Returner's guilt and other things I am feeling since getting back to RDA

The best kind of Saturday view is back

It's been a long time coming, but I'm back at RDA. I've done a couple of weeks of teaching, ticking off a whole bingo card of corona clich├ęs (I genuinely never want to hear the phrase "new normal" ever again, even less hear myself say it), and have found myself saddled with a whole load of new feelings to do with RDA. I've talked ethics, I've talked looking forward to things, I've talked talking, and listening, and understanding. I've been desperate to go back to the stables since I locked the gates one windy Saturday in March, and every time I've written something for this blog I've been reminded of exactly how much. So why on earth, when faced with a quiet Saturday morning teaching my oldest and most capable rider, did I feel nervous?

I am not a naturally nervous type, but am intensely scared of doing things wrong. At RDA, this manifests itself in the best possible way: I'm not worried about bruising my pride; I'm worried about getting something wrong and harming someone, like one of my riders, in some way. My first week back at the stables wasn't only a step into a brave new world which is outside of everyone's experience. It was a departure from the routine of "doing the right thing" which I'd got myself into; a routine which mainly involved staying at home and flitting in and out of the local supermarket at strange, quiet hours. I even talked myself out of going back a couple of times, but was told by more than one person that this really wasn't me talking and that It Would Be Good For Me. And besides, why put off what I've been wanting to do for months when everything was in place?

It was good for me. It is good for me. There are a lot of more complicated feelings under the surface, but being at the stables makes me feel more human than I've felt in ages. Being with horses again has reminded me that nobody should ever take their access to our equine friends for granted. Best of all, I feel that I am able to do something constructive for my group, even if it can't be a direct action for all of my riders at the moment. I get home and savour the feeling of fulfilment. It's smaller scale than it would usually be, but I've really missed feeling it, even in long-past weeks when it's been clouded by the fact that I've been too tired or hassled to appreciate it.

From a practical perspective, I am happy with how arrangements are working. I do not feel unsafe, and my current lone pupil doesn't feel unsafe either. Laura, pictured above, turned eighteen at the beginning of lockdown, and is a very capable independent rider: nothing borderline about her ability to get on and off, to ride without external assistance; to follow instructions, etc. She also has private lessons anyway, so even without these clear justifications for bringing her back at this point, I knew there wouldn't be any peer group feathers ruffled. Many cases are and will be a lot less clear cut, and I know I need to be patient with myself when it comes round for me to handle some of those myself. 

Now I am more than one week deep, I have been impressed by how quickly Laura is bouncing back. I was surprised by how different she seemed physically the first week I coached her; not that I wasn't expecting some sort of difference, but the way that she carried herself on and off the horse was notably different to the rider we both knew. She is a real stoic who would much rather push through being uncomfortable for the sake of learning something new or doing something exciting, but I think she was a bit surprised by it too. We are going slowly, with as much work without stirrups as I can get away with, but even by the second lesson she seemed to click into place in the saddle in a way much closer to her old normal. 

For many of my riders, Laura included, this will have been their longest break from the saddle since starting riding. Those who have taken a longer break will have done so for a constructive reason, like recovering from surgery, so probably won't have felt the break quite the same as this one. I know, of course, that not everyone (and certainly not all of my riders) will find that this happens so quickly. But it does bring me a lot of hope for the future to feel like some small things are beginning to look right again, and that I am able to start helping my riders to re-access the benefits of RDA. What I am doing now with one rider will inform what I am able to do with the others in the future. Laura is walking (literally, a lot of the time, although I hope to pick up the pace for her fitness in the coming weeks!) so that they can run (metaphorically, but maybe literally too...).

There is also an entire black cloud hanging over these lessons which contains all of the things we "should" be doing. "Should" is an awful word, filled with unhealthy expectation, but I know I'm not the only person rolling it around their head. Laura should be working on her dressage tests for Nationals right now, including a new freestyle which I should have written for her. Nationals, incidentally, should be next weekend. We were working on lots of exciting things earlier in the year: lateral work, canter, and I don't doubt that we share the same frustration that we should be doing those things at an even higher level by now. 

