Friends like these: is friendship one of RDA's most underrated side effects?

Three riders, riding bay roan, chestnut and chestnut skewbald (L-R) ponies, are lined up in the middle of an indoor arena. They all have their hands in the air, copying the first rider on the left. Photo credit: Darren Woodlow (2019)

I enjoy seeing my riders every week and appreciate it when they're pleased to see me: I'm sure every other coach feels the same. What I enjoy equally, but don't talk about as much, is seeing how pleased they are to see each other. RDA sessions shouldn't be a transactional experience: they are a growing network of relationships. We're good at explaining this, and often focus on relationships between participants and their coaches, or the volunteers who assist them, or the horses they ride. Less essential to the function of a riding, driving or vaulting session, but just as meaningful, are the connections made between participants. Friendships.

I've found myself considering RDA friendships and the ways my riders relate to each other a lot recently. It takes me by surprise sometimes: Matilda responding to her peer Conall's joke and adding her own funny comment from across the arena, when her younger self wouldn't have so readily understood or been ready to jump in. (It was some sort of reference to a flatulent horse being "smelly" and, in fairness, the comic timing was perfect from both of them.) Other times it's part of my routine: three teenagers, Mia, Rosie, and Lydia, who ride on another night of the week but come to the yard as volunteers on Saturdays, are a constant reminder of the power of RDA friendship. I sometimes refer to them affectionately as "the girl band" - last weekend the girl band mobilised an entire support act to clean every single horse's saddle. A smash hit indeed. 

Sometimes friendship is a marker of progress which doesn't always make it into my lesson notes: things like a rider striking up a conversation with another when they would've been too shy a year ago. I've just added a new rider to one of my classes, so have also had cause to consider what their future might look like with their new peers and how I can make that path smooth for them. I could still teach these people to ride successfully without them making any friends along the way - their riding doesn't hinge on how well they relate to the people they do it with. I think it works better if they actually like me too, but if they're willing to listen then even that isn't essential

RDA is most "marketed" on the basis of its physical benefits, although we're getting better at both measuring and shouting about the emotional side of things too. Even so, it can do wonderful things for a person's emotional and mental wellbeing without them interacting whatsoever with their peers or supporting volunteers - sometimes the horse alone can be just what the doctor ordered, and we can't promise people new friends in the same way we can promise other benefits to (most) new participants. The fact that these RDA friendships can be so meaningful, and add so much to a person's experience despite their status as an extra to the actual riding, is what makes them so beautiful. 

I have encountered plenty of RDA participants who would tell you that their group is the only place they have been able to make real friends. For balance, I've also met plenty who have thriving social lives away from the stables and have no trouble expanding their circle - that's not to say that the latter group don't benefit from specifically RDA friendships, or that they might have developed their social butterfly wings as a direct result of their RDA experiences. Established RDA participants have an automatic shared interest with any peer they encounter, of any age and from any place: horses. When I was eleven I made friends with a girl at school who had polar opposite views to me on some pretty significant topics - because she liked horses. That stuff is powerful. 

Common ground can also be difficult to find for the most gregarious of people if they are the only person in their class being whisked out of school for regular medical appointments, if they have a visible disability, or use a mobility aid. Even a confident or well-supported person can feel like their disability makes them stick out for unwelcome reasons. A disability sport environment, like an RDA group, which is actively looking to include and nurture its participants is geared up to make people feel less like sticking out and more like getting stuck in, which can also make friendships more accessible. Everyone at an RDA group is so different it's actually a leveller, which is multiplied the larger the group or event. Many of my riders have developed an acute sense of being "the different one" from school, even if they enjoy going: it's heartening to hear them asking each other questions about their disabilities and why they come to ride, and it's good for any child to practice empathy and be interested in other people. With us they are, individual, rather than different.

Two riders are seen sharing a conversation while admiring their favourite pony in his stable (the late, great Speckles)

This equestrian common ground also comes with built in challenges for friendships built at RDA sessions, and I don't think it's a bad thing. One of the very first ways an RDA friendship might be tested is having to share a favourite pony (I used to have a rota for one pony who was no fewer than four riders' favourite in the same class), or even a favourite volunteer. We know that our riders often progress at very different rates, and that can test a friendship of any age or length too: nobody enjoys feeling left behind, but it's no good for anyone to be held back either. 

By modelling how to handle this fairly and explaining, where possible, the decisions being made in sessions, we can help to build sportsmanship into our participants, as well as teaching them how to be supportive friends who don't compare themselves too rigorously to others. I've never forgotten the times I've watched young riders supporting their friends from the sidelines at regional and national competitions, making a special trip with their families even when they haven't been able to compete or qualify themselves. I think our need to prioritise the horse in equestrian sports, even in RDA disciplines where so much is centred on the participant, means good things for friendships built around a mutual appreciation of our equines.

Speaking of sidelines, there are also the people who bring my riders to their sessions to consider: the oldest brings herself now in her own little car, but was once upon a time trailing a parent or two just like the rest. This is also one of those things that isn't essential and has to be organic: I can't sit two adults together and force them to be friends just as much as I can't expect the same of the children I coach. That said, there can still be some really meaningful connections made between riders' parents when they're sat watching an RDA session. They too are in an environment where they don't have to be the "different" one, or the one with the "different" child. By default, they have something in common with the other people sat alongside the arena. Two things in the winter, because they're all really cold at the same time.

Sometimes I'll glance over to the parents or grandparents during a lesson and find that they're all deep in conversation with each other. I'm not convinced this ever happened in the same way when I was a kid in riding school lessons or a slightly bigger kid helping smaller ones in riding lessons, and not just because I was usually taken by my incredibly introverted father. I don't blog about parenting because I know precisely nothing about it, but I think that the way my riders' families relate to each other can be connected to how they feel about their riders feeling happy and safe in their sessions. I love it when they cheer on other children, or when I hear that they've been chatting or have even met up with their "parent peers" outside of RDA. 

Friendships, making and maintaining them, is not something I can teach when I'm coaching RDA sessions. I can make the environment my riders are enjoying and learning in as friendly, accepting and encouraging as possible, and model the sort of kindness and respect I would hope to see in any friendships they do make under my nose. I can't control anything else, even if I'd love for them all to be besties for life. It doesn't make it any less important - if anything, it makes it more so, because the friendships made belong entirely to the people making them. It makes me happy that my group is able to offer extra opportunities to its participants, like trips to shows, fundraising events, and activities like own a pony days, which have a social aspect. It means there is access to that side of RDA for those who ride on their own, too - I love coaching 1:1 (it was one of the best parts of our Covid restart), but the lack of contact with riding lesson peers stops it from being a truly perfect method. I can't promise a new rider and their family that they're going to make lifelong best friends through their RDA sessions, but the possibility of that sort of side effect is always there. That's something to cherish.

Five young riders from my group taking a breather together at a regional show