Silver linings: 4 positives I am taking from this disrupted year at the stables

It's important to dedicate some time to seeking out silver linings when it's much too easy to get caught up in the clouds. This week, I've collated some of my own unexpected plus points from this even more unexpected era of RDA. There is no way I would've chosen the turns of events we have experienced collectively since March, nor does it feel right that an organisation like RDA should have to make much of an effort to spot positives when its mission is so unambiguously good. Nevertheless, the same disruptive, bewildering, stressful events of this year have given new importance to looking for the good: come and look with me.

Reflection time

The early days of lockdown, when the full RDA closure phenomenon was still new and the "new normal" wasn't a proper thing yet, were some of my weirdest and least focused. Shortly after that, I realised that the time abruptly left free by being unable to do anything RDA-related that couldn't be done on my laptop was still valuable: it was thinking time. 

One of the first things I did was revisit all of my coaching notes from the beginning of 2020 until 6th March, my last regular RDA Saturday. As time went on, I was able to model potential restart scenarios (some, admittedly, in a stressed out and slightly frenzied manner), think about the longer term future, and enjoy the luxury of having time to reflect. I can't be the only person who found, ultimately, that there was some benefit to be had from having a bit of extra time to think, and think properly, rather than the pre-Covid status quo of being busy and tired so thinking "it'll be easier for me just to get on with this". I have had the time and head space to think through some important things concerning how I would like to coach in the future (and a few definitions of what "future" could mean), and also to gain clarity on who I am and who I want to be as a coach. RDA isn't an introspective endeavour, but I think taking a little time to be that way inclined during our enforced pause will pay off.

Individual time

This is the silver lining which is closest to the front of my mind. Since my return to RDA, I have been teaching all of my riders in individual lessons: initially to comply with then-current regulations and to maximise safety, but later out of choice (from next week, I am moving to small or semi-private classes). One of my returners has regular private lessons anyway, but for the others, it was a novelty which each one embraced. I love teaching individuals; the way that riders flourish under a coach's undivided attention is something very special. In an ideal world, I would love to alternate private lessons with full groups, one week on, one week off, to reap the benefits of both. (This ideal world also involves there being extra hours in the day, unicorns in the stables and money growing on trees, but a girl can dream.) 

Some of my returners particularly struggled over lockdown, so having a focused space to bring them back to speed and be ready to react to how they might feel about being back in the saddle felt like the best possible thing to do. It is easier to encourage a child to be open in how they meet the challenges of riding when they ride on their own, and I think having that experience of multiple private lessons will mean that some of my returners will be much more open when moving to a half-sized class (some personalities, of course, are very open full stop). We are all a little different for living through a pandemic, so I've enjoyed getting to know my individual riders again. I've also enjoyed being able to personalise the way I am able to challenge them; when we do eventually return to full-size classes, I am optimistic that the time they have all had off won't be evident at all in the way they ride.

Lily riding Jasper for the first time: an achievement made extra possible by her individual riding lessons

Up-skill time

There has been a lot of discussion, particularly in the RDA coaching community, about the merits and pitfalls of training family members (or others in a rider's bubble) to assist those who are restarting or who have restarted their riding sessions. This isn't a universal solution for any group, of course, and I don't think it's unreasonable to feel unsure about adding what is in many cases a new helper or two into a situation which is already a long way from ideal. For me, however, after careful consideration, planning, briefing, and then training, watching my restarters' families pick up the skills needed to get them back in the saddle has been a real highlight of the past few months.

The reason we (or I, at least) don't use parents and carers in more regular RDA scenarios is pretty simple: we don't often need to. It's handy to have a couple of parents primed to side walk for weeks when you are unexpectedly down a few volunteers, and a rider here or there might need a lot of assistance from a parent to mount and/or dismount. But in the majority of cases I would find that I had suitable volunteer numbers, and that riders and their families benefited from the interactions they were able to have with those volunteers independent from each other. When such niceties are banned by circumstance, a conscientious parent can be the only missing puzzle piece that fits. 

So far, I've only deployed families to assist riders who are independent in more ways than they are not. Next month, I am bringing back a small number of additional riders who can be kept safe with parental assistance and/or the introduction of a non-family volunteer following Covid-safe leading protocol. I have enjoyed training these family members: it isn't so different from training new volunteers, with the crucial difference that they are already experts in their rider. Watching the dynamic between family members and riders during sessions has been an eye-opening, and quite moving, experience. From what I've seen so far, the riders have understood that their families learning their new skills has been the reason they are able to start back, and are in their own ways deeply appreciative. At the same time, most of them also relish telling mum or dad to go and sit down when their stirrups and girths have been adjusted! Plus, when Covid protocol is nothing but a distant memory, who knows how many scenarios we will encounter which make us grateful for all these new skills...

Family time

From other people's families to my own, this silver lining is personal, but important. My family live about 30 miles away from where I live in Oxford: not far at all, in normal circumstances. My grandad, however, is in the highest risk shielding category due to a colourful medical history which particularly involves his heart and lungs, so he and my parents were unable to go anywhere at all during lockdown. They continue to be considerably more locked down than the average family, under advice from Grandad's consultants.  

I hadn't seen them since mid February until a few weeks ago, when it turned out that the end-of-day-empty yard was the only place which fulfilled the "mainly outside but not public, and with toilet facilities" brief. I have never had the time or space necessary to miss my family before (I was a ruthlessly un-homesick child, and even as an adult have always had the option to see them if I really wanted to), but I did and do miss them this year. So I diligently bleached the yard loo until the tack room smelled like a swimming pool and sat for a couple of hours accepting picnic food delivered to me at a safe distance. It was a strange family reunion, and I'm not sure if it will be possible again now the weather is getting colder, but I'm so glad it was possible then. I'm always saying that RDA makes more things possible than most people realise. This was something which had no audience, and happened at a tangent to the organisation's mission; it was still an important silver lining.

Making the most of the sunshine

I am running a fundraiser for Abingdon RDA, taking in sponsorship for a sponsored ride I am doing on 2nd October, and also marking my birthday on 5th October. If you have enjoyed this blog and would like to help support my group through what will be a very tough winter, donations can be made via my JustGiving page.