Six things I will never be able to teach my RDA riders
1. Which pony should be their favourite
I am in charge of picking my riders' rides, selecting new and existing mounts for safety, suitability, and variety (I am big on variety, and how much there is to be learnt from riding different horses). Even if I've got an opinion on which horse goes best for them, I can't teach them to share my opinions. This is no RDA-exclusive phenomenon: how many people have we encountered in our lives with horses who have fallen totally, utterly in love with the least suitable horse on the yard, or stuck loyally by the old friend who's been outgrown in every conceivable way? A fair few, I'm willing to bet, and we've probably all been both of those people at some point too. Favourite ponies can change with the wind or stay resolute for many years; so long as they accept that I will expect them to ride different horses where possible or necessary, I'm not going to stand in the way of true love. Even if some favourites make way less sense than others...
2. Where it's ok to push and ok to stop
Any coach in any sport can teach their athletes how they might start listening to their bodies and their individual limits, but the only person who speaks a body's own language is the person who lives there. Riding can be uncomfortable, or even painful, for anyone, but understanding the difference between the "I've worked hard" ache and the "I've pushed it too far" pain is a personal learning curve which can be extra steep and extra precarious for disabled riders. I think that in RDA we can occupy both ends of the scale: sometimes we might enable our riders to push a bit too hard, but I'm sure many of us are also guilty of wanting to step in and call it too early because we recognise their vulnerabilities. The amount of physiotherapeutic input many of my riders have had means that they can be acutely aware of their own bodies compared to non-disabled children of a similar age.
It's only the riders I've known for pretty much my entire RDA career to whom I feel confident saying "you're pushing too hard and you need a break". For everyone, I consider it important to use my coaching to teach good, safe practice, and to communicate regularly about how each rider is feeling. I can't teach them where their pain or discomfort thresholds are.
3. How to pick out "their people" and trust them
One of the most beautiful parts of RDA to observe is the formation of good relationships. Friendships between riding peers. Partnerships between riders and favourite volunteers. Seeing other coaches' riders light up when they realise they are understood and appreciated. As a coach I may well be in charge of the environment in which some of these bonds grow, but I can't teach someone else which people they are going to trust or enjoy spending time with (even if every now and again I can anticipate a pairing or group which is going to work really well). I have no aspirations of being my RDA group's answer to Jane Austen's Emma. When participants and volunteers talk about how much they love being part of their group and how good it makes them feel, there will generally be at least one person who has supported that feeling: not discounting the specific and essential magic of any horses involved. Trust is such an important part of good relationships, and in an RDA setting it can be hard won. Those of us leading RDA sessions can make them as kind and as inclusive a place as possible, but ultimately our riders will work out who "their people" are on their own.
4. How and where to prioritise riding in their routine
If you've put a lot of time into RDA, like coaches and long-term volunteers will have done, it can very easily become the part of your week that gets you the most fired up. I often joke that all the thinking I do about RDA (supporting my group, planning my next sessions, improving my practice, blogging...) easily takes up the headspace of a second full-time job. Ultimately, though, I am just the horse riding coach. In pre-Covid times, some of my riders had schedules of "normal" stuff like school and therapeutic activities and appointments which would make most non-disabled adults tired just to look at (to be honest, I feel like that at the moment looking at my work schedules from 2019). It's certainly a good feeling to hear that I'm facilitating the most hotly anticipated and thoroughly enjoyed hour in a rider's week, but it is one hour out of 168. My powers are pretty limited when it comes to instructing how riding can be made to fit in with everything else occupying those 168 hours a week, and it would be unconstructive and actually a bit unhealthy to expect or hope for otherwise.
5. What does (or doesn't) scare them
Fear is a bit like pain: it's a different story for how every person experiences it. I should know; I was hopelessly terrified of road sweepers (there is a ridiculous story here but this blog deserves better) until I was secondary school age, despite being either pragmatic about or unbothered by other more regular fears like needles, heights, and spiders. It's a big responsibility for an RDA coach, or indeed any kind of risk sport coach, to create a safe atmosphere where risks are considered and mitigated where possible. Horses can do scary things, but that can be defined on a spectrum from situations requiring the attention of an air ambulance to a pony sneezing. Where on the scale we start to feel our heart rate increase isn't something which someone else can teach us, although we might take some cues from others' confidence.
Fear is, of course, complex. Sometimes riders will be scared of things they want to do and are capable of doing: I've talked down plenty of individuals feeling a bit of stage fright at Nationals. Sometimes, I can help a rider out with overcoming a fear, like riding a new horse or letting go of the reins for a game in a session. Sometimes, a fear will be a bit tougher to break down, and actually it might just be better for everyone to keep a rider in their comfort zone for longer. Sometimes, a rider's complete lack of fear of anything will generate a brand new type of fear in other people. Swings and roundabouts.
6. How high they want to aim
I can teach a rider good sportsmanship, and make a point of doing so whenever the situation calls for it. I can't teach them whether they want to compete in the first place, or where their ambitions lie away from the competition arena. To me, a bad coach misdirects ambition in both directions: they project their own hopes and dreams onto some athletes, and claim others don't want to progress to XYZ without actually listening to them. It's absolutely OK to have hopes for the riders we coach, and consider what they might be capable of in the future (if it's not then add me to the Bad Coach list), but it's also our responsibility to listen, learn and move when the actual rider tells us that their aims are different to ours. Being tuned into the people in front of us and helping them to break down the steps needed to reach their goals is one of the most rewarding parts of the job, even if the final goal requires us to cede to a coach with greater expertise, or if actually the final goal is nothing more complicated than having fun. You'll love coaching for competitions if you coach riders who really want to go to them, and you'll be able to teach those riders so much more.