We've been here before: how I'm approaching lockdown 2.0

Lockdown 2: here we go again...? 

No matter how much light we try to make of it, a new lockdown (for England) in an already dark part of the year has brought on a fresh set of RDA closures, and with them a disconcerting combination of déjà vu and uncertainty. I know I'm not alone in feeling both things outside of my RDA life too, but the full shutdown in March and the 14 weeks I spent away from the stables will be a solid representation of the entire year and what it meant when I look back on things, hopefully from an easy, breezy, vaccinated and otherwise normal future perspective.

There's definitely that feeling of "we've been here before", but there are also new details ("quirks" seems a bit too jolly) which we all need to work out. What the last eight months have emphasised is that the RDA community has plenty in common, but plenty of differences. The first lockdown, and any subsequent lockdowns, have and will present different sets of challenges for every RDA group. There are also, of course, related challenges which other riding schools and equestrian businesses face, some of which may overlap with RDA groups' hurdles. My own experience doesn't quite stretch this far (as much as I can sympathise), so this blog will be specifically focused on RDA and its unique position within the industry. 

Our groups in Wales are shortly to come out of their shorter and sharper "fire break" lockdown, which also saw a complete halt to all RDA business. I can understand why Welsh groups might feel uncomfortable about the level of discussion about exemptions in England; RDA strikes me as an ideal place for a level-handed approach to all four corners of the UK, irrespective of legislative differences. Some areas of England (such as in the north west) have been limited for most of the summer and autumn by local restrictions. Some groups are reliant on a commercial riding centre to continue RDA work, whether they are hiring facilities and horses or operating a dual purpose yard; insurance companies, local authorities, and other circumstances all play into the response to guidance for the equestrian industry which could only be described as confusing and poorly thought out. The financial impact that this year has had and will continue to have will be very different for individual RDA groups, but regardless of form is unlikely to become any less of a concern at a time when most core and support activities (where they were happening at all) have to grind to a halt.

This is alongside the fact that only 152 RDA groups out of a nationwide total of 500 (about 30%) were operating post-lockdown anyway, and according to last month's report on activity levels, working with only 7.5% of its regular participant base. I know exactly what it's taken to get to those numbers, and I think that the fact that they aren't a single percentage point lower is testament to the resilience and dedication of the RDA community: I'm proud to be part of a restarted group, and I am proud of the efforts of others. I am also glad that commercial riding schools are able to carry on offering private lessons, having lost so much income already this year, but for some yards I'm sure that this prospect is not viable in terms of finances or time. If this became the case for RDA, I'm sure many groups would encounter the same obstacle; some already have in considering their restart strategy.  Ultimately, those of us who get to grumble that we are having to stop the good work that we've already put into restarting RDA are, in some senses at least, the lucky ones. At the same time, I don't doubt that this new month bearing fresh, unwanted time away from the stables will be very difficult for many of our participants and volunteers. This year has been extraordinarily difficult for many who get far more than just riding lessons from their groups, and even if it is a symptom of something far bigger than RDA, a new lockdown can't help but feel like a cruel dip on the 2020 rollercoaster.

I'm not thrilled about the prospect of another month off RDA for all sorts of reasons. I already miss the horses, the volunteers who have been helping to make my lessons happen safely, and my riders. At the same time, I'm not surprised that we have been instructed to shut for this new lockdown and I don't think that it's a bad decision on the part of RDA National Office, not that the new legislation gave many other options. Personal inconvenience and disappointment aside, the principles of a lockdown are based around the idea of reducing movement (whether or not the people moving around are healthy and/or contagious), and anchored in public safety. The RDA community is very good at looking out for each other, and for the members of the communities with which it intersects. For me, this means hitting the pause button (for those of us who had the luxury to be on "play" in the first place) is, with a heavy heart, the right thing to do. If I'm honest, I've been looking over my shoulder for this sort of thing since the first Saturday I stepped back onto our yard at Abingdon. Some things, sadly, are beyond our control, and I feel like we've been making sessions count when it's been possible to run them. This time next month, let's hope we can continue doing just that.

If it does become the case that RDA activity is allowed in some, specific circumstances (even since I wrote my first draft of this blog, I believe this is now the case) I still think we have a collective responsibility to consider this carefully and still keep activity as low as possible. When the right time comes to get back to it, I'll continue in the same vein as I have been since June: supporting individual groups and those groups' individuals in doing what's right for them, even if it isn't what I'm doing or what my group is doing. Restarted groups have been working hard at safeguarding the well-being of participants and volunteers in terms of Covid safety and the regular, extraordinary benefits of RDA at the same time. For the moment, the rules make it difficult (if not impossible) to keep doing both in good faith. 

