Eight useful things to get to know about an RDA rider

Two of my group's riders sharing a moment with one of our horses (photo from 2019)

Last week's blog was all about potential volunteers, but there's another "new" group who we're going to be seeing more of in RDA as post-Covid momentum keeps building: new riders (and other types of participants for the disciplines I don't coach, natch). It's been a while since I've had a new rider in my classes to get to know, but getting to know the people I coach is one of my favourite and most highly-valued parts of the job. People are interesting, and a coach enabling a person to access an activity which could change their life in an hour a week is in a really special position.

There are really obvious things which an RDA coach needs to know about a new rider: these tend to show up on the registration forms, so I don't feel the need to discuss the merits of knowing a rider's name, height, weight, or a basic outline of their disability before plonking them on a horse. Over the years, I've found that there are things on top of those basics which I like to pick up on as I get to know each new rider: things which help me to understand them and their world beyond a form or a diagnosis. These are my top eight, in no particular order. Some come as the answer to questions posed when the time is right to ask them, some answers are learnt from observation, shared experience, and sometimes off-topic chatter. All of them matter.

1. What's their setup at home?

Almost all of my riders are school-aged (and the one exception to this I have known since they were) so this is usually a case of establishing things like who looks after them, who is the parent/carer most involved in getting them to their riding lessons, etc. I'm not digging for life stories (although many of my group's families feel very comfortable with sharing things with us: a privilege for any RDA group), but it can really help to understand a child I'm trying to coach if I know that they live with other relatives rather than their parents, or what sort of sibling relationships they have. 

Sometimes a rider's home setup will mean that they are brought by a different parent or relative each week, or that I'll only ever see one parent because the other has a complicated work pattern/handles siblings' extra curricular activities at the same time/is terribly allergic to horses (I have two separate riders with parents in this category, and it's definitely information that's useful to have ahead of time!). It's great to be able to put everything else aside and focus on an RDA session as a self-contained bubble, but it's just as important to understand at least the headlines of where they are coming from as people, not just participants.

2. What worries them?

Equestrians, not just RDA participants, can in my experience be divided into three broad subtypes. Firstly, the type who has very specific worries: they don't want to go too fast, be too high up, be laughed at, be hurt etc. Secondly, the kind who worries without fully understanding what worries them. Often our smallest riders will start off in this category, like Matilda, who used sign language independently for the first time in her first ever RDA session, to say "help me!". Similarly often, just like Matilda who is now more likely to ask to go faster or do something on her own, these worries can be handled really well by a nurturing RDA environment. Finally, the type who seemingly isn't worried about anything, and whose coaches need to balance out their go-getting attitudes by doing a bit of worrying on their behalf (we could call it risk assessment). 

Working out which type a new rider best matches when they're in my sessions is one of the first boxes I need to check off when I meet them. Over time, it's also possible to go a bit further and work out whether they're in the same group away from RDA. It's not unusual for RDA participants to be more self assured, or at least better at articulating their worries, when they are with their group than when they are in another setting like school. In between, and then beyond, these two realisations is when a coach works out how to handle the anxieties. Most of us are probably doing it already without even realising.

3. Where are their "hard" boundaries or limits?

I'm always excited to meet new riders because of the huge scope of possibilities that exist within RDA and how enthusiastic we are about seeing the "cans" and not the "can'ts" of every individual participant. That's not to say, however, that there won't sometimes be things which a rider at least starts off not being able to do. Our smallest riders often start off not being able to sit up independently when they start RDA, so have to be supported carefully until they are. There are other non-negotiables too: Natalie can't see, so everything she does at RDA has to be engineered around that. Other riders might not have any movement or sensation in a limb or side of the body, or might always require assistance to mount or dismount for safety reasons. RDA has always been good at promoting possibility without toxic positivity: we are not in the business of expecting the same things of all of our disabled participants, or making anyone change to fit one definition of our "it's what you can do that counts" motto. Working out where the hard (and movable) boundaries are early on is an important springboard for any coach to start working on the good stuff: what absolutely is possible.