Laura is much older, if not much more independent, than all of my other riders, so it may be that the more structured goals I have for her are influencing my "should cloud" more, and it won't be so frustrating when I'm able to bring some more back. Equally, I am acutely aware of the value of the less structured or competitively focused goals of my younger or less independent riders. Just because I'm not missing out on teaching them to leg yield in trot doesn't mean that there isn't still a whole cloud of "shoulds". Having the time without coaching these riders has given me a lot of time to reflect on the things their parents and carers have said to me, or written in Christmas cards, or commented under social media posts over the years about what RDA gives to their children and families. In some ways, focusing on how our most capable riders are missing out on a trip to Nationals is a bit of a red herring, when these are the riders who are able to access the "something" that won't be accessible to many others for months to come.

Laura is very can-do and unfussy about how progress has to happen right now (at least outwardly!), which is everything my own attitude needs. I know that it is silly and unconstructive to get hung up on the shoulds; it is at the best of times. I do think, however, that it's completely acceptable to acknowledge the things that we wish were happening, if we are at least equally willing to make an effort to be proactive and positive about what we can do. That's the whole point of RDA, isn't it? 

In this vein, I have also been able to invite some of my younger riders (who are able to understand and follow current protocol) to visit the horses on the ground. I am glad that these meet and greet sessions seem to be springing up at groups all over the place, because for many participants the opportunity for close contact with a horse is powerful. We know it falls short of actually being able to ride, especially in terms of physical benefit, but those I have hosted so far have floored me in how much they appreciate being able to spend time with their favourite pony without even thinking about riding. In some cases, this might not create the desired magic stop-gap; some may see it as a rubbish deal, perhaps if their peers or friends are already able to ride again, or if they are highly motivated by specific riding goals. It doesn't mean it shouldn't be considered or tried. 

Horses aside, the opportunity to reconnect with my riders is really, really valuable. Many of them really do like to chat at the best of times, and I am appreciating the insight that half an hour or so in their company (and their parents' company) offers. The horses used for this sort of interaction, typically the most biddable and child-friendly of our herd, also seem to be enjoying the extra attention. Just yesterday, our most difficult-to-catch pony spotted one of his small human friends at the gate to his field, and left his hay behind at the mercy of his greedy field mates to walk all the way over to say hello over the fence. I know he wouldn't have made such an effort for me!

Biggest and niggliest of all in the darker side of my mind is a feeling which I think is best described as "returner's guilt". It's very easy to say "I'm not going to think about the negatives", and I don't always mind a slice of the positive internet rhetoric that produces such statements. I do think, however, that reflecting honestly on this entire process needs to involve some exploration of the difficult, uncomfortable, yes, even negative feelings and experiences which can and do loom over an RDA returner.

In the moment, when I am coaching or handling the horses, or connecting with people, I am straightforwardly happy, I know that it is as important to acknowledge the privilege I, and the riders I coach, are experiencing, as much as it is important to share and explore the more difficult sides of phasing RDA back into my routine. Returner's guilt is a side effect of acknowledging both of these things. If I think too much outside my coaching bubble, I start to feel bad about all the riders who aren't on my list for the day, or the riders whose coaches are not yet in a position to start them back, or, further afield, the riders whose groups are still unable to operate at all. I've given many thoughts and words to the fairness of a phased reopening, but it remains that one person's "fair" can be both completely watertight and completely incompatible with another person's corresponding definition. I know the most important part is not to let my sadness that X rider isn't able to do what they love right now influence the decisions I need to make to keep them safe. I have a will, so there will be a way. Eventually. Nobody is doing this stuff against the clock.

Returner's guilt isn't a bad thing if it isn't allowed to consume you completely, like the majority of emotions. I am allowing myself to feel it to some extent because it reminds me that I care, that I want to help, that I miss the people who aren't yet in the returners' club with me. I also remind myself of the following things:
  1. What I am doing now is paving the way for the other people I am thinking about, even if I am not in a position to help them at this precise moment.
  2. Everything I am doing is carefully considered: nothing is decided in haste.
  3. I am taking nothing for granted. Stop the "should"s.
  4. From my interview with Clive earlier this year: "we can't make something that isn't fair, fair."
Despite some (most?) of these feelings being complicated, I am without a doubt happier for being back at RDA. It may also work out that our collective returner's guilt (or non-returner's frustration) leads to the most meaningful new ideas and processes in the end. RDA is a resilient world, and I'm happy to be resilient for it. We are taking small steps in the right direction. 

My blog is a year old very soon. To say a bit of a thank you to everyone who has read and supported it over the past 52 weeks, I will be launching a small competition (with an RDA themed prize!) next week: make sure you keep reading to find out how to enter!