An important realisation of the last few weeks is that the "it's what you can do that counts" mantra by which RDA folk live their lives doesn't necessarily mean that you have to max out the very edges of possibility available to you. What you "can" do at a particular time might mean holding back, or changing something up to do what you need for yourself. It might mean accepting the enforced break from riding and switching the focus to what else can be done to support the people we exist for. And even if we've all had enough of that personal inconvenience and disappointment by now, or if we've been waiting for longer than others, it is still a pause. We can do this.

What about the actual things I plan to do to weather this lockdown, rather than just how my brain is whirring away about it? 

Not stressing about the restart plan. This was on all of our minds a lot during the spring and early summer (I wrote a post about it which seriously jumped the gun on RDA's guidance, but which tapped into what a lot of people were thinking about at the time).  As a member of a restarted group, I've now had the benefit of putting the new Covid guidelines into practice and then adapting my sessions several times with subsequent changes. At this point, I'm feeling confident that I can snap back into things when RDA is green-lighted again, and know that we can adapt to any new requirements. This is a huge difference from my personal confidence in restart procedure six months ago, and I am hoping to be able to pass this on to my riders and their families.

(Re)connecting. I know a lot more about what individual members of my RDA group need and how best to communicate with them this time around. Just yesterday, I had a video call for a chat with one of my young riders and her family: she demonstrated her roller-skating skills while wearing her riding helmet. I loved writing to riders and RDA friends via old fashioned snail mail last time, and plan to bring that back in some way. On a broader scale, I also think it's a great time for inter-group connections and reconnections. A lot of discussion and sharing in recent months has been focused on groups which have restarted, how they did it and how they are getting on. It might be good for us all, not least those who have not been able to restart at all this year, to talk about what we're missing and our hopes and dreams for the future. The way we communicate during a lockdown is different to how we relate to one another outside of one, even (especially) if we usually see each other in real life.

Keeping myself as fit and healthy as possible. I know my relationship with my RDA group and that I am of most use to them when I am fit and healthy in mind and body. (Of course, being "healthy" is far from a pre-requisite for active and valuable participation in any sort of RDA activity: I am speaking purely about my own relationship with my group.) As such, I will be continuing to be careful and to keep myself fit and happy ready for when I am able to go back. Whether it's hands/face/space, taking your vitamins (I know my mum's reading this), talking to someone if you're having a bit of a wobble or doing what you need to rest, it's important to keep looking after you.

Reflecting. I've been keeping up my Coaching Journal for the time I've been coaching this year, and despite there being many weeks missing it tells a great story of how my riders have bounced back. I'll definitely be taking some time to reflect on all of this over the next month (perhaps compiling some of the best bits to share with parents and carers), to keep positivity levels up and my practical thinking-ahead-head in gear. The fact that we now have some organisation-wide experience of this stuff is a big deal: it's already a few huge steps ahead of where we were in March or April.

Researching. My group has been fortunate to receive financial support from various places during the pandemic: either through donations, or grants from organisations like Sport England and the National Lottery Community Fund. This has been a huge boost for us, but, predictably, quite a bit of that money has already had to be spent (it costs us about £100,000 a year to run). Winters are tough for keeping horses as it is, and we can't be complacent about the security of our future. I'm going to use a bit of my extra spare time to research grants we haven't yet applied for, or consider untapped fundraising ideas. It is very easy to feel "fundraising fatigue" during a big project or extended period of hardship, and I hope that we can help propel each other along within the RDA community to regain some of the raising and giving momentum I know I felt acutely in March and April. It isn't necessarily going to be easier this time around, but it is if anything more necessary.

Planning. Now I've got some post-lockdown RDA sessions in the bag, I am in a good place to use the pause to plan some more for the future. I am really, really hoping that we will be able to have our traditional Christmas party sessions, as I've worked out how to do Covid-safe pass the parcel and some gymkhana races which don't require any sharing of equipment. I am almost ready to start thinking about goals again, albeit very flexible ones, beyond "get back to RDA". While I'm at it, I really should make the effort to clean my yard boots...

Be back soon...

Wishing love, strength, and resilience to every member of the RDA family and anyone who will struggle during this new lockdown. Speak up if you need help, and see you on the other side.

Previous blog posts relating to the last lockdown, and the effects of Covid on RDA activity, can be found under the label #NoRDA.