I have to ask myself when on earth they all got so grown up and independent, or realise how much easier they are all finding an exercise that was a big challenge six months ago. It could be pride that a new rider is now fitting in beautifully with their group; a volunteer has done a particularly good job; or that collectively we managed to turn around a session for a rider who was finding it difficult that week.  My last post discussed how highly I value being part of so many other people's stories through RDA; looking down a line up on a Saturday morning is a visual reminder of all those stories. I'm looking forward to being able to see them again.

A festive line up from December


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 13 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.