Sophia, a rider I've known since she was four (I think!) enjoying the challenge of a new horse and some new reins

4. How do they (or their parents/carers) like to discuss their reasons for being there?

Language is hard. We hear plenty about language being used in a derogatory or discriminative way towards disabled people, but in a well-meaning organisation like RDA you have the contrasting problem of people tying themselves in knots over saying the "right" thing (uncomfortable for everyone - unfortunate). The very simple solution to this is to learn, through a combination of observation and (where needed and/or appropriate) inquiry, how a participant and their family like to talk about their disability. In my experience, this is a big spectrum. Some kids will rock up ready to walk you through their entire diagnosis, complete with medical terminology. Others will never actively refer to themselves as having a disability at all. Depending on the participant, communication relating to their disability might only come through their parents or carers, or a young rider's understanding of their own disability will develop over time. The best thing I've learnt to do over the years is to follow their individual leads, and keep following when feelings, just like language, evolve. Nobody's going to get it wrong talking about themselves or their child; I might if I don't listen properly, and that's only on me.

5. What's the best way to communicate with them?

Communication has come up as a mark of good coaching in both of my most recent interviews, and everyone (whether they're a participant in RDA sessions or not) will have a way of communicating which suits them best. In a class setting there is going to be a fair amount of one-size-fits-all communication, because instructions are given to the whole group, but that's not to say it isn't important to work out what works best for a new rider 1:1. I wrote in last week's post about how being particularly good at a particular way of communicating could be a real boon to a potential volunteer's skillset: coaches need to be a bit more versatile, and I love adding to my own skills in this way. It's an important part of participants feeling accepted and understood in their sessions. Horses will almost always upstage humans in how effortlessly they manage to do this without words, but that means it's even more important for us to put in the work.

6. What are they good at?

Having established where the non-negotiables are in point 3, it's always good to remember that everyone has a strength in their RDA sessions, and usually multiple strengths. A rider who isn't keen on going fast might have a knack for technique; a rider who doesn't take much interest in holding the reins might have a beautiful seat; a rider who isn't a big talker might have a brilliant sense for making their aids heard. Some are just far better riders than I could possibly hope to be myself. (All of these are real life examples for me!) Once I've worked out what my riders are good at, I really like to make a point of sharing it with them. And while I'm still getting to know who they are as riders, I also like to get to know what they're good at away from the saddle. If it matters to them, it matters to me (plus I get to live vicariously through my oldest rider Laura since she joined her university cheerleading team - I can't wait for her to realise that I am absolutely not joking when I say I will learn all her choreography).

7. What makes them smile or laugh?

Once you've worked out point six, this one might not take much to fall into place. "Ice breaker" is a bit corporate team building for my liking, but real coaching is about making connections rather than just making someone listen to your instructions. A smile or a laugh means, more often than not, that some is feeling comfortable in their surroundings and will be more receptive to learning and trying new things. If a new rider is especially quiet, it feels like cracking an important code the first time they respond to something you say or do with a smile. I overheard a connection being made between one of my riders and a new volunteer the other weekend when it was established that they both enjoyed reading the same series of books. The ice melted over a longer period of time for another rider, who will strike up a conversation with anyone at all on the yard after starting out barely talking to me. Sometimes the ice is broken, shattered, by the equally cultural experience of hearing a horse fart really loudly for the first time. There should be at least a little bit of laughter in RDA sessions, whether they contain preschoolers or competitive adults, so whatever works, works. Farts and all.

8. What do they (or their support network) hope to get out of RDA?

Goals and plans will form and change the longer a participant stays within the RDA system. It is no exaggeration that many of our young riders grow up with us, and often the goals that end up being reached extend far beyond initial hopes and expectations. Part of the getting-to-know-you process, however, does need to cover a broad brush "what are you looking to get out of this experience?". It could be that it's part of a bigger physiotherapeutic plan to help a child learn to walk; a wish to improve emotional wellbeing (this could apply to anyone); rehabilitation after an accident. Sometimes it's just a case of "this was recommended to us and I really want to see how my child gets on with it." Even if I'm a small part of my riders' teams, I still want to share the teams' aims. On a practical (if slightly glum) level, it can be helpful in observing the rider and working out if riding is going to be a decent fit for them. On a much more inspirational level, it helps give me direction and momentum... and lets me know which milestones to celebrate. When I really get to know my riders, I tend to find there's a lot worth celebrating.

A whole group of fabulous individuals out for a hack