Half a year on and still weathering the storm: why your local RDA group still needs your support

Photo taken at last September's Fun Day (credit: Darren Woodlow)

It's been more than six months since I taught my last set of "normal" RDA sessions on 7th March. It's been almost exactly six months since the decision was made between me and my group's chairman to call off the next weekend (14th March) because of safety concerns: a small cluster of Covid cases had been confirmed at my workplace, and although I had no personal contact with those involved, it seemed the most sensible thing to do. Less than a week later, every RDA group in the UK was closed. Less than a week after that on 23rd March, the country was locked down.

We've been inhabiting this strange new world for half a year, and I feel as if both a lot and very little has happened in the mean time. Some things, at the moment, feel a lot more normal: children are going back to school, and plenty of people I know are moving their home offices back into the office offices. There are moments at RDA which feel almost normal too, but we are a long way off being where we were at the beginning of March. I wrote this post in the same month about why it was important to support RDA groups so that they are able to resume activities when the time is right. I also looked a bit deeper into how my group was finding lockdown in May, then contemplated some of the challenges those who were reopening might be facing in June. Now, in September, the buzz around supporting charities through lockdown has died down, overtaken in the media by discussions of how to get back to normal as quickly as possible. The road is far from over for the survival of our RDA groups, but it contains some new obstacles...

All in this together?

There are around 500 RDA groups in the UK. Having all of them closed at once was a seriously depressing state of affairs, but it did at least generate a sense of organisation-wide unity beyond what exists in normal circumstances. It was also inevitable that the same unity would fade out as eased restrictions were reflected by the individual situation of each group; even at this point, regulations can differ wildly (or subtly, which is more frustrating) depending on which part of the UK a group is based. For fundraising at local, regional, or national level, "every RDA group is closed" sent a far stronger message than "some RDA groups are open in a limited capacity, some are still closed though". The need to cover running costs for expensive equestrian facilities and their equine residents, meanwhile, has been consistent through every development.

All for some, not some for all

For the groups which have restarted in some capacity over the last three months or so, their activity follows the pattern of many other non-essential (but decidedly not unimportant) activities: "reduced". Sad decisions have had to be made in terms of who is and isn't able to access RDA, whether group leadership decides that being able to offer a partial service is unethical or financially unfeasible, or whether the choice is made to adopt a "do what we can for now" policy. Less isn't more for charities which understand the value of their regular services to their regular numbers of service users, and no matter how logical the criteria for allowing one rider to ride again and another not, there is always the possibility for a decision to be viewed as reasonable by one party and unfair by another. 

Charities thrive on good news stories (and in many cases, the data behind them) about the impact of their work, and the more small stories are added to the mix, the better for an organisation's overall profile and potential for fundraising. RDA is all about inclusion, and I know that many within its member groups feel that the current, limited options for carrying out activities are in some way at odds with that. The fact that our wings are clipped right now shouldn't be a deterrent to would-be or even existing supporters when the circumstances are so far beyond our control. For my group, which has partially reopened, I see those who have been able to start riding again as symbols of vital progress towards being able to do what we do for everyone again.

Photo taken at last September's Fun Day (credit: Darren Woodlow)

Calendar conundrums

One of the biggest justifications for my group's Covid fundraising appeal was that our fundraising calendar had been wiped clean. There are, of course, greater possibilities for fundraising events now than during lockdown: we are running a sponsored ride at Blenheim Palace which is possible to conduct according to all necessary regulations. Even so, there has been no magical full restoration of all of the regular fundraising opportunities many groups would usually throw themselves into: indoor events, parties, large-scale sporting events (like marathons and half marathons), events justified by large attendance numbers. There are still possibilities, but with considerably less scope, and therefore considerably more competition between different fundraisers running similar activities, than normal. Fundraisers want to keep things fresh and interesting rather than relying on straightforward generosity to keep things afloat, but even planning into next year is tentative right now, and personally it would take nothing short of an exceptional quiz master to tempt me into doing another Zoom quiz.

Winter is coming

It costs more to keep people comfortably during the winter, and stables (full of horses eating and wearing more than in the warmer months) are exactly the same, just less comfortable for the people keeping the horses. The equestrian-inclined tend to worry about the onset of winter even without the considerations of an equestrian sport-based charity, and this winter presents more uncertainty than most. Some groups will be facing this winter with little to no RDA income at all, and others may be nervous about the number of non-riding riders who are able to continue donating their riding fees into or beyond the colder months. Those who are riding could face disruptions and complications from localised Covid outbreaks, while some groups take a regular break over the colder months (which, in regular years, is covered by income generated in other seasons) and may have already lost their entire "RDA season". Our least favourite time of year just got even less lovable. 

Reserves running low

We might be able to buy toilet roll with reasonable ease again, but plenty of things are in shorter supply now than they were earlier in the year. More people than is comfortable to consider are facing or have faced redundancies and other pandemic-related drops in income: giving to charities, especially those which aren't providing a front-line service (or indeed aren't operating at all), will not be as evident in as many people's priorities. Even for those who are more fortunate, there is still the risk of "giving fatigue" from six months of being urged to help charities keep afloat for an unspecified length of time, with none of the regular variety (see above) of fundraising initiatives. There is, equally, the risk of those donating their time on the other side of things running out of momentum to keep pushing the initiatives which are possible: fundraising is hard work, and harder work with goalposts that keep moving and no reassuring date in the diary for "back to normal". Everyone is digging a little deeper in some way, and it's important that we are all able to cut ourselves some slack from it. But, sadly, there is still the niggling concern at the back of RDA groups' collective minds about the running costs that never take a break...

Photo taken at last September's Fun Day (credit: Darren Woodlow)

All of these challenges notwithstanding, it remains the case that RDA groups will be needed and appreciated more than ever when they are able to throw their gates completely open again. Being able to do this remains a difficult hurdle (more like a long jump, really...) for many groups, and each one faces additional complexities in terms of deciding the whens and hows of restarting, increasing competition for grants, and the task of maintaining the sheer organisational stamina needed to keep on keeping on indefinitely. At this point, we know far too well how much our regular offering is being missed, and some of us have experienced the bittersweet joy of a phased reopening. 

The collective heart and soul of RDA remains unchanged where everything else this year has had to bend or break. I don't think any group is giving themselves enough credit for what has been achieved over the last six months, whether that is fundraising, restarting, or just keeping on, and the loyalty of each group's supporters continues to be incredibly humbling. Every cancelled or altered session is a reminder of the life changing horsepower which will be so enthusiastically received when possibility is back on our side. Please don't forget that the storm is far from over for your local RDA group. We always say "it's what you can do that counts"; doing what you can to support us six months in counts in far more ways than just numbers.

If this blog post has inspired you to make a donation, my group's Covid Relief Appeal can be found here. If you are looking for a more local group to support, you can do so using the RDA group finder tool