Things good and bad I've realised from coaching a blind rider

Natalie riding Duke (a piebald cob gelding) in the outdoor arena at our RDA group, in her dressage test for Virtual Regionals

One of my earliest blog posts, in the carefree, Covid-free days of summer 2019, introduced a few hundred people to blind rider Natalie and her loyal contingent of letter callers, who successfully directed her around her first trip to RDA Nationals. In RDA, we're used to working with the challenges posed by all sorts of different disabilities, and to some extent watching those from outside the sport being impressed by the scope of possibility. In my experience there is something that really strikes people, whether they know anything about equestrianism or not, about the idea of somebody who can't see anything riding a horse, with skill, on their own.

I've been fully responsible for coaching Natalie since she returned to RDA after the first Covid lockdown. With all lockdown time considered, she's had just a year and a bit of in-saddle progress since that blog post two years ago. It's been fun, and her progress is solid: she is more independent, more physically confident, and more self-aware in terms of technique and position (even when she tells me "I forgot everything about my position in trot for the gymkhana games because I just wanted to win" - I am grateful for honest riders...). I think I've also made a lot of progress in the way I am able to coach and communicate with her, beyond the regular steep and constant learning curve of RDA coaching. The flipside of this, however, is that I've made a lot of realisations about how things do and don't work for blind riders which means that the more we do, the more I have to work hard to keep both of us up to speed. I am reminded here of a university tutor who taught me an ancient language who told me "the more you know, the more complicated it gets". In the spirit of reflection; of maybe helping others who are, care for, or coach blind riders; and of celebrating what Natalie continues to achieve, I'd like to share some of these observations for this week's blog post.

Sport is very visual

 Have you ever thought about how the way we consume and learn sport is almost entirely visual? If you are a sighted person, like me, I'm going to guess that you haven't. It was as easy to brush off the lack of commentary for the Tokyo Olympic equestrian coverage as it is to say "the football just isn't the same on the radio!", or to look over at your childhood swimming teacher and go "oh, that's what my front crawl is meant to resemble". Sport at any level often involves obstacles (jumps for riders; hurdles for runners; the great outdoors at large for all-terrain cyclists; a vaulting table for gymnasts) or other visual cues, like a linesman's flag in football; the lines on a running track; or a digital display counting down the seconds.

I realised that Natalie wasn't struggling to establish rising trot because she just couldn't do it: it's really unusual for someone not to take visual cues from a coach and/or from watching other riders when learning it as a skill. We talk about "feel" in equestrianism more than pretty much any other sport, because what we do involves live animals, but feel without sight is a whole different ball game. Ask a sighted rider to close their eyes and continue what they're doing with feel alone and the vast majority will go "this is weird and scary!" and open them again after a few strides: I've done it myself. I had to describe what each muscle and body part needed to do to Natalie before she started getting close to the feel of a decent rising trot, and it took us both a long time to get it even vaguely worked out. The heightened focus on her body awareness and understanding of the different horses she rides has also improved her position and sitting trot, but the biggest lesson for me as her coach was just how visual coaching is most of the time.

Clive Milkins recommended that a scale model arena would be a good teaching tool for Natalie, and someone who used to work with my dad was kind enough to make one for her (I've put a picture of it below). She has enjoyed this coming into play this year, although we worked out that it was much easier to use once I sloshed a couple of cups of water into the sand ("it's the sprinkler system, Natalie!" I said merrily). Only she uses it, so it's good from a hygiene perspective, and I use it in almost exactly the same way as I might a whiteboard or piece of paper to demonstrate a correction or new movement. I've seen methods of making sport more visually inclusive for blind and partially sighted people, like florescent markers at strategic points for blind cheerleaders, but this will only go so far for some and go nowhere at all for people like Natalie, who has no light perception.

Orientation goes way beyond callers and arena walks

Blind riders are allowed at any level (as I understand it) to ride a full circuit of the arena on each rein prior to starting a dressage test, and can have a caller in the centre of the arena and/or further callers outside of the arena at each letter to help orientate them. This is good. This is nice. Is this enough to compensate for not being able to see the arena? Honestly, I don't think it does. 

