A re-re-restarter's diary: reflecting on RDA sessions post-Lockdown 3

Happy, sunny RDA days are here again: hopefully for good this time!

It's been more than a year since we all had to close up most of the best parts of our lives in a hurry and start working out our new pandemic lifestyles - RDA included, obviously - and I know I've had enough of all of the Covid-specific (or Covid-related) learning experiences this year-and-a-bit has provided and seems intent on continuing to provide. 

This time last year we were all squinting into a collective crystal ball, trying to work out when we might be able to go back to normal, or at least when we might be able to do something RDA-shaped again. Our experiences between and sometimes within groups have diverged a bit since then, and this spring was heralded by my group's third restart: we reopened for the first time very gradually early last summer; paused for the second lockdown throughout November; and then began a quicker phased reopening, working towards our activity levels from before Christmas, in March.

I think it's important to record and reflect on how we've been operating throughout the pandemic, both for the sake of documenting history and for pooling experiences and encouraging others in our community. I know that this time around, there have been more groups embarking on their "mission restart", and while it's good for the soul to see more and more evidence of RDA activity happening again, I know how much thinking and how many complicated feelings can be involved. As such, this week's blog is just that: reflections on how things are going post-Lockdown 3.

The headline vibe of Lockdown 3 and its subsequent return to RDA was (for me, anyway) "lockdown: harder/return: easier". No matter what you were doing (or not doing), where you were working or who you were seeing this winter, the sense of having had enough seemed to be universal. Being able to get back to RDA was a massive lift for me: I can imagine the elation for those who are restarting for the first time, and am so enjoying being able to see other groups posting happy restarts of all shapes and sizes on their social media platforms. Emotionally, I've found it straightforward, but I think that's because I went through a full spectrum of feelings about restarting (examples can be found here, here, and here) before and during us at Abingdon doing it for the very first time last summer. 

I'm not saying that nobody who's done it before is allowed to feel stressed or conflicted, nor am I saying that everyone should've pushed through and done something in summer 2020 to make it easier now. I think my approach to my first RDA sessions of 2021 simply proves that new, tricky things get easier when they aren't so new: it gives the resilience we've been cultivating during all those limited months a chance to come into its own. There are lots of feelings involved in reopening an RDA group and reuniting people with ponies or with other people. 

Whether or not they had an easy time of the last lockdown (some really didn't), my riders were lucky to be armed with the understanding that they wouldn't have forgotten how to ride, their favourite ponies wouldn't have forgotten them, and that we all really would meet again and be able to ride, because we'd brought them back and made it happen before. Even so, a family member of one of my youngest riders messaged me after her first session back to say that she had come home and cried because she had been so happy to come back. There will be a lot of feelings flying around during a restart process: I think it's important to acknowledge them, whether your own or someone else's, and roll with them as your group hits your stride. It might even take longer to work out than getting back into the physical side of volunteering and/or riding. One thing I talked about in previous blogs on this topic is "returner's guilt", which I'm not feeling this time around: I'm just happy to be back, and I'm happy for everyone else who's back too.

The processes required for sessions weren't such a mind-melter this time around, because they hadn't changed for us since before Christmas. I'm not involved in my group on a governance level, but I am incredibly grateful to our trustees (especially our chairman, Ann) for having been so thorough and positive in getting us cleared for takeoff by National Office. I wrote recently about the role of habits in RDA practice, particularly for volunteers; Covid protocol, such as remembering where and when to sanitise hands and equipment, or standing back to let a trained parent adjust a rider's girth rather than doing it yourself, represents a new set of habits to establish. Every time we do it, we are sharpening our reflexes. I am yet to encounter an RDA coach or trustee who regrets making the effort where possible: the extra admin and new things to remember or do are more than worth it for the good a restarted group is able to spread. It's the only thing in the last fourteen months that I've hoped is contagious.

No matter how you're going about restarting your group's sessions, knowing and understanding your participants will be your super power. I would've happily run some "quiet corner"-type unmounted sessions prior to getting any of my riders back in the saddle, but the appetite for actually riding was impossible to miss. That's not to say that unmounted activities and time enjoying a favourite pony's company aren't valuable: they really are, and I loved the reconnection time that they gave us all (and the time it bought me to train up parents and carers). Ultimately, I think my riders and their families felt excited about getting back on the horse (again), and confident in what they needed to do to make that happen. It was only right to listen.

