"Horses changed my life: I don't want anyone else to be without that opportunity": an interview with Winnie Wilkins, RDA participant and advocate

All photos courtesy of Winnie Wilkins, pictured here with some of her mini pony pals!

I was asked to speak on an RDAUK webinar for Coaching Week last month, and one of the questions I was asked was about interviewees for this blog. I responded that although it would be amazing to interview a star-studded line up of Paralympians (my favourites are the ones who started off in the RDA system themselves), I was equally if not more interested in interviewing people who wouldn't necessarily be given (or seek out) a big platform in the RDA world. There are so many stories to be told by our community, and I know I enjoy learning from perspectives and experiences different to my own, so I decided to hop back on the interview train...

This week's interviewee came to mind very quickly: mainly because she is an articulate advocate for RDA in many forms with an honest way of expressing herself (and a blog of her own), and partly because she has always been a big supporter of what I've been trying to do with my own writing. I was really happy to sit down, virtually, with Winnie Wilkins of Avon RDA to hear more about her experiences, hopes, and struggles, including her fundraising mission for a new all-terrain wheelchair. Aside from being a lovely person to chat to, she definitely gave me new things to think about to inform my own experiences as a non-disabled coach. I'm sure you'll love getting to know her too.

What’s your RDA story? 

"My RDA story started at the age of 5 or 6. I was scared of anything that would be moved by the wind - even worse if it had a pulse! I hated physio so this was the next best thing. I started off at the same riding school where my mum used to ride when she was little (taught by the same woman too) and eventually grew to love riding and the opportunity it gave, I was fortunate to meet HRH Princess Anne on two occasions (both times sobbing because the music ride was a bit too eventful for my little mind to comprehend, sorry your majesty!).  

Once I joined secondary school there wasn’t much flexibility in my schedule, and I had very little success at excelling in my riding at a new stables, often feeling inadequate to my younger peers who were cantering around, while I remained a teenager on a lead rope. I soon returned back to my roots and got to grips with riding in private lessons, and became strong enough to canter around independently and had my mindset pushed like nothing I experienced before. 

I dabbled briefly in carriage driving and side saddle too, before finding my way to Avon as a young adult. This has paved the way for me to pursue different avenues of equestrianism, and I have remained there for the best part of 4 years – even through lots of ups and downs." 

I was really keen to hear a bit more about Winnie's experiences of carriage driving: my own RDA group hasn't driven in several years, having lost their single driving coach and then single driving pony, and it's probably the discipline I know least about. She lit up discussing the empowering sensory experience it offered her which (perhaps surprisingly for me, but I'm not very driving-informed) in many ways, she said, outstripped riding. "It's something I'd love for every RDA participant to be able to experience," she told me. "I love the versatility of all that the RDA offer, and I hope these opportunities last and can be developed to work in other RDA settings so no one is limited to their experiences." It's typical, of course, that accessing carriage driving is even trickier than getting a space for RDA riding lessons: Winnie travelled upwards of an hour to her most local carriage driving group, which wasn't sustainable long term, but this part of our conversation gave me a lot of food for thought.

Winnie carriage driving

How has Covid affected you in terms of your relationship with RDA?

This isn't an unusual topic of conversation in the RDA world, but I still think that participant testimonies are incredibly important for us to hear: even (especially) if they're not particularly cheerful. There are still plenty of participants out there who haven't been able to return to RDA activities (Winnie has only just got back in the saddle after 15 months away) and no matter how unavoidable the break, the process of making that return is a tough undertaking. I really appreciated Winnie's honesty on this topic and am glad that she is in a better headspace at the moment.

"Covid has definitely been a challenging experience for us all, but it has been good for reflection. The thing for most people was having their riding stripped away all at once and are now plagued with the uncertainty of when and if they will ever be able to return.  

For me, early on I could feel the benefits I had gained from riding slipping away: muscles were tightening, pain increasing and less frequent contact with good friends all contributed to my mental health significantly worsening. We live in a world where you are connected at the click of a button, but also can be quite distorted in terms of what is reality. I gained a very toxic perspective and questioned everything about my passion for animals and my friendships. It got very dark, and I took extended periods away from media to protect myself. 

I’m incredibly fortunate I had a good group of people scattered around the country who would check in on me and act as the light directing me away from the darkness, and for that I will be forever grateful and my aim is to meet them in person to show my gratitude!" 

What's one great thing about RDA that you hope never changes?

"The sense of community. RDA was my first ever experience of meeting lots of disabled people, and it’s always been a community of positivity with people uplifting each other all over the country."

What’s the most important lesson or value that you’ve been able to take from RDA?

"The value of friendship and having a solid support network, and how to enjoy the journey (stop to smell the roses kind of!), because the most important of things can blossom and be easily missed." This idea of enjoying and appreciating the journey really chimed with my own understanding of RDA and aims a a coach. Winnie continued to sing from the same hymn book as me when she spoke about her frustrations with the stereotype of RDA as "walking round in circles with ponies having a nice time" sort of activity. Her standards for herself are high, but she's far from alone in her attitude: I think we've got a collective responsibility to highlight how RDA can and does pursue progress and, in its many forms, excellence.

