Six RDA achievements which are bigger than they first appear

    Sophia riding Ernie, a dun Connemara gelding: this was not only the first time she rode him, but also the first time she rode using regular reins!

I often think that being involved with RDA gives people a first-class education in appreciating the little things. When disabilities are factored into any sort of activity, progress and expectations often end up looking a bit different to the assumed norm. I'm regularly struck by the effort involved in accomplishing something that a non-disabled rider would take for granted, and feel privileged to share the sense of accomplishment that it can bring. This week's blog post is partly inspired by all those times my riders' small achievements have been way bigger than small, and equally motivated by the fact that we all need the odd reminder of the power of the little stuff.

1. Staying in the saddle for the whole lesson

Very early readers and followers of this blog might remember Woody, a young (then, very young!) rider with whom I worked very closely when he first started riding. Woody is autistic and struggled initially with a class environment for RDA sessions, so I pared it back to short individual sessions in a quiet empty half hour and began building up the time he spent riding and interacting with the horses. Although he is non-verbal, Woody made it very clear when he was happy and settled and just as clear when he'd had enough and was struggling. As time went on, he stayed content for longer, settled back into a class, and kept building. It wouldn't have been appropriate for him whatsoever to mark the first lesson he stayed happily on board for the whole hour with cheers and whoops (some of my other riders absolutely love a standing ovation) but while I exchanged Excited Looks with his parents, it was all happening in my head. Although I don't teach Woody's class now, when I see him sitting quietly getting what he needs from his RDA sessions, I remember, and it always makes me smile.

2. Making a small change for the first time

Changes can be a big deal in RDA in all sorts of ways. They can be unwelcome, challenging, or both for various participants, especially if presented in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Just before Covid (not that we knew it then) I asked Thomas if he would like to try regular reins for the first time. My logic was that his hands were getting stronger and stronger at a fairly equal rate (I'd checked in with his mum about it), and that the extra precision and control which having reins he could adjust himself would appeal to him. He had a good look at them and said "no, I don't think I'm ready", so I put them away and said that was fine, we could try again another time. It was only last weekend that I thought I'd offer them back to him, and was met with an "OK, I'll try.". The same little change had been met a few weeks previously with enthusiasm by his former riding buddy Sophia (pictured above), who had to think much, much harder to get to grips with her new aids, but who glowed with both the sense of accomplishment and new feeling of how her mount was responding to her.

The transition between loop and regular reins is hard to conceptualise for someone who was given the regular sort from the very beginning, and Thomas definitely had to concentrate harder on his hands than he probably ever had before during his lesson last week. But, as I predicted ahead of time, he wants to master the new skill because he wants to be more precise and likes to feel in control of the horses he rides. It was a big deal for an apparently small thing, and I made sure he heard that from me. He also took me up on my offer of borrowing a pair of reins to practice with at home during the week...

3. One little kick...

It is very, very easy for a riding coach to tell someone "kick kick kick!" without thinking very hard about what that actually means for our riders' brains, joints, and muscles. If any of those three things don't function as we might expect them to in a non-disabled person, "kick kick kick" becomes "this is unhelpful" very quickly. The same principle can be applied to lots of other things: I've been surprised in the past when otherwise strong and capable riders have struggled with doing something like reaching forward in the saddle for a stretchy walk in a dressage test. There are sometimes hard lines, for the things that we aren't going to change or "fix" about a rider: RDA isn't going to make a blind rider see again, bring back an amputated limb, or make paralysed legs able to run. Stick with it long enough, however, and you have a good chance of seeing someone become strong enough (physically or otherwise) to do things - like using a leg on their hemiplegic side to kick, or controlling an arm or hand enough to use it effectively on the reins - which are only possible as a direct result of riding. One kick could be the culmination of months, if not years, of hard work in RDA sessions.

4. Switching the position

One of my recent interviewees, Winnie, has started a new term of riding at her own RDA group and is using her Instagram page to record her progress, specifically in terms of the position of her legs. Just this week, she posted about being able to lie with her knees relaxed and flat to the bed: something which is huge, and directly traceable to the physiotherapeutic benefits of riding. It's important to note that RDA is never about making a participant seem as un-disabled as possible, or indeed about using non-disabled standards and assumptions as a baseline for disabled athletes' goals. It just happens to work out sometimes that a classically improved riding position can be one pleasing side effect of a rider working hard and responding well to physio. Shifts in position, even the kind which wouldn't be noticeable at all to the untrained eye, can mean a seismic shift in anything from comfort, to strength, to independence. And riders aren't "just sitting there" at the best of times.

5. Memorable moves

This one is very simple, but it's the sort of thing that gives me an internal "yes!" moment as a coach: when a rider executes a movement or exercise you have taught them, with no prompting, remembering previous corrections, and focusing on every necessary element. It can be a transition, a twenty metre circle, a halt in a particular place: little things. Even knowing the protocol for mounting and dismounting without being prompted. When it's 100% rider making it happen, that can be much bigger than "little"...

6. Awareness campaign

I've never not wanted to raise perceptive, conscientious riders, but since Sophie Christiansen told me that self awareness was one of her biggest strengths I have really decided to make it a priority. Self aware riders understand their strengths and weaknesses better; understand when they've pushed (or been pushed) too hard; twig when something isn't quite right; and recognise how they can pursue progress. What's not to like? It's the kind of thing that has to grow over time with our riders, and which grows faster in some areas than others: Natalie is very switched on to atmospheres and can also pinpoint exactly how many holes her stirrups need to be adjusted by, but her physical self awareness for trotting independently took more work. Self aware riders are also usually more aware of their horse as a living, breathing, sometimes kind of random creature: hearing a rider tell me "Jasper feels different to ride today, I think it might be because..." is such a small thing, but represents a huge spectrum of understanding. Working out that a horse responds differently when a lower leg is in a different position, or when its rider relaxes, or that you have to work harder on one rein than the other because of a weaker hand or leg or hip... that's all bigger than it seems. Self aware riders are far from just along for the ride.

Have you ever seen or accomplished an RDA achievement which is much bigger than it might first appear?

A group of three RDA riders riding out around a stubble field (away from the camera) on a beautiful sunny day