A returner's diary: my first month and a half back at RDA, reflected

Sophia, who during lockdown said that talking about the horses "made her feel too sad", after her first lesson back

It isn't quite RDA as we know it, but RDA is back as a regular fixture of my weekends. I've been back for about a month and a half now, and am using this week's post as an opportunity to expand on the thoughts in this earlier post, and to reflect on what has (and hasn't) been going on at the stables. I've taken interest in and reassurance from reading what other groups are doing on the road to reopening, and hope that sharing my own experience, and feelings about it, will do the same for others. Please don't forget to check in with someone you trust in your own RDA community (near or far) if you need to work through your own feelings about coming back or staying away, whether or not your group has reopened in any capacity or not.

Laura and Rosie on the first day we were allowed to use the indoor school again... We have to settle for odd milestones in these strange times...

All the fun of being fair

Is this fair? Can we make it fair? Should we bother trying to make the unfair, fair? "Fairness" is an idea which has been thrown around in plenty of my blogs this year (especially this one), and I think being able to get out there and coach, rather than sitting at home anxiously turning it over in my head, has been a good tonic. One of my affirmations from my first post about being back at RDA was "everything I am doing is carefully considered: nothing is decided in haste", and another was "we can't make something that isn't fair, fair." I have stuck with and will continue to stick with them. 

Working out what was fairest on me seemed like a selfish first move, but was incredibly important. I am acutely aware of how important it is for my group's riders to be able to access RDA safely again, but as someone who would be organising and running sessions, I also needed to make sure that my volunteer's prerogative was given some airtime too. As it stands, I have one fully independent rider and three semi-independent riders back on board; the latter three are all assisted by trained parents/carers where needed, which is mainly with mounting, dismounting, and tack adjustments (and, during this heatwave, encouraging slightly dozy ponies!). I think I've found my momentum faster than I expected, and am sure that this is down to being very clear with myself from the beginning about what I was and wasn't comfortable doing. 

I've focused completely on riders from my regular classes and have no regrets about doing so. I have also continued to ensure that I have clear justifications for why those who are back are riding. It was never a surprise that these decisions needed to be case by case, but this encompasses parent by parent, coach by coach, horse by horse just as much as it does rider by rider. It also remains unsurprising that some parts of the reopening process are profoundly unfair. I have an entire class who will not be able to return until physical contact, leaders, side walkers etc are all acceptable parts of sessions again. Some riders are ready to return, but have had to wait while an appropriate horse reaches an appropriate stage in their own restart plan (until very recently, our yard was still being run by a skeleton team of staff, and horses are wont to go lame or otherwise unwell). It remains important to manage expectations... and, at the other end, to be as sympathetic as possible to the whys and hows.

Mission rebound

One thing that can only be considered when an individual actually gets back in the saddle is how fast they will bounce back to where they were before. Does the speed of this matter? No. Not to me, at least. There is time, there is no pressure from upcoming competitions (unless optional, virtual ones), and from my perspective, there is no expectation. This does not, however, mean that there won't be expectation from the other side of the coaching relationship. All of the riders I've seen getting back into action have been keen to get on and, well, get on with it, but I've detected little flashes of frustration in some that they have to put the work back in to get riding fit and back to where they were in March. This doesn't negate the importance of a supportive coach who doesn't rush and doesn't judge, but it is a phenomenon that's important to acknowledge. RDA means freedom, strength, independence, skill to many of its participants. The fact that riding feels different to how it is "supposed" to could be a very disorientating experience for some as they ease back into their lessons.

As a general observation of the riders I've taught or watched being taught so far, nobody has been unrecognisable from the pre-Covid riders I remember. Some have been worried that they will have forgotten how to do it; they haven't. Most are stiff in the saddle at first, and some realise very quickly how much work it is to keep their core engaged for an entire riding lesson. Various body parts are responding slower than their owners would otherwise like, and coordination is a bit rusty for some. But nobody seems weak. The most common "problem" I've identified so far is stamina: something which lends itself very nicely to being fixed by returning to regular riding lessons, and which can always be built and rebuilt. Whether propelled by grit, or by infectious happiness to be able to see, smell, and touch a horse again, I'm still watching athletes. Athletes and riders. Firmly on the rebound.

