What does a confident RDA rider look like?

Natalie riding Jimbob, a chunky coloured cob, in a large indoor arena.

“Confidence”: definition, ‘the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something’. 

In and out of RDA, we consider it a good thing to be confident: one of the benefits of RDA we trot out most regularly is the fact that our activities can help to develop a participant’s confidence in more than one direction. As a coach, I can point to how every single one of my riders has grown more confident during the time I’ve known them. But, just like every other RDA participant, they are all incredibly different to one another – so what does a confident RDA rider actually look like?

“Confident rider” is a term often used by the wider equestrian world. If I were to ask a cross section of that community what they thought a “confident rider” was, there would likely be some level of crossover in their responses: the in-saddle scenarios we would assume wouldn’t bother them, like cantering across an open field, riding new horses, or managing a reasonable level of equine waywardness. 

This definition doesn’t fully translate across to RDA, where some participants might present as a non-disabled confident rider might, but others will have different needs and approaches to the support: an experienced and self-assured competitor, for instance, whose physical limitations mean they do not ride faster than walk or trot independently. There might be less access to some types of riding - many RDA groups don't jump, for instance, whereas it's often assumed (rightly or wrongly) that confident non-RDA riders would be happy to pop a small fence. Participants' perceptions of the broader horse world may be limited too: a break from convention for a sport which can be criticised internally and externally for being inaccessible and judgemental. There are multiple kinds of confidence available to any equestrian for growing (or indeed damaging), but RDA's strength is understanding and appreciating them more than the norm.

Physical confidence is the first type of confidence that I found myself thinking about in the context of RDA sessions. A physically confident RDA participant would be self-assured in the way they apply aids or participate in activities (taking their hands off the reins to throw a beanbag or catch a ball). Their body language in the saddle would be open, relaxed, and flexible to whatever degree their disability allowed: I notice that my more physically confident riders are more likely to turn to look at things (maybe a peer trotting individually) or communicate with volunteers, or to take a hand off the reins to point at something. Being in control of an animal bigger than you is a good boost for physical confidence, whether or not you had much of it out of the saddle. I think this is probably the most measurable way confidence is developed through RDA, because it is so closely related to the development of physical strength and skill (whether a rider realises it or not).

Communicative confidence is also a common, if not totally universal, area of growth for RDA participants. Learning to ride is like learning a new language: we communicate with horses in a particular way. Although we teach riding using a regular human language - say English, but it could be anything - there are ways to understand it which don't require total mastery, whether spoken, heard, read or written, of the coach's language. Learning to communicate with horses gives a sense of achievement which can transcend any of the more standard achievements that might be expected in a classroom, and filters through into the ways a person might relate to those around them in and out of their RDA sessions. 

Matilda communicated independently for the first time in her first riding lesson (you can read the full story here), and huge milestones can be reached in the seemingly everyday exchanges of a riding lesson: a "thank you" here and a "good pony" there. This isn't about RDA having a flawless success rate of making non-verbal participants outstanding conversationalists, although I know more than one participant like Matilda who started without saying a word and now happily chat, observe, and tell jokes to their helpers. Participants might remain non-verbal, but find their own ways of making themselves heard which they wouldn't have managed without their contact with horses.

This is closely interrelated with both emotional confidence and social confidence: it's no surprise that something which is all about feeling comfortable and happy spreads out into every part of a person's being. An emotionally confident rider is honest to themselves about their feelings and often open with those feelings, good and bad, to those they trust: coaches, volunteers, horses. A socially confident rider has a self assurance which extends beyond their own headspace and is up for conversations and friendships: perhaps even beyond their RDA group. 

It's incredibly rewarding to watch these two types of confidence flourish. Watching one of my riders happily striking up conversations with adult volunteers she has never met before, and socialising with other riders she doesn't regularly see, makes it easy for me to forget that when she first started riding she wasn't keen to speak up and had trouble putting some feelings into words (despite being otherwise articulate for her age). A small group of our teenage riders volunteer on the yard at the weekends (their mucking out skills put me to shame) and couldn't wait to tell me what they were getting the others for Christmas without their friends overhearing. Their social confidence has been turbo-boosted by the way they are understood and accepted at RDA. What a privilege for us all.

I think confidence is often associated with ambition, but I'm not convinced that the two are totally stuck together. Confident RDA participants are often the ambitious ones, but not exclusively: it does everyone a disservice to assume that a confident, self-assured RDA participant has to be gunning for the higher/further/faster life. Ambition can be built up in front of areas of limited confidence, and a rider can also be totally confident in themselves and their relationship with RDA with no reference to wanting to progress from where they are. A "confident rider" might not be confident in every area, and it might not suit a particular participant to consider them in terms of each of these areas with no additional flexibility. I prefer to think of each type of confidence as belonging to an individual: Thomas' physical confidence and its development is totally different to Woody's. Both are just as important. 

Florence (a rider who could definitely be described as confident!) riding Bryn, a bay roan Welsh pony. She is using a pair of coloured or "rainbow" reins: this was actually the first week she used them, at her request!

On a basic level, confidence correlates with experience. We do something many times, we feel more confident about doing it: whether that’s riding, leading a horse in from the field, making a cake, giving a speech, driving a car. It’s an oversimplification, however, to claim that experienced riders with or without a disability are always the confident ones. The longer we ride, especially if what we are doing in the saddle becomes more challenging to match (and extend) our level of experience, the more likely we are to have something go wrong to damage that confidence. 

Even if things aren’t actually going south, other factors can shake a person’s faith in their own capabilities. In an RDA setting, that could be a mismatch between participant and support team (maybe a change from a much loved coach or helper), a competition result perceived as “bad”, or a move onto a different horse which a participant wouldn’t have asked for of their own accord. Ultimately, what we need to try our best to develop in all of our participants is a sense of resilience. RDA can absolutely be a source of comfort and routine, but the nature of its horsey environment means that unexpected and challenging things can happen there: being able to react and adapt to these things with even a shred of confidence is where resilience grows. 

Resilience and confidence are a much more genuine pair than confidence and experience: they aren't twins, but they are definitely siblings. Resilience can literally be about "getting back on the horse", but mercifully no falls are required to get the most out of it through RDA sessions. Resilient RDA riders push on when parts of them hurt and the people around them have never felt the same kind of pain; trust they're doing the right thing when they're struggling to interpret all of the communication coming their way; stay firm in their self belief when everything else is telling them they can't do something. Resilience means the ability to bounce back, physically, socially, emotionally, when something isn't expected or quite right. Every rider I've known through the stop and start of each lockdown has been tested by the lack of access to their RDA sessions, but it's hard to remember that now when I see a content, competent picture in the saddle each weekend. Maybe the resilience that saw them through came from RDA in the first place... 

I also think it's important not to underplay the role of a coach in the development of both confidence and resilience. We aren't necessarily the source of our riders' confidence: that could come from their favourite horse, their most trusted side walker, their riding friends, even the presence of a particular parent or carer: I've known some young riders who have been much more settled when one parent is watching their lesson than the other. I work hard at being the sort of coach who can instil confidence in the people they teach: communication, understanding, and proactive, individual plans go some way toward achieving that. 

Ultimately, though, I'm the person with the most control over the environment of an RDA session: I choose the horses, the activities, the volunteer pairings; I adapt plans if the first one doesn't work; I respond to the things that can't be controlled. Whether or not I'm making a rider glow with self belief that week, I still have a big responsibility over the building blocks of their ride. I wish I'd realised earlier how central this idea is to my coaching: I'm trying to make a space where confidence can grow. While I'm not perfect, I've had much less success with doing similar for house plants.

I appreciate that not all of the people who read my blogs will be as into word-nerdery as I am, but the etymological root of “confidence” is from the Latin verb confidere, meaning “to have full trust”. It’s telling, therefore, that trust is often bound up in the growth and outward representation of confidence. I wrote about trust a while ago: I didn’t really talk about confidence, but reading it back, it was there all the way through. No matter what sort of confidence you're looking to help an RDA participant develop, trust is going to be the first ingredient. I think that personal resilience, whatever its form and however it is understood, is also significant: these are two things which exist in some way in every RDA participant who could be classed as "confident".

What does a trusting, resilient RDA participant look like, then? Eternally unique. For those of us who care about and teach these people, it's part of our job to work out what we're looking for in every single one.

Lucy riding Princess, a grey cob mare (looking very clean indeed in this photo), posing with a big grin for the camera. Lucy doesn't ride in my classes any more, but she was one of the first RDA riders I met at my group and is by her own admission "born ready" for pretty much anything...

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