January blues? Five reasons to keep going with RDA

Photo shows two horses at a distance approaching the camera in a field. The sun is setting on the right hand side of the picture.

January is rubbish. Of all the social circles I am or have been part of, equestrians are the people who embrace this truth most honestly: there's a direct correlation between that and the level of exposure to mud which comes as a compulsory part of caring for field-dwelling swamp monsters. (Horses. Sorry.) Despite this being the least wonderful time of the year, there's still plenty to be said for the opportunities it brings for goal setting, reflection, habit building and the like. That's why I stand by previous posts about RDA volunteering being a perfect New Year's resolution, and strongly believe that it can be just what the doctor ordered for people looking for something new or returning to a much loved routine.

That said, for those of us who run sessions at this time of year, or support our groups with horse care (which never stops, of course), or who participate in RDA sessions, January can be hard going. We are more limited by daylight and the elements, especially at groups where all facilities are outdoors; the warm weather and fun stuff couldn't feel further away; and people are more likely to feel down or stressed in general at this end of the year. (It's science.) Some disabilities can be harder to manage when it's colder, too: I know many of my riders struggle more with muscle tightness or joint mobility in the winter. A few of my group's horses are off or in light work at the moment, for unconnected reasons, so organising lessons has been like solving a Rubix cube (I have never excelled at Rubix-ing), everything is cold, and I arrived at the yard on Saturday in fog which made me wonder if I'd strayed into a horror film. I understand those January blues. As a result, I've written this week's post for anyone who needs a bit of a boost for their RDA motivation this month - It can be an ideal companion for your peppy, positive resolutions too.

1. Because it's still going to do you good

Whether you're an RDA participant or a volunteer who appreciates the exercise they get from their tasks around the stables, being there, engaged and moving will always be better than not being there. As my riders grow and are able to do more in the saddle, it's really important to me that they understand that not every week is going to be fast paced and full of exciting exercises: some weeks will be more about the basics, consistency, and upping their mileage in the saddle. I think the beginning of the year can benefit from this sort of perspective. Yes, it would probably be easier or more fun to practice your transitions, the way you use equipment for sessions, or your very best mucking out technique on a bright, warm day when the year is in full swing. 

Your consistency and resilience now, however, will mean that you're able to move on from those skills to something more exciting by the time spring and summer roll around - and they'll make these days a bit brighter, too. We really do need to help ourselves catch up on the serotonin we're missing from sunshine at the darker end of the year, in the UK at least!

2. Because you are creating opportunity for others (and you're appreciated for it!) 

For volunteers (and staff members, if this is applicable to your group), you showing up to RDA helps to create opportunity for others by default. If there aren't enough people to lead or side walk, a lesson won't happen - or indeed if there isn't a coach. If there's nobody to feed the horses, or muck out the stables, or unlock the yard in the morning, that all adds up to a lack of opportunity for the people who need our services to access and enjoy them. Other than the fact that I love the horses and people I work with at my group, this is the biggest thing that motivates me to get out of bed on those cold, dark, early Saturday mornings: I'm making stuff happen which means the world to others. It's very unusual that RDA participants and/or their families don't have some idea of the level of work that goes into making a session happen for an hour a week (I think it's important to be transparent about this stuff if you feel like this isn't the case for you), and I have felt few things more genuine than the thanks I get from the families of the riders in my classes. Go and make it happen!

Matilda riding Princess, a 15.1hh grey cob mare, for the first time: the biggest horse she has ever ridden!

3. Because there's always something to prepare for

The last point happens every single time we go to our RDA groups, but spare a thought for the thinking ahead and the slow burn plans. There's always something to aim for, even if it's going to take most of the year (or longer) to get there: therefore, there's always something to prepare for. Every time we use a muscle correctly, it gets a little bit stronger, kind of thing - whether metaphorical or a very legitimate RDA aim. 

Teenage participants and helpers often can be heard muttering about their teachers talking about how long it is until their exams in the spring and summer at this time of year. I think it's much more enjoyable setting sights on competing a new dressage test, riding a new horse, learning how to do something new on the yard, or starting the process of coach training, and making a little-by-little plan to reach those end goals. We don't need to be doing the absolute most every week to be making really effective preparation for future goals. For the competitively minded, I always like to trot out my old line "every time you ride is preparation for your next dressage test". For literally everyone, I enjoy "you're closer to X now than you were at the beginning of this lesson". I think some people are intimidated by goal setting because they are overwhelmed by what they want for themselves and/or what they see others achieving around them. Try not to get too caught up in that kind of thinking - focus instead on the sense of purpose it can give you.

4. Because horses are always happy to see - and listen - to you

Many RDA volunteers play essential parts in the care of their group's horses. Since no group uses wild horses in their work, our horses need us! It's a gratifying feeling to know that you are ensuring our equine keyworkers are warm, comfortable, healthy and well fed. Regardless of how much you are involved in the care and management of your group's horses, there's also plenty to be said for the fact that they are still happy to see people who treat them with kindness and respect, and to see them as part of their regular routines, I see the way our horses respond to volunteers and participants at my group - it really makes me smile when they are unmistakably pleased to see "their" humans, even if they only see them for an hour or so a week. Plus, if this month has really got you down, your favourite RDA horse will happily listen to you vent, grumble, or deposit secrets with no chance of them ever telling anyone else. That alone is worth getting up to the stables.

5. Because of all the times we couldn't do it at all

It's almost too obvious, but it's been a while since my group was last closed and I've found the need to remind myself of this one: this time last year we were in lockdown and for the vast majority of our community, RDA just wasn't an option. It also wasn't an option for about half of the year before, if not more. You might have only got a short amount of time last year. Trudging about in the mud to facilitate what actually looks like a reasonably normal Saturday at my group is actually a way bigger deal than it feels when that context is considered: we've been through worse than the January blues, even if this year there is still bonus lurking Covid. If we'd known last January, or in May 2020, that this is where we'd be at this point, I think we'd be pleased - and relieved. I'm also sure that most people reading this will agree that not having access to RDA, or not having access to a more regular routine at our groups, was definitely less preferable than any seasonal low mood or lack of motivation we might be feeling now or in our pre-Covid pasts. All of us who've returned to RDA after any lockdown will have had a feeling of "I mustn't take this for granted ever again." We were right. Keep going!

Hope, a chestnut skewbald (although she's wearing a warm rug here!) watching the sun rise from her field