Winnie and Avon RDA's Cam pre-Covid - this pair have since been reunited!

Winnie has been working with “Mini Ramblings” at her RDA group to help develop their capacity for equine assisted therapy and learning. I wanted to know how had this been going, and her views on EAT and its future within RDA.

"Working with Emma and the ponies at Mini Ramblings has honestly been a lifeline, without Emma as a mentor and advocate my mental health would have declined further and my enthusiasm would have plummeted. Those pint sized ponies are worth their weight in gold, and continue to make me and Emma proud in everything they achieve. The demand for EAT and EAL is definitely there, with many benefitting from the sensory experience and learning from the ground – especially since riding isn’t available for everyone or desired by all riders any more. It's also an incredibly valuable tool for all riders to have a good relationship on their ground with their horses: it makes the bond more solid, in my opinion, and helps the rider understand the horse and its needs. You learn equally as much from the ground than in the saddle, and that has been a great thing for me to learn.

I describe my time with Emma and the team as my therapy decompression time. I love being around them and learning from Emma. At the moment its difficult to get amongst it due to my mobility scooter, but Emma helps make it work and I’m forever grateful!"

I can't express how much I felt Winnie's genuine love and dedication for this new arm of her RDA group's activities, both when she was talking to me and also when she has posted about the ponies (who are absolutely adorable) on her Instagram. I really enjoy getting my riders involved in groundwork and horse care when appropriate, but I think I am guilty from time to time of laying my riding focus on thick. There were definitely elements of her experiences which made me recount my riders' first on-the-ground reunions with their favourite ponies as we worked to bring them back after Covid: I have definitely taken from this interview a renewed sense of how variety in our activities is a really positive force for our participants.

Winnie with Tom Kitten - one of the cutest things I've ever seen on four legs!

I love learning from RDA riders about how I (and the coaching community more broadly) can improve the way I teach. What does good RDA coaching look like to you?

"A good, trusting relationship is paramount between rider and coach, because they know your capabilities and see you from a different perspective to your own. My coach Karen and I often have brief conversations about what I see in myself vs what she sees in me – that is very eye opening and encouraging. Communication is a necessity, otherwise the end goal can be misconstrued leaving confusion and upset."

I'm always glad to take advice on coaching from participants, and given that all but one of my own riders are children it's particularly helpful to have an adult perspective. Winnie's point about there being a difference between her self-perception and the way her coach might see her particularly struck a chord with me as an encouraging way of coaching: I'll definitely be looking for ways to incorporate this into my own coaching style.

You’ve recently got back in the saddle after more than a year away due to Covid, which must feel amazing! If we look (perhaps tentatively) towards the future, do you have any goals you’re setting for yourself? 

"It honestly was, the feeling was indescribable and euphoric – but one thing's for certain, I’m determined (and its ignited the desire to have my own horse again… oops!). I hope all riders are able to return soon in some capacity, and I do feel some kind of guilt in that respect. 

For the future, I finally got graded to compete in dressage, so I guess working towards competitions is a goal for me. My main focus, however, is fundraising towards a new bit of kit to help me access the EAT world a bit more easily: an all terrain wheelchair so I can get stuck into it and be an asset to the up and coming work at Avon. At the moment I’m limited by my current mobility scooter which doesn’t work well the rough terrain, I have a constant looming fear of becoming stuck in various places such as arenas and mud because it isn’t powerful enough to push through – and I’ve unfortunately blown a couple of batteries. For some this might not be a big deal, but for me it is the difference between me facing complete isolation from my peers and unable to carry out my duties as Ambassador for Mini Ramblings and Avon Riding Centre – which has been a vital component in keeping my mental health in check."

I think it can be quite easy in many ways for non-disabled people who only see RDA participants during their actual RDA sessions to forget the huge scope and cost of the equipment needed to access all sorts of activities many would take for granted. We often talk about the mobility riding a horse provides someone who might be limited on their own feet, but if equine assisted activities do start to flourish in the RDA world and beyond there will be many more people with equipment difficulties like Winnie's. I've been up close with a similar all-terrain wheelchair to the one she is fundraising for and it was an incredible piece of engineering, but cost remains a huge barrier for many (if not most) disabled people who would benefit from owning one. I'm sure you'll share my feeling that this is something which will be incredibly important for Winnie in terms of continuing to access the equestrian activities which she says, simply, have "changed her life".

You can support Winnie's fundraiser for her new world-broadening, life-improving wheelchair here. I hope you've enjoyed her insights and heartfelt enthusiasm for RDA and how it has contributed to her physical and mental well-being. Thank you, Winnie, for being such a lovely interviewee!