Five more things my RDA riders are not

If you've been keeping up with this blog since the very beginning, you may remember a post I wrote last year called "Five things my RDA riders are not"; it's actually one of the most-read posts I've ever written. The riders I coach, as different as they all are, are all likely to encounter unhelpful or potentially hurtful misconceptions at some point in their lives. A huge part of my relationship with each of them is understanding the things they aren't alongside the many, many things they are, and doing my bit to communicate that to make sure that their experience at RDA is accepting, unpatronising, and positive. Reflecting on the first version of this post made me realise that there are more "are nots" which I think are important to share, so here are a further five.

My riders are not "behind"

RDA coaches get very used, very quickly, to playing the long game. Some things in RDA just take a bit longer than what a non-disabled rider would expect, whether they are skills, processes, or understanding of either or both. This does not, however, mean that RDA riders are somehow "behind" if they aren't trotting and cantering independently age 8 or 9, or show jumping at 5 or 6 (I see it all on Instagram!). I teach a seven year old who isn't yet independent in trot, but has a greater instinctive understanding of his own body than some non-disabled adults. I referenced a multiple gold medal winning Paralympian last week who "only" competes in walk. 

It's good practice for everyone to be mindful of others' different opportunities and levels of progress, but particularly so when considering RDA riders and other disabled riders. Their disabilities have not slowed their progress or put them "behind": so long as they have coaches and support networks who are focused on their progress, they are exactly where they need to be. It is absolutely possible for RDA participants to be held back by an environment or coach which isn't working for them, but this is an identical possibility in any sort of sport or activity. In many cases, the progress made in each RDA session vastly outstrips the progress I was making in my riding lessons at an equivalent age, if we were into making pointless comparisons.

My riders are not always in need of assistance

I think this is one of the hardest things to teach new volunteers: how to help just enough, without helping too much. Many RDA riders will start off being physically supported, often on both sides, by side walkers. My classes have an entire spectrum of how much assistance is required: one rider needs those two side walkers, but their peer might only need one to remind them to hold their reins. Matilda needs somebody next to her to help with communication, but she doesn't need them to provide physical assistance. It is true that RDA riders often need a bit of extra support, but that shouldn't detract from those who support them enabling them to do as much as possible for themselves. For me, this starts by telling a rider where appropriate: "You can do this." "You don't need me to do that." "Show me how you do this." Then, where and when it suits for that rider, that progresses into "I can do this." (I told a short story about just this in point 3 of this post from June.) 

My riders are not invalids

"Invalid" sounds like I'm describing a Dickensian orphan, but what I'm getting at is that it can be very easy for non-disabled people to fall into ableist assumptions that disabled people are sickly, or weak, or delicate. I've certainly encountered RDA participants whose conditions can give them periods of illness which need hospital treatment, and know plenty who have had multiple major surgeries before they are out of primary school. This doesn't mean, however, that they get labelled with "ill" for ever more. Asking some of my riders "do you have poorly legs?" would probably warrant a hard stare and either a "what?" or a "my legs aren't poorly, they just work differently to yours". Thinking of disabled people as "unwell" because they don't experience things exactly the same as someone who isn't disabled does nobody any favours, and in an RDA context could mean that riders are over-assisted and not allowed to spread their wings (as above). Let's save "poorly" for when people actually are.

My riders are not there to take on my ideas and hopes for who they are or will be

This is a principle which is important for all coaches, RDA, equestrian and otherwise, to take on board. The people we coach will pick up certain things from us: a particular style or line in dance or music; an enjoyment of a particular discipline informed by our own enthusiasm. No coach, however, should be in the game to make their coachees perform particular skills and achievements because it validates them, and even less should we coach because we want to shape our students in our own image. Of course I have hopes and dreams for my riders, and I hope that they come to share them with me in their own time. But, if they decide that actually they don't want to compete, or that they aren't that bothered about focusing on a particular new skill, it's important that I take their lead on that. 

It is perhaps even more important that coaches don't seek to coach only a particular type of rider, whether that means ignoring or unnaturally shaping personalities that don't fit the mould (if you've watched Dance Moms, you will know what I mean!). I would miss and miss out on so much about my riders and my relationships with them if I was determined to coach a class full of versions of myself. The diversity of journeys, relationships, and experiences each one brings to their riding lessons is one of the best parts of getting to coach them.

My riders are not always happy (even if they love riding)

No matter how well it's meant, I think it's time to ditch "the children are so lovely and smiley" as a selling point for any sort of volunteering with disabled people. Stay in the game for long enough and you will discover that "smiley" is impossible for anyone to sustain permanently, and that much like the third point of this post, is an unhelpful, ableist trope. Many riders, a lot of the time, will be happy at RDA because they enjoy riding, they like the people there, and they love the horses. I don't think any less of those riders if one week they are completely wiped from intensive physio or a bug they picked up at school; if they are struggling with their mental health or their self esteem; or if they're just not feeling it that day. Sometimes even our youngest riders have more on their plates than I have ever had to juggle as an adult. Sometimes, expressing happiness conventionally doesn't work for our riders. Sometimes (always?), our riders could probably do with a break from navigating their experience of their disability to the constant soundtrack of "but aren't they a happy little soul?"; "look how inspiring they are!"

It definitely makes me happy to see any of my group's riders happy, but it's fine if I sometimes catch them when they aren't. People are complicated beings. Getting to know them properly, and being there for the not-so-smiley days as readily as the happy ones, is going to make everyone happier in the long run.