If I'm riding in a space marked out by flat boards on the ground, being able to see where those boards are heavily informs the way I ride so I don't stray outside of them. If Natalie is riding in the same space, there is no way I can tell her if she's strayed (which is a very reasonable possibility, given that she is very much still learning and that our horses, while wonderful, are not trained to the degree that they can measure a dressage arena and all movements by themselves) in a dressage test without straying from what I'm allowed to do as a caller. I work on rhythm and straightness with her, of course, and do so with her riding as independently as possible (riding a straight line on a lead rein is unlikely to be useful to her if she needs to work out how it feels), but I can't be the only coach of a blind rider who's struggled with this. Computer games are often programmed to make the controller vibrate when a player reaches a boundary. I don't know if the answer is to equip every blind rider with a sensor on their arm which buzzes when they are on the edge of an arena, but it's worth considering the fact that although both require some sort of precision and skill, playing a computer game with functioning vision is a lot harder than riding a real life horse with none.

It's not that either of us aren't prepared to put the work into orientation: we really are, and can't wait to start working in our group's new arena, which will offer a consistency of riding conditions (something I consider more important to blind riders with every passing week) for training spaces and movements that we have never had access to before. I just think that the status quo underestimates how much support would be fair to offer a blind rider with their arena orientation. My arena sensor fever dream might not be a fair fit for everyone, but I know how much time I spend on keeping Natalie in the right place and how it compares to how much I do with other, often less experienced riders.

Natalie using her model arena to learn her dressage test. There was a lot of discussion this day about correcting the straightness on the centre line and diagonal changes of rein, which is why these lines appear in the sand!

Noise priority 

I would hope I don't need to say this, but it's a myth that being blind makes your other senses somehow superpowered. Natalie hears fine and is used to focusing her sense of hearing and touch to interpret the world around her, but nothing superhuman. I've always been conscious of the numbers of different noises around her and how sometimes that can be a fun or productive thing (she likes a party), but how in a concentrated environment like a dressage test it can tip into overwhelming if not handled well. When she rode her first ever dressage tests, we had a caller on each letter and a caller reading the test. I think it did the job for her at the time: she knew each of the voices who were there for her at every letter, and the "dot to dot with instructions" approach gave her confidence. Now, however, two years on, she has learnt her test ("that wasn't difficult at all!") and we have graduated to having me as a single caller on X. She has to think more and ride more, but the soundscape in which she has to do this is less busy and more conducive to focus: it's a balancing act.

I've come to refer to this phenomenon as "noise priority". I think we are able to process more visual phenomena at one time than we are auditory phenomena (I am absolutely not a scientist and have no proof of this, but please tell me if some exists!), and when sight is removed from the equation entirely it also means a loss of some of the combined power of multiple senses at once to increase this capacity. I can look at social media on my phone while watching the TV and have one of those at a time augmented by audio; I can't deal with listening to two different songs at once. Sometimes when I'm coaching Natalie it's a higher priority for her to listen to me explaining that the horse is being a little bit wayward, or that there's something noisy in the car park, and what we're going to do to manage that together. Other times, it will be higher priority for me to stand back, call the letters and let her get on with the riding. Our new indoor school wasn't ready in time for us to film entries for Virtual Regionals or Nationals, and actually the videos have been really instructive in the sense that they pick up all sorts of uncontrollable noise: the wind, the horses in the fields doing lord-knows-what, the dual carriageway that runs parallel to our yard. I have a loud voice, but it can be a real challenge for me to make myself loud and clear enough to be a no-brainer priority noise for Natalie. My vocal chords are the part of me most excited for coaching in that new arena... 

Must try harder

If Natalie can't hear or feel something, she can't be expected to know that it's there or that it's happening. When the yard cat scampered across the arena during the filming of her qualifying dressage test, this was the case: the horse didn't react and the cat was quiet because, well, it was a cat, but I explained the whole scene to her at the end just because it was amusing. Sometimes she'll get an incomplete picture: a horse raising a hind leg at an inaudible fly, or the soundtrack of a vaulting performance at Nationals. The more I interpret the visual world for Natalie, the more I realise that I could always be doing more, and that I will always need to remind myself that I take my sight for granted. Sometimes she'll be facing towards me and I'll mix up my left and right (while waving the correct arm around out of habit, no doubt); sometimes my instructions won't be clear or timely enough; sometimes, in the context of a hack or more relaxed lesson, I will find myself sitting back a bit and not giving many clues as to what's going on around us. I think Natalie is very generous about my efforts ("you don't do so badly, India") but on a pragmatic level, the better she gets the better I have to get at being a substitute pair of eyes. I've realised, in horror, that this even extends to my writing: my photo captions (even though a lot of the time I use general RDA images to break up the writing, rather than illustrate a specific point) leave a lot to be desired, so I've made them more descriptive for this post and will continue to do so.

