Seven assumptions about RDA I've had to correct recently

An RDA rider laughing while riding Mr Brown, a bay gelding with a blaze, in a field. Photo credit: Siobhan Dennis

Assumptions, myths, misconceptions... nobody's a fan, but I've found that some of the ones I've come across over the past few months are actually really good starting points for productive discussions about RDA. Have you come across any of these... or have you been convinced of them yourself?

1. You must be training future Paralympians, how exciting!

Ah, so everyone's a future Olympian at your local swimming or netball club? I love surprising people with the high standards of training and achievement we have in RDA, and our National Championship is a truly noteworthy event for grassroots sport of any kind. It just isn't helpful to watch the medals flowing in after Tokyo and think that every single disabled athlete is headed in the same direction. The Paralympics are just as competitive as the Olympics, and for equestrians they present a considerably greater financial challenge to stand a chance of selection due to there being less money within the sport (Sophie Christiansen talked about this in the interview I did with her prior to the Tokyo games). There are some wonderful stories in parasport, real triumph-against-the-odds stuff, but those competing at that ultimate level are representations of exceptional talent, and more often than not access to the right kinds of resources and support to enable those talents to be nurtured. I am passionate about nurturing the talents of my RDA riders as far as I possibly can, but most of the riders within our system won't be headed quite as far as Paralympic medals. And if any of mine are (never say never...) I would need to give way to a more skilled coach to get them all the way there.

2. I've heard that RDA sessions are much easier/slow moving than normal riding lessons

I've had my fair share of "normal" riding lessons: RDA sessions operate on a much broader spectrum, and our focus is more on what is challenging and productive for individual participants, rather than a generalisation about what's "easy". There is always more to it than it seems, and assumptions about "normal" progression in any sport are actually pretty ableist. An RDA rider might ride independently in walk only, but ride that walk all the way to the Paralympic games. Another RDA rider might take two years to be able to sit unassisted on a horse - I doubt they have felt that their sessions leading up to that progress were "easy", even if they've enjoyed them. Other RDA participants will be able to access lessons which more closely resemble what non-disabled riders consider more technical or difficult. No session and no participant is lesser for these differences, and the focus on what is possible for individuals: actually, I think it's one of the things that makes the RDA system stand out alongside the mainstream. 

3. All the children must be so sweet and smiley!

I consider myself fortunate to coach genuinely lovely people, most of them children. Sometimes some of them smile a lot. Sometimes they are tired and emotional because of whatever else has gone on during their week. Sometimes they are fed up. Sometimes they want to push boundaries. I'm sure it's well-meant enough when I hear stuff like this, but there's nothing to say that the children I coach will be any sweeter or smilier than other children because they happen to be disabled. Many have a far more difficult experience of negotiating growing up than their non-disabled peers, so if anything, I'd understand if they slipped below the baseline of "cheery" that adults sometimes assume of kids. Often RDA participants of all ages (remember, we aren't just here for children) will feel happier at their groups, around horses, than they do almost anywhere else: that's something we should be really proud of as an organisation. Providing a place of acceptance and achievement for disabled people is even more of a reason for stepping far, far away from the cringeworthy "they're so happy despite their challenges" rhetoric.

4. Aren't you just for people in wheelchairs?

In short, RDA overall isn't limited to one specific type of disability or person, although individual groups may have their own constraints in terms of where and to whom their places can be offered: horses will have weight limits for welfare reasons (and larger horses suited to RDA work are much harder to source than smaller ones); sessions might only be available for a specific age group, or on a specific day or time. It's certainly my experience that RDA is able to accommodate a wider range of disabilities than perhaps other levels and areas of para-equestrianism, and I have coached and otherwise helped disabled riders at my group who are all incredibly different and not all wheelchair users. I am often conscious, however, of the fact that the riders I see every week are the ones my group was able to find spaces for. There has been more demand for RDA than it has places available for almost its entire history: it is wonderful and life changing, but it is also run with finite and expensive resources, and largely by volunteers. This means that some people might never get to the top of the waiting list for their local group, and also that groups might have to make some difficult decisions about who they can prioritise, when - decisions that can feel and appear very unfair to those still waiting. This doesn't mean that RDA is only for certain types of people with specific disabilities: it means that RDA offers something so worth having that it's not possible for it to keep up with demand. It's not going to get any closer to meeting that demand without support from as many people as possible.

5. You all seem so kind and your horses seem so happy. Do you do any horse rescue sort of work too?

It's certainly nice when people acknowledge how well RDA horses, and para horses at large, are treated. I've seen a few occasions where someone has made a comment online about RDA equines having a "hard life" and been corrected swiftly and sternly by a barrage of equestrians. More recently, I've actually seen more comments from outside the community on how happy and well-cared for the horses at the Paralympics appeared, and it's seriously unusual to have a new volunteer not comment on how lovely our horses' lives are at my group, even (especially) when they saunter in from the fields covered in mud ready to slobber any unsuspecting new human friends. Do we have a rescue arm, though? Absolutely not. Our existing horses can often take a great deal of TLC and patient training to keep them fit and well for their RDA jobs; even if there's plenty of room in horse people's hearts, it's very difficult for RDA groups to find the space and resources for horses who aren't there to help with those groups' core purpose. RDA horses are working horses just like those who aren't ridden by disabled riders, and are given five star care on a charity's budget. We'd love to have fields of rescue ponies too, but our working equines are good at eating all our money without any extra help!

6. Aren't all RDA groups closed because of Covid?

No - some of us had our first reopening over a year ago! Every group will be on its own timeline right now, and have its own needs associated with that: lots of new volunteers, limited new volunteers, new horses, help around the yard, online fundraising... It's important to remember that the c. 500 groups under the RDAUK umbrella are all independently governed and operating in often very different circumstances. It might be frustrating to see groups in other parts of the country building their activity levels up when your local group is still closed, but it is very much in the nature of the organisation for there to be operational differences across the country. All groups will be really grateful for your support, even if you aren't able to return to riding or start volunteering quite yet - perhaps you could investigate how to do this to make the wait go a bit faster?

7. RDA volunteering looks challenging - I don't think I could do that!

People are very good at talking themselves out of new experiences. I hear lots of things like "I wouldn't know what to say/do/how to handle something like that" when I talk (as I often do...) about RDA to non-RDA people. How do we think of doing it like that? How do we manage not to say/do the wrong thing? Isn't it difficult when you don't have experience of working with horses/disabled people? The first part of this assumption needs no correction: RDA volunteering is challenging. That doesn't mean in the slightest that you couldn't do it, and do it well, and besides, you're only going to know if something really isn't for you if you don't give it a whirl first. Your local group might have ways into volunteering which are less challenging for you and your skillset, and all groups are very used to training up newbies who haven't experienced anything like it before. A big chunk of our current, confident, happy volunteers started off unsure of what they could offer to RDA and vice versa. There's no harm in trying it out...

Two RDA riders riding away from the camera on a grassy track between my group's fields and yard buildings