Lily after her first ride back

Reunions and reintroductions

A lot of "Quiet Corners", pony meet-and-greets, and other safe, unmounted activities have sprung up at many RDA groups over the past couple of months. At my group, this sort of offering is offered on a similarly coach-by-coach basis to riding, and I have loved facilitating it. Watching riders reconnect with their favourite horses is a very uplifting past time, and I think has reminded me that riding is not necessarily everything to our participants. Lily (above) was reunited with her favourite pony on the morning of her birthday, and he seemed as pleased to see her (or at least with the attention!) as she was to see him. The excitement of just being: being with a horse, being on the yard, being able to chat to a small number of RDA people, had a greater impact on most than I would have predicted. I didn't ever think I was underestimating the impact RDA has on its participants, but watching the reintroduction process has contributed to a realisation that actually, I probably was.

I also found it very useful, in some cases, to be able to see how physically disabled riders were moving and to talk to them about how we might approach their first riding lessons back. My biggest regret in terms of these on-the-ground interactions is that now my teaching load is increasing, I'm not able to devote as much time to them as I was at the beginning. I wouldn't be against the riders I coach visiting the horses under somebody else's guidance, but we aren't overwhelmed by volunteers who have the time to put on the extras, especially now we are beyond the initial wave of only having one or two riders, two or three days a week. Doing what you can, as ever, is what really counts. My schedule isn't static right now, so I will look forward to being able to fit in the pony meet and greets again when I can.

Parent power

Being able to train parents and carers to do some of the close(r)-contact parts of riding lessons is and has been a game changer; just not a universal one. As I said at the beginning of this post, the parents I have trained have children who are semi-independent, and need most help in terms of getting on and off, or tightening their girths and adjusting stirrups. It's a good exercise for those finely and freshly honed fair judgement skills, working out where utilising parents would be appropriate: some would be very uncomfortable with having to handle a horse at close quarters, even a mild mannered one; others might actually be experienced equestrians in their own right, and have just never been needed to step in before. Many will be in the middle of the spectrum: not experienced, but suitably conscientious and physically able. They won't be the first new "volunteers" to come to our groups with the same qualities, and for many RDA parents used to going to the ends of the earth for their children, this won't be the weirdest skill they've had to pick up.

The drive I have observed from parents told "if we can train you to do this safely, your child will be able to start riding again" has been incredibly moving. I have also found that volunteers watching from the wings, whether in WhatsApp groups, on social media, or from the other side of the fence, have been very supportive of the idea. We all want to see riders riding again, whatever the means. And, although I am usually keen on the idea of RDA enabling riders to spread their wings away from their parents, there is something genuinely lovely about those parents learning a new skill for and to share with their children. The three personalities I currently have riding with parental assistance seem spurred on to be particularly independent, sending the grown ups to sit down when their stirrups are an appropriate length. I think all involved will welcome back our regular volunteers with enthusiasm, but for now, parent power is making things happen which otherwise would've been months in the making.

How are we feeling?

Me sort of having my RDA Saturdays back isn't about me: it's about the opportunities it opens up for others. But, for what it's worth, I am so much better for being able to do it, having struggled more with lockdown than I would care to admit in full. I know that this isn't much comfort to those who are still going without, whatever their relationship to their group, but we have come a long way from the full shutdown days in quite a short space of time. I love seeing other groups posting photos of their own riders getting back, literally, on the horse, and the hope it spreads across our community: there is hope there. I come home from RDA buzzing from the progress and the happiness I've encountered that day.

On the other hand, I am also constantly looking over my shoulder (or rather, at the news) and am concerned about the prospect of having to shut again if infection levels rise. I'm sure many would respond to this sort of angst with "there's no point in worrying about something you can't control", but my personality has always latched onto "things I can't control" as ideal worry criteria. I still feel sad that for many riders, mission restart is still a very long way in the future. I still notice the things and people missing from my Saturday routine. Even the sum of all these niggling thoughts, however, cannot possibly outweigh the happiness and enjoyment I've regained from returning to the stables. I'll never take it for granted again.

Home sweet home...