Why the stuff that matters, matters

A sunny scene in one of my group lessons

Long time no blog...

It's been a while since I've picked up my blogging pen, and I didn't necessarily plan it that way. I've already written something on this Instagram post here which is I think enough of a summary, but the summary of the summary is that it's been an odd and not especially easy few months for my relationship with RDA, and I haven't had the same mojo as I usually have for writing or indeed doing all the stuff I'm writing about. Pretty strange to get your head around when so much of your identity is connected to being an RDA coach. 

It's fashionable for online platforms to mark their authenticity by committing to the warts-and-all, rollercoaster, rough-with-smooth approach, but I'm not sure this one was built for that purpose. That said, burnout and its various forms are a worthwhile topic of conversation in so many places, and it's something I rarely hear discussed in public in the context of volunteering and charity work: something which we more commonly advertise as being fulfilling, invigorating, inspiring. It's not necessarily been an easy few months for my group, either - we are busier than ever and have, for instance, been struck with some bad luck in terms of things like multiple horses needing time off at once. Like many groups, we are also pushing through with a lower than ideal number of volunteer coaches, even with some amazing new ones on the horizon. That said, in the last couple of weeks I've felt a bit of a shift in my own feelings, and I'm really glad to be writing again. 

What's kept me going over the last few months has been the small stuff. Not always the small stuff that builds up to the big stuff. Not the small stuff which is always noticeable to everyone else. Not necessarily the same small stuff that we were so excited about in the early days of Covid restarts, when I dreamed of things going back to how they were before the pandemic. A lot of it is just stuff stuff: a word here, an action there, a little pause, an unexpected favour. I wanted to use this post to talk about some of this small stuff, and why it matters.

In a number of my riders, I've been noticing how things which were previously a big deal have become considerably less so. Realising the absence of what was previously an issue or a sticking point can really make you stand back and consider how much an individual has grown, in all senses. Thomas, for instance, has never been particularly attached to one single pony, but has in the past been very clear on his feelings when I've tried to put him on something that's "too big". I really value being able to build trust and good communication in my relationships with my riders, and knowingly or otherwise this is important to Thomas too(whether he realises it or not). I can't fault him in how willing he is to try something new when presented with it, but this has been known to lead to some rather humbling feedback - verbal and non-verbal - on my part when he's struggled physically with a slightly larger horse. 

A few weeks ago, the Saturday horse Rubix cube could only be solved by giving him a horse who, while not big, would still be the most horse he had ever ridden. I said very little, only how nice she was (which she is), mounted up and let him go, and it turned out it wasn't a big deal in the slightest. He got a great core workout from the bigger movement of his new mount and was tired by the end of the lesson but had a really good time, and I had this relayed to me by his mum (who hadn't been there to watch that day) later in the evening for good measure. The big deal wasn't a big deal any more and a solid few months of growth flashed through my head. Did Thomas notice? Probably not! When not concentrating on the next exercise in his riding lesson, his main concern was making sure that his helper that week went home and read the His Dark Materials series.

I'm very behind with introducing some of my newer riders to the blog, but in the next class of the day is Maiya, who has been with me just under a year (although with the group for many more than that) and seems utterly set on thriving to the max at RDA. Historically a devotee of my own favourite RDA pony, Candy, I thought I'd have a task on my hands switching up her rides, but couldn't have been more wrong. A few weeks ago I was in a rare position to give her a choice: Candy or Bobby, a younger, cheekier, and ultimately more challenging pony for her to ride independently (which she so wants to do). She floored everyone by picking Bobby without a moment's hesitation. I'm looking forward to seeing how far she will go.

Maiya's class took their proficiency tests with our County Coach around Easter time: grades 1 & 2 for the slightly older ones, and grade 1 for the youngest. There was nothing in the way we presented these tests which could be considered scary for the riders involved, but it was uncharted territory in some ways (the youngest riders haven't even been with us a year) and in the circs you can never be 100% sure of how they will respond to being asked questions and given instructions by someone they don't know. As it happened, they all rose to it in a big way. I remember that day being slightly frazzling for me in other ways, but I got to stand back for a while and watch them all do their thing. 

Maiya and Bobby, who wanted to inspect her birthday rosette

I realised how Lucas, one of two brothers with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, was sitting so much taller than he had been six months previously, and how his brother Charlie had gone from quietly smiling at volunteers to spending as much of a lesson as possible holding court and making everyone howl with laughter. (I hear about a third of the actual jokes and don't ask after the rest...) Freddie, the class' newest recruit by a couple of months, has gone from being very nervous in his first couple of weeks, clinging to sidewalkers' hands like a very personable limpet, to turning up each week ready to for action with a new "thing" seemingly clicking every week. 

Yesterday, I realised that he was maintaining a beautiful straight-backed position in trot with minimal encouragement from his helpers: we've been working on it because his default was originally to get as low as possible to the horse's neck. I am hoping he doesn't twig that his jockey style position can be used to make some horses go faster - until then, it's been a joy to watch him get more and more involved in what he's doing, even taking a few steps off the lead rein in recent weeks. This small stuff observed in a riding lesson is so often a microcosm of how these riders are growing, changing, and making sense of the rest of their world. 

The fact that I parked this blog on a post about being a perfectionist probably gives enough clues that I am not always my own biggest cheerleader. A cycle of a few weeks where I would sit down at the end of the day and think "I had no time to set up anything fun, was inspired by no new fun ideas, and must've bored the kids solid" were broken by a lesson for this class when I challenged each rider to ride from one end of the arena to the other with no input from their helpers: I walked as close as I felt I needed to be to them plus one big step in the opposite direction. This was not the most visually exciting or overtly stimulating exercise I could've offered, but the way each rider responded to their new responsibilities and the encouragement they received from everyone watching was the eyeopener I needed.

"Rollercoaster" doesn't begin to cover our first in person Regionals back since 2019, and I'm not sure whether I'm glad or not that I wasn't blogging at the time. Physically juggling actual live horses may be an attractive alternative to the contortionist tricks that our schedule had to perform during the 3 weeks or so leading up to the competition, with the last change to the final line-up taking place under 24 hours before it was ramps up and wagons roll. Laura, my cooler than cool, universal role model, never a bother or a worry eldest rider, was the recipient both of this change and of her first ever fall that Saturday. I have never, ever doubted her - not when she was nine, and not now she's twenty - but for the first time I did find myself thinking very clearly "I cannot wait to see her on the other side of this" when she came down the centre line on little Marshall, who was somewhat surprised to find himself on the trailer that Sunday morning. Actually, I don't think I've rewatched any test of hers more: she got a personal best, and even if she hadn't we'd all smiled the whole way through. That was what that mattered in that moment, even if I couldn't micromanage all of the circumstances that led to it as much as I'd have liked.

Another twist and turn of the Regionals rollercoaster was for Natalie, who had her first experience of a dressage test not going to plan and didn't get the qualifying score that she was after. I have much to say about the importance of sportsmanship and, in when handled the right way, how experiencing disappointment can actually be really important in a competitive context. It would've been, of course, nicest and easiest for her to have sailed on through with no bumps in the road, but the most important stuff that day was that she learnt that nothing bad happens when you don't get the score or placing you wanted, and that as her coach I was only disappointed alongside her, not with or at her. As an overachiever in the making who isn't used to "failing" (her definition), in many ways I'm glad that Natalie was able to have this life lesson fairly early on. I'm also glad that she had no reason to doubt that I would be anything less than proud of her when the chips are down. It's now a tense wait to see what comes first: how bloodthirsty she is to set the record straight at her next competition, or how disappointed she is when she finds out that actually she now knows more than I do about medieval queens. 

Laura and Marshall at Regionals

A very not small development for my RDA Saturdays is that we currently have a wonderful coach in training, Sue, who I have been mentoring as she gets her practice in on one of our group lessons. I think every coach's lessons have a characteristic which shines through to an observer: this could be military-level precise, bubbly, loud, funny, serious, graceful, wise. (I absolutely dread to think what mine would be.) For Sue, so far, this has been calm. Lots of fun, of course, but I have when sitting in or helping out with her lessons felt more zen than perhaps compatible with the fun and games I have had trying to catch an escaped horse round the back, or trying to navigate a busy lesson changeover. She's really hit on the stuff the riders in this class enjoy and lets them enjoy it, even if that is something as simple as throwing toys into a bucket of water or posting cards in a post box. That's the point of it all: that's why the small stuff matters. And that aside, Woody has started for the first time ever to hold onto his reins when riding. You can say what you like, but you can't convince me that isn't a big deal. The volunteers who assist me on Saturdays are, of course, always a huge factor in making it possible for any of the good stuff to happen, and I enjoy being able to see the positivity being part of our group gives them too - I think there's a whole post worth of stuff to talk about there.

All this stuff, big or small, doesn't have to matter to anyone else but the people involved if it means something to them.  This isn't a new idea to me at all - you can probably find it in past blog posts if you're a particularly dedicated reader - but I think I've lost track of it this year, and it's been good to rediscover it again. RDA is a long game for many of its people, and it's not always the biggest stuff which keeps you chipping away at that long game.

Finally, views and likes really aren't what matter and aren't the reason that I decided to start an RDA blog. If I wanted to hit the big time as an influencer, I'd have picked something much less niche than this (and be trying less hard with my day job)! I've barely looked at my blog during its unplanned furlough, but a quick glance at the stats page when I was writing this post made me realise that even when nothing new was being posted, a whole load of people (four figures' worth of people overall!) were still showing up and reading things I'd already written. I really do hope that whoever you are have enjoyed, related to, or found useful the posts you've been (re)reading. I'm looking forward to using my blogs as a way to stay connected and to start good conversations about the RDA world again. Talking is the stuff that matters too, and I've missed doing it.

Bill and Duke thanking you for reading!


  1. All stuff that matters, India. I loved reading your blog, but am too tired to make a long, thoughtful, elegantly witty reply, as I am crashed out in my trailer, shattered after the BS para residential and going to get some sleep before towing Jem back to Cornwall tomorrow.
    See you at Hartpury? Xx


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