"That'll never work!": seven challenges and changes which have surprised me as an RDA volunteer

There are always challenges afoot when you put together the ingredients of an RDA session: riders with diverse and specific needs, volunteers, the elements, horses... I regularly use this blog to champion the organisation's ability to cultivate its members' problem solving skills, so this week's post is about some of the challenges and changes which have made me stop and think during my time as a volunteer. Which ones feel familiar to you?

New pony to ride? You'll never know if you never try...

1. Stepping away

I've lost count of all the times I've realised I've been hanging onto a lead rope or hovering by a horse's head a little more than long enough. All of the experienced, senior coaches I've learnt from on training days or sought advice from have advocated for (after a sensible risk assessment) stepping back and letting riders do it for themselves. We work in an RDA setting with riders who can be a bit more vulnerable or in need of help than non-disabled riders in a mainstream riding school, but that doesn't mean anyone needs to be held back unnecessarily. 

At the moment I'm seeing this plenty with Natalie, whose lessons are focusing on her independence: when I step towards her horse full of good, helpful intentions I can often mess things up a bit. The horse tries to follow me; Natalie doesn't get the experience of correcting herself; the lovely rhythm she had built up doesn't work for my human strides... Nobody in their right mind is saying that we should all unclip our RDA riders, give their ponies a slap on the quarters and wave merrily as they veer off into the sunset (or end up parked by the nearest patch of enticing grass)... but I don't think it's uncommon for RDA riders to be more capable of independence than the people coaching and supporting them are happy to admit. It's ok to be pleasantly surprised by how much (and how much more) is possible when you step away sometimes.

2. New (four legged) friends

I have nailed my colours to the mast a hundred times: I'm not into one pony tricks, I don't want to turn out riders who only know how to ride one horse, and I think it's a Very Good Thing for everyone to have a go on as many different horses as is safe for all parties. That said, I've taught riders over the years who I've had very good reasons for keeping on the same horse or couple of horses, and have been hesitant to switch over because it's easier that way or because I feel a bit anxious about how a different mount will respond to that rider. 

A skill I'm trying to develop in my own practice is casting a critical eye upon my reasons for keeping a rider paired up with a specific horse. If that's the only horse on the yard suitable for their weight; the only horse who can be used with a hoist; the only horse who is suitably laid-back about some of the noises or other behaviours they might encounter from that rider... they stick with that horse. If there's no safety reason why not, and if I have the support of a skilled volunteer who knows the rider, most other things can be negotiated around. I've been pleasantly surprised in the past by how well a new pairing I'd been holding off trying has worked, and even my more hesitant riders have surprised themselves by how much they've enjoyed trying something new. Music to my ears? "I'll ride anything!"

3. Switching and ditching

You can switch and ditch all sorts of things in an RDA session, but here I'm talking about tack. There is often an element of "if it ain't broke" when it comes to the tack and equipment we use to enable our riders to access their sessions. RDA coaches are very used to swapping reins and stirrups around for every single rider: a far cry from the riding school horses of my youth who had one pair of reins and one pair of stirrups each and it was nobody's problem but your own if your legs were too short for your favourite horse's designated stirrups (I think this fuelled my current hatred of the twisted stirrup leather). For horsey new volunteers, I think it's actually one of the weirdest culture shocks that there's a set of different tack requirements for every rider, even though really it makes perfect sense.

What can be a challenge is changing up tack when a rider is really, really used to what they were using before. A move from loop reins to standard ones when a rider is ready (their coordination and/or hand strength has improved enough) can be a daunting for them, even if their coach is excited about the extra technical buttons it's eventually going to develop. I've definitely learnt over the years that switching and/or ditching can make a huge difference to a rider's experience of riding.

Natalie, all the better for a bit of freedom (with supervision!)

4. Time to say goodbye?

It feels seriously wrong even thinking that giving up riding might be the best thing for an RDA participant, but one of my biggest surprises ever was realising that this was a) completely OK and b) par for the course if you coach for any moderate-to-great length of time. A few years ago I had a rider in one of my classes who was very nervous. This isn't so unusual in any group of riders, so I continued treating her with encouragement and patience, but her nerves didn't seem to improve with this, or time, or working very closely with an immensely kind coach-in-training who was with me at the time. For whatever reason, her parents maintained that she was still getting a lot out of her riding lessons. It was the very same week that I had decided to have A Talk about how things really didn't seem to be working and how it was unfair for her to be getting upset every week at RDA when the parents very politely surrendered her place in favour of dancing lessons. My biggest lesson from this? My gut was right all along, and everyone could've done with me starting that conversation earlier, even if it would've been awkward. We all want to surround ourselves with good news and success stories, but sometimes coaching right can mean suggesting it's time to say goodbye. Even if it feels a bit wrong.

5. Learn your moves

I once coached a rider (who wasn't in my regular classes) for her first Nationals and had more than one person tell me that she couldn't possibly be expected to learn her dressage test and/or that it would be too much pressure. Knowing the child and that they had been taking their test to bed with them every night for the past four months, I asked them to ride through as much as they remembered one session and was presented with the full test: no stress, no hesitation. I'm never going to withhold test-reading privileges from anyone who needs it, but I vowed that Regionals that I wouldn't be reading any tests unnecessarily, either. I suppose the surprise here is that nobody lost out from this arrangement, including (especially) my vocal cords. 

6. Getting the parents involved

I've written about this a few times before, but I know many were opposed to the idea of getting parents and carers involved in assisting riders to enable them to return to RDA. This is a pretty embedded part of my group's sessions by now, including one of my riders' parents who genuinely enjoys leading in lessons and developing skills alongside his child (he's really good too!), and I am so glad to have it in place. Some parts of it won't last forever, but being able to delegate stirrup adjustments will never not be useful. I think my returning riders' parents have also developed a greater level of understanding for how their children's sessions work which goes beyond even multiple years of observing from the sidelines. It's a tried and tested thumbs up from me.

Parent power!

7. Time well spent...

I think most RDA volunteers have surprised themselves a few times with just how full on an RDA day can be, and how we can tap into reserves of stamina and enthusiasm we've only ever been able to access for RDA purposes to power through and make it work. I've felt the post-lunch slump sat at my desk during a completely standard working day and shuffled home looking forward to an early night: at Nationals I'll have woken up two hours early, eaten lunch two hours late, joined multiple riders on their own personal emotional rollercoasters, and still be giving my all to the cha cha slide at midnight. Even more regular RDA Saturdays take a lot of mental and physical energy, but somehow my brain is (almost) always ready to crack open the "RDA reserves" and make some good stuff happen. I suppose the real challenge that surprised me the most as a new volunteer was how difficult it is to get up and go somewhere on a Saturday night after a busy RDA day. Zzz...


  1. Re "stepping away"- having to " social distance" with three fairly able riders has made me realise that they are much more capable when given a chance to do things for themselves. Instead of the volunteers " lending a hand" to lead, alter girth/stirrups etc we now verbally assist and keep our distance.
    This has been rewarding for riders, coaches and volunteers .
    So recommend " stepping back" when safe to do so.
    I can also relate to trusting the rider to remember a dressage test and remind myself to keep my mouth shut!!!

  2. The "giving up riding" is a hard one.Ihad a lovely gentleman in one of my groups who didnt start riding until in his 60s.He absolutely loved it and his first competition rosette was worn to lessons for weeks.But as he passed 70 he found it more and more difficult to keep his posture and always looked very tired and uncomfortable (as was his pony).When I had "the conversation" with his carers they accepted fully that it was time to give up.Unfortunately their manager did not see it the same way and made a complaint that I was being "ageist".


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