Eight regrets from my time as an RDA volunteer

"Regret" isn't a nice feeling, is it? It seems a very heavy, negative word to associate with an activity which brings a lot of people opportunity, freedom, and happiness. The thing is, much like bad days, if you are involved in an RDA group for long enough, you are likely to end up with a few regrets. I've found myself considering some of mine during my locked-down RDA Saturdays. They aren't all bad if they can be converted into learning experiences, and that's what I've realised I've been doing: so, here's to owning, learning from, and not repeating our regrets!

1. Not staying overnight for my first two trips to Nationals

Could this be my biggest RDA regret? Even if it isn't, I still shake my head at the fact that it wasn't standard procedure for my group's volunteers to stay over at Hartpury for my first couple of years of going to Nationals (the best weekend of the year). We are a bit of a drive away, but not so far that it's impossible to go there and back in the same day, and when I was a fresh, new volunteer it was only a couple of members of yard staff who would stay overnight. What a mistake! The rooms are there to be booked (at a very reasonable rate), the time we'd otherwise spend travelling can be spent in bed and/or with the horses, and the atmosphere is too good to come home from if you can possibly help it. Total immersion is a logistical necessity for most groups anyway, but it's also the only way I will do Nationals now and forever, and I am constantly recruiting other volunteers (and indeed riders) from my group to this cause.

2. Trying to pack too much in

I might not regret packing everything into a Nationals weekend, but I've been coaching (including as a trainee) for more than seven years, and it's taken me more than half of those to realise that less is more when it comes to lesson planning. Somewhere I still have my original log book with some of my early plans, with every minute optimistically categorised and micro managed. I guarantee that none of my lessons have ever ended up sticking to over-stuffed plans. The bits I did manage to get through weren't necessarily bad lessons, but it's a more productive experience all round when I've got a realistic grip of how much time that game will take, or how long a rider's levels of concentration or strength will make another activity viable. I guess some things can only be learnt with time and experience.

3. Not changing it up enough

It can be hard to put your own stamp on your own little corner of an RDA group, especially when it's a couple of decades older than you are. I was still at uni when I first qualified as a coach, and as such wasn't in a position to take on my own class permanently. This was absolutely the right course of action for me at the time, but I think it meant that I got quite embedded in not changing too much for the riders and sessions with which I was involved: I didn't stray too far from the tack the riders always used, or the horses they always rode. I don't regret this as such, but I do now value the power of changing things and experimenting far more. A lot of trial and error is required at various stages and levels of RDA participation to find what works and what's needed to help a participant to progress. I focus on getting to know my riders well, but when I do I enjoy switching things up. I'm actually planning to try a different set of reins for one of my current riders when we get back to RDA after this lockdown... they don't know it yet...

4. Not recording more

I have been keeping a coaching journal of the RDA sessions I have taught this year (89 so far: a summer of individual lessons really adds up, even with three months off). It has been invaluable in terms of the reflective space it has given me, and also in terms of reminding myself what happened, how a rider rode, and where I am going next with them. It has considerably more detail on actual coaching processes than the notes I make in the shared diary at the stables (nobody wants to read my inner monologue in that one), and I can only wonder why I didn't start doing it earlier. I would love to be able to read back over my thoughts on my earliest sessions as a trainee now, but perhaps I can keep it up long term and wonder what on earth 2020 Coach India was doing in another twenty years' time. 

5. Getting frustrated with the short game

Instant gratification is nice, but watching a rider grow in ability, confidence, and understanding? That's much nicer. Even so, I think we've all felt frustrated when a lesson hasn't gone to plan and that same rider hasn't taken to an activity, or horse, or new skill as we might have hoped. A long game mindset is probably the best thing I've ever cultivated in myself as a coach, even though it was a complete change of pace from the go-go-go of my other high-speed, high-turnover university sport. Being able to appreciate the whole process of involvement in RDA makes it much easier to breeze through the off days and celebrate the marginal gains, and I really do regret not always having that insight. Focusing on the long game also makes us as coaches a much more solid and inspiring part of our riders' support networks. It feels good to say "I know this is hard right now, but you are already stronger/closer to your goal than you were last time", and I think it must feel even better to hear that.

6. Keeping the lead rein clipped on

I wrote a post earlier this year which said I had come to realise during my time as an RDA coach that it was completely fine that not every single rider I will ever work with will have the goal of riding totally independently. On the other hand, one of the best pieces of advice I've ever taken from a training day is "if you can, let them off the lead rein". If it isn't safe, it shouldn't happen. But, actually, I can think of more incidences (either observed or facilitated) of it not happening when it would have been safe and the rider would have benefited from striking out alone. 

For every RDA participant who needs that extra supervision and control, there's another (at least) who can only learn so much with a leader attached: I certainly regret the times I've left them clipped on because it's easier, or because I've underestimated their capabilities. Being able to take a step back and watch my riders riding for themselves without constant input from me is one of the coaching milestones which brings me the most enjoyment, and for many of my riders there is huge pleasure in being able to do it independently. As I've had parents and guardians handling stirrup adjustments etc as part of our restart protocol, some particularly enjoy sending mum and dad away when they're ready to go. Prioritising "independence where appropriate" will continue to be an important part of the way I coach.

7. Not starting conversations earlier, or with more people

For my first few years of RDA involvement, I was very happy with straightforwardly soaking up the experiences and understandings which came my way every Saturday. It's not that I didn't learn plenty from that time: I really did. What I regret not realising earlier is quite how big the RDA world is, beyond my group, or what enriching and productive conversations can come out of the challenges, uncertainties, or joys we might face. Later, an interest in starting more conversations with people inside and out of the RDA bubble contributed to the creation of this blog. There is so much to be gained from genuine dialogue: sharing experiences and advice; offering encouragement; and even disagreeing (constructively!) with others who are as invested as we are in this community. Bring on the talk. 

8. Taking my time at the stables for granted

I know I'm not alone in being surprised at some of the things from "normal" life I've missed this year. I wasn't surprised at all that I missed RDA, but I did realise (and swiftly regretted) how much I had taken my time spent at the stables for granted. From fresh air and extra steps to the sheer magic of being part of a life-improving force, I've got a new perspective on how fortunate I am to be able to give my time to my group. I won't be taking it for granted again.

 Bonus regret: any/all circumstances connected to any incidence of Bryn escaping his stable


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