Ten ways to make our RDA participants feel welcome after lockdown

RDA restart? Two thumbs up!

1. From the heart

It sounds obvious, but a heartfelt and straightforward "welcome back, I/we have missed you" is the starting point for what every RDA participant, or indeed volunteer, needs. It may be that a few things feel like picking up where you left off, but most participants will have feelings about returning after a long period of time which don't necessarily tally up with how they felt about RDA and its place in their old normal routine. Acknowledge the gap and the fact that their presence has been missed. My riders all take this sort of acknowledgement in different ways, but I think we're all glad that they know it.

2. Structure me up

Whether it's their first ride in a year or a third crack at a Covid safe restart, a full explanation of how an RDA session is going to work ahead of time will make that first session back infinitely more welcoming. I know groups have been working hard on this, and it's just as important for volunteers as it is for participants and their families (or other accompanying adults). Having a space for queries and concerns before setting foot back on the yard is top-priority stuff.

3. Remember remember

I've heard and seen a lot of comments along the lines of "will my favourite horse forget me over lockdown?", or "my child is worried that her pony won't remember her". There are profound bonds forged in RDA sessions between horses and participants which can't always be seen by those who aren't involved. I'm no expert in horse memory, but I've seen our horses brighten up, whickering a "hello", at seeing their human friends again; even the trickiest to catch of the whole herd voluntarily walking to the gate of his field to greet a young rider and her mum. I think they do remember, and when I tell my riders "your favourite horse is looking forward to seeing you again" I mean every word.

4. Quiet time

Many RDA groups have introduced "quiet corners" and other opportunities to spend time with horses on the ground as part of their previous and current restart plans. My group allowed individual coaches to organise this as they felt able and was appropriate for their own classes, and I really valued being able to do it for my riders (it also provided an ideal opportunity to train their parents up to support them in their eventual riding lessons). You know your participants the best, but there is definitely a consensus that a bit of quiet pony time is a) accessible and b) a useful stepping stone for where there are likely to be lots of big feelings about coming back to riding.

5. Wish you were here

It's important to acknowledge the participants who still haven't been able to come back to their RDA sessions and who may still have a wait ahead of them. Whether or not unmounted activities are viable for any riders in this bracket with whom you work, how about an email, message, or even a bit of old-fashioned snail mail to keep them in the loop and remind them how much you are looking forward to welcoming them back? I've seen plenty of ways of doing this over the last year, including postcards from favourite and/or sponsored ponies on their field-based staycations, and spent a bit of time writing my own "Pony Post" to my young riders during the first lockdown, which I'd definitely be revisiting at this point if I hadn't been able to get them back to riding. Even if the circumstances surrounding a rider's return are still unclear and uncertain, everyone likes to know that they are still being thought of and cared for.

Quiet time, meeting old and new equine friends...

6. That's refreshing...

We've covered structure, but it's important to be mindful of any other skills or routines which might be a bit rusty for anyone returning to their RDA group, beyond the Covid-focused stuff which has been the focus of hundreds (if not thousands) of training and retraining sessions. Don't assume that your participants or volunteers will have remembered how to do absolutely everything, and make it clear that they can raise anything which they feel would benefit from a bit of a refresher: no judgement.

7. Off-horse, on-line?

I think everyone's digital communication skills are sharper and more varied than they were a year ago. If you have participants who are not yet back to their regular routines, not back in the saddle, or not yet back with you at all, are there ways they (and/or their families) could get involved online? Depending on your set-up, there is the potential for tasks to suit everyone: writing a "guest" Facebook post about why they miss their favourite pony (with or without parental assistance), right up to applying for grants to support your group into the future. I know from personal experience it can be hard to stay motivated by digital only RDA, but it could be the boost somebody needs to hear that their efforts would be appreciated by their group.

8. What expectations?

Number 6 talked about expectations to do with remembered skills and habits, but I think a welcoming restart culture also needs a bit of a dial-down on expectations in the saddle. Some participants may feel anxious or frustrated about regression over however many months they've been away, and those of us supporting have a duty to guide them through this with positivity and encouragement. I saw a few flashes of frustration in one of my young riders' faces on his first ride back this year, when things weren't quite as smooth as he remembered them being the last time he rode. My response (abridged) was "I know, but I know you will get there again, and I want you to know that I'm proud of what you're doing right now".

9. Take their lead

Equally, we need to let our expectations be guided by the participants in front of us. We can think "take it slow and easy for 2-3 weeks, no independent work, no trotting" etc, but if a rider slots back in ready to take on more than the planned challenges and all is safe and well, why stick rigidly to that? There's no Covid protocol to stop us from checking in as much as we need: "How do you feel?" "Would you like to try this?" "How tiring did you find that?" There's always a fine line to tread for RDA coaches between giving appropriate support and assistance and holding back progress: it still applies to this restart process.

10. Look forwards(ish)

Having something to look forward to is good for us all: I know some (if not all) of my riders were on almost hourly countdowns to their first riding lessons of 2021. There are, of course, varying levels of optimism and willingness to make firm plans for The Future. I don't know if my group will need to close again, or what will be possible for us to run in terms of events this year, even if I know what my hopes are. That doesn't mean that, once we're back in the swing of things properly, I won't start to talk about what my riders would like to happen or what they would like to make their goals. I already have one strategising fiercely for Virtual Regionals of her own accord, but it doesn't have to be attached to a date or time: just something for the future. A genuine "welcome back", to me, should acknowledge what we hope we will have to look forward to just as much as the rocky closed period(s) we've weathered. We've missed you; we're glad you're here; shall we talk about what you would like to achieve in your RDA sessions?

A parent and child team, happy to be back!