Listening is still incredibly important to how I'm trying to conduct my sessions. I was very keen when coming back to RDA for the first time to emphasise to my riders that I had no expectations: if things weren't working as they'd left them in March; if they'd forgotten something; if they didn't feel as confident, that was all completely OK and we'd work with it. I brought the same attitude back to the yard in March, and in some cases found swiftly that, once I was happy all was safe, they were raring to go: Matilda signing "more trotting?"; Laura coolly but immediately jumping on board with suggestions to learn a new dressage test or start canter work again; Natalie pulling up at the end of a lesson and saying "now please tell me, what are the arrangements for Regionals and Nationals this year?" My first-day-post-RDA-crier, as mentioned above, has been a picture of contentment for every moment spent in the saddle. When she approached her favourite pony for the first time on our first Saturday back, everything about her body language said "Now I'm OK."

I've definitely observed a hunger in many RDA participants I know, in and out of my group, which isn't limited to those who have already been fortunate enough to get back to their sessions. For many, the enforced time off will be ticking and ticking away: missed opportunities, hampered progress, and the possibility of having to start the climb from a lower point than where they left off. Making your group or class the kind of environment where these feelings can be expressed and genuinely acknowledged is important to your individual restart culture. We've all been managing expectations in one way or another since we all closed in March 2020: we've definitely got it in us to work with our riders' expectations, or at least hopes. 

I haven't forgotten the feeling when restarting last year that most of my riders were a real unknown quantity: what was reasonable to expect after all that time away? Many of our riders at Abingdon were off for the best part of six months, if not longer. There are, of course, others who had only just restarted before Christmas, and others who are still waiting. Overall, there is a huge mixed bag of those who have slotted back in quickly, and those who have lost some combination of confidence and physical condition. I'm hesitant to lead with breezy headlines about how keen and happy my riders have been this spring, firstly because they've all been back before and secondly because my current crop are quite a self-assured, outgoing bunch: there's a bit of good fortune involved in both of those phenomena. The one thing we can aim for with all participants is progress. Getting closer to getting back on board, feeling confident or strong enough to ride for fifteen/twenty/thirty minutes, holding onto the reins etc are just as worthy goals as riding a dressage test or trotting and cantering independently: especially if, where possible, the participant can be involved in working out their own (here comes that word we all hate) roadmap.

The feeling at the stables for the past few weeks has definitely been good. My current band of volunteers all seem to be taking an "I'm just happy to be here and doing something worthwhile" approach, and have been as excited as me to see the riders returning. Most were involved in our restart process last year, so are comfortable with how we are working, and have been efficient and enthusiastic in doing just about everything that needs doing (I'm very, very grateful). I think the most important part of managing volunteers in this context is to make yourself as approachable as possible, so any questions and concerns can be asked however their owners feel comfortable asking. I made similar provisions for my riders' families, but found that I had more questions from volunteers (the most common one from families was "tell us what we need to do to get back to riding" - I bet many other groups will have encountered the same thing). 

A small silver lining of this complicated, inconvenient situation is that the focus has been sharpened on the common goal that brings RDA groups together: we know our activities generate good, and we want to make them happen. No matter where your group is on their own restart route, that positive force will still be there. It is particularly important to harness this and spread it out for the benefit of those who are not yet able to return themselves, even if you already have a fair number of participants and volunteers back in action already. I know that how I was feeling during Lockdown 3 was far from unique or unusual, and coming back to RDA opened my world up again in a manner far more meaningful than being able to go non-essential shopping or sit in a pub garden. There are many, many members of the RDA community who haven't been able to regain that freedom and everything that means for them.

We aren't in a race. This entire process has been and will continue to be so different for each of our groups. It's more of an all-encompassing workout: we're all trying to understand how it will work best on an individual basis, pacing ourselves, planning different exercises, and using the activity to make ourselves stronger. Even if the first step is a bit shaky, you'll be glad you took it when you've hit your stride.