Natalie riding Duke (the same piebald cob from the first photo) in her Virtual Regionals dressage test. As she rides the corner between A and F, the yard cat makes a swift and silent dash in front of Duke - both are totally unbothered!

Never don't let me go

 A very short and simple observation I have made over the last year specifically of knowing and coaching Natalie is that I have learnt (and will have to continue to learn) to let go and let her do it more. There is a vulnerability attached to being a blind rider which I think scares sighted riders a little bit, and which means that we become masters of the sneaky hand on the rein to finish off a movement, or my personal speciality, the "anxious hover hand". Natalie and I agree: the horses listen better to her when I'm not right by their heads, and that's the objective, even if it means spending longer on the basics to make sure she's safe doing them with me on the centre line. An RDA coach's internal monologue is pretty much fluent risk assessment anyway, but I have to be extra extra alert when Natalie is riding independently: for one thing, the letters come up faster in trot!

I think having Natalie ride on her own, as opposed to in a group, has also been a really important part of this process: it's safer (less risk of collision or horses getting into each other's personal space...), and offers more space for the concentrated communication that teaching her to ride independently requires. I know this isn't an option for every blind rider in the RDA system - it wasn't always an option for her - but I think it's been the biggest factor in enabling her to make the strides she has over the last year, and enabling me to let go more.

Where to next?

I've been planning on writing this post for a while, but it seems particularly pertinent that I am finishing it after watching the Tokyo individual dressage tests. Dressage is the only parasport where blind athletes compete on a (supposedly) level playing field with sighted athletes. (Yes, the sport with the big, heavy animals with minds of their own!) If a rider is like Natalie: totally blind but with no other disabilities, they would usually be a Grade 4, who walk, trot and canter. The only blind rider I saw in the ranks at Tokyo was Katja Karjalainen of Finland, who in addition to having no right eye and a very small field of vision in her left, has additional physical disabilities which place her in Grade 1, where riders compete only in walk. High level blind para riders do exist: here in the UK, Nicky Greenhill was on our shortlist for Tokyo... but they aren't as well represented as many other disabilities, and I don't think it's unreasonable even for someone as non-expert as me to wonder why.

Natalie is a long way off being able to ride a grade 4 test: she is competing the RDA VI walk only test and working on trotting independently in lessons, so I do tend to put this sort of thing out of my head when I'm coaching her. I think it's excellent that RDA have both TVI and PVI (totally and partially visually impaired) dressage classes on offer to National Championship level, with walk, walk/trot, and canter options available in each section, with all of these classes held indoors (quieter). It would be quite a jump for many riders to switch to riding in a Grade 4 class against sighted competitors, often likely in outdoor settings, and some blind riders managing it successfully doesn't necessarily confirm it as a fair progression. I follow other blind riders on social media, notably Nikki Watson and her "Poo Picking in the Dark" blog, and have "overheard" discussions on Facebook about the difficult obstacles and attitudes which can stand in the way of blind riders making progress, or accessing the sport in a meaningful way in the first place. I know there is plenty of frustration about all sorts of difficulties with classification and accessing para equestrian sport, but there seems to be a particular set of frustrations for those trying to find a meaningful way through as blind equestrians. I don't think Natalie is headed all the way to the Paralympics, and if she was, I would need to cede to a more knowledgeable coach to get her there. Even so, she could still achieve a lot as a blind rider, and the more she progresses in her regular RDA sessions, the more I realise how differently she has to make that progress as someone who has never ridden a horse (or even looked at a horse) sighted.

Although Natalie has a keen sense of justice and high personal standards, she's going to be the last person to sit around and complain that being blind is unfair. The closest we get is a bit of a grumble that an old film she'd like to watch isn't available with audio description, which is totally fair enough. I think it's on the rest of us: the people who coach, support, and generally care about blind riders or would-be riders, to ask these questions, build support networks, and work to improve the training and opportunities available. I might feel that the more I get into VI coaching, the less I actually know, but I do know that I want for Natalie what I want for all of my riders: to see her flourish as a person and as a rider. I suppose you'll have to keep following this blog to see which developments happen first...

Natalie and Duke (again!) riding in the outdoor arena outside of a dressage context. The photo was taken from X: at the time in April this was a very new phenomenon outdoors for Natalie.