Five things in RDA I haven't been able to change (and probably never will)

High fives and raucous cackling - hopefully I'll never change either of those...

Accepting the things we can't change is easier said than done. Some of these things have been sources of frustration and stress for me in the decade plus that I've spent in the RDA world - although others are all the better for their immutability. Do you agree with these five unchangeable things? Did anything surprise you? Would you add anything to my list?

The £££

It goes without saying that horses have always been expensive in ways mere mortals cannot control, so the rise of the cost of absolutely everything will of course affect present and future RDA from multiple angles. I can't make it cheaper to feed our horses, or easier to afford the type of horse we need most, or even make the grants and other schemes that can help charities like ours with their costs less competitive. Not to mention, as I'm affected by the cost of living crisis myself, I can't bestow tens of thousands of pounds upon my group to cushion the blow (I didn't have that sort of pocket change before either). 

It won't solve the problem, but it's important we're as open as possible about money. Not every person or family who benefits from RDA sessions will realise how much it actually costs to run the sessions in the first place, especially as so many groups subsidise costs for participants. A willingness to talk money and belief in a good cause are what's needed to generate momentum for fundraising, and nobody is ever going to be priced out of either: even if the problem won't change, there are constructive ways of approaching it.

The availability of volunteers and their time

Volunteering, and volunteers, are great because of the "because I want to, not because I have to" dynamic. It's work, but it's not work, and for many of us that actually means we give more of ourselves to it than we might to a paid job. Part of the benefit of this is that you aren't limited to a specific amount of annual leave, and can usually offer your services as a volunteer with some level of flexibility. The downside to this is that it can be difficult to guarantee volunteers in every role, at every required time. For a volunteer-powered organisation like RDA, it's an inevitability that volunteer cover won't always be consistent, and judging from conversations I've had on social media with other coaches (who more often than not coordinate volunteers as part of their duties), it's a particular challenge to keep numbers up when running RDA sessions at the weekend, as I do. It's a hard sell to ask someone to give up half of every single weekend, no matter how much they enjoy coming to the stables. All of this applies in the very best of times - I can't help but worry that volunteer recruitment will start to stall as the cost of living crisis gets its teeth into our wider world.

There are ways and means of improving volunteer culture (I try to implement these when I can, and it as a volunteer myself it's good for me too), but I can't change the fact that sometimes people are going to have other plans for their weekends, and I can't hang over every single volunteer on our books to grill them on their diaries for the next twenty Saturdays. I will freely admit that it can be frustrating to have lots of volunteers off at the same time, or to have limited notice for absences, or even worse, when volunteers disappear without letting anyone know they've decided to stop - especially if the same volunteers that they are being "managed" by someone who is as much of a volunteer as them. The thing is, with so many individuals involved, there is a limit to how much can be changed. There is a level of enjoyment which comes with watching the different generations of volunteers come through our group, almost like how our riders grow and progress and get more comfortable with our sprawling, chaotic, but very real "family". I've spent a lot of time stressing about keeping my helper numbers up over the years, and