Ten great things I've gained from being a young RDA coach

10/10 would recommend... Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Since the launch of the RDA Young & New Coaches group (how exciting to see it gather just shy of 50 members already!), and despite the fact that it needs plenty more time to gain momentum and start making a meaningful difference, I've been thinking even more than usual about what it means to be a young(er) RDA coach. Coaching week might have been and gone, but attracting new coaches to support the present and future of RDA is a year-round priority which is never going to go away. 

I talk so much about my experiences specifically as a young coach because it's a group, even roughly defined, which is underrepresented within the organisation. Some of the things I've listed in this week's post definitely apply to coaches of other and all age groups too, but it does no harm to put them all together for the benefit of any potential or prospective young coaches who might wander this way - if you know any, or agree with any of these points, make sure to share it!

1. A long-term relationship

A long relationship with anything isn't meaningful by default, but when the relationship is with an organisation which does meaningful work to improve others' lives, it's very likely to be. We are fortunate enough in RDA to have many individuals who have already given 20, 30, 40 years plus of service, and I think for younger and newer incomers that can be a little bit intimidating. Don't see it as "I've only just started/only been doing this for 2/5/10 years": young coaches have a fantastic benefit of being able to forge a long-term relationship with the organisation with the work they put in in the here and now. It's also humbling and inspiring to be able to learn from such a rich history to which many current RDA stalwarts have contributed. I've been involved with RDA for my entire adult life so far, and I take great pride in being able to build and build my own relationship with it.

2. Experiences money can't buy...

I've ridden on beaches and up mountains, on heavy horses, on no saddle. I've camped overnight on a stable yard (never again), presented a little snippet of a radio show, and had a whole lot of fun in my pre-RDA equestrian life. The experiences that I've had with RDA: accompanying riders to the biggest competition of its kind for disabled equestrians; watching the Paralympics (and meeting people involved in it); being present for huge milestones in our riders' lives... so many of them go way beyond the other experiences I've had on and around horses. If you're looking to diversify your equine experience in a way which might just win your whole heart over, you needn't look any further.

3. ...and experience beyond what an office job provides

On a pragmatic level, RDA will almost always be something I have to juggle with a full time career away from horses. I don't think that anyone should pursue experiences or qualifications for the sake of them looking good on a CV, but if you are doing something like RDA with feeling and off your own back, it pays dividends in terms of transferable skills and interesting experiences. I've talked about handling crises, managing people, problem solving and impact planning in an RDA context in job interviews a million miles away from a stable yard. It's definitely a good bonus.

4. Horse time on my terms

Horses are expensive and accessing them isn't always easy. I don't think any other way of being involved with horses would've worked as well, as consistently or as flexibly for me while at (or applying to) university, or when navigating my first graduate job. You don't have to be full-time horsey to be a decent RDA coach, and you can make your involvement work for you if you're in agreement with your group about what sort of commitment they need from you. That's rarer than it maybe should be.

5. A comms crash course

I communicate better with everyone in my life because of the conversations I have at RDA. I have to communicate creatively, diplomatically, clearly, and often all of these adverbs under a little bit of pressure, and conversations range from the informative to the heartfelt to the totally surreal. During our Covid closures I even tried my hand at being a penpal for my riders. The way we communicate is evolving even as I write this, as is the way we use language to empower and include others (both pretty essential to RDA). I'm not saying RDA is keeping me totally ahead of the curve, but I'm further along in my understanding than I would be without it. 

6. A happy head

No beating about the bush: my mental health is better for being involved in RDA, and the strange absence of RDA activity during the past three lockdowns has really highlighted quite how important it is for my own well-being, as well as my riders' and volunteers'. It isn't rocket science that commitments and activities which give us purpose and require us to show up for others can be a really positive force, forcing us all to get out of our own heads and focus on how we can make a difference. RDA does just that for all its volunteers, and I think coaching is an extension of that which really works for my personality. I definitely wouldn't be without it.

7. Trust

It would be remiss to write a blog like this one without acknowledging one of the things I value most highly from being a coach: the trust of my riders, their families, volunteers and even my group's horses. The best RDA ponies can sometimes make us forget that we are facilitating a risk sport, and that horses can be really quite frightening to some people for many different reasons. I think receiving another's trust is very closely wrapped up in the sense of purpose which contributes so heavily to RDA's effect on my mental health. It's one of the greatest pieces of feedback you can ever receive on how "right" you are getting it, and certainly keeps me motivated in my coaching.

8. Grace under pressure

As a teenager I was once told, rather unhelpfully, that the ability to deal with difficult things quickly and coolly would "come with life experience". I suppose that this wasn't untrue (just not particularly applicable to my A-Levels), but I've found that being hands on with the challenges RDA coaching can throw at you has fast-tracked my ability to keep my head in a crisis. I don't want to put any prospective young coaches off by saying it can be stressful from time to time, but you certainly learn something from a rider pinging off the side and a volunteer fainting while leading a horse in the same short two minutes as the county coach arriving to do your review.

9. Achievements beyond the norm

I'm definitely an achievement-orientated person. At school I was if anything too much about getting good grades, and I enjoyed pushing myself to learn new things in my hobbies. RDA opened up an new range of possibilities for achievement for me, which most importantly weren't focused exclusively on me as an individual. Being able to take an active role in helping others achieve great things of all sizes, and having my own achievements focused on opening up opportunities for other people has been an experience as empowering as it is grounding. I'd recommend it to anyone.

10. Life long friends

Horses might make RDA possible (and I've got plenty of four legged RDA friends!), but it takes people to make it happen. The friendships I have made with people across the organisation, many of whom I never would have otherwise met, are some of the greatest things I've taken and will continue to take from my coaching career. I'm so happy that with many more years of RDA ahead of me, I've got even more opportunities to continue meeting and making life long friends who care about the same things I do. What's not to love about that?

I'll high five to that! Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Don't forget to pass this blog on to any people you know (young or otherwise!) who might be an amazing RDA coach - or share the great things you have gained from your own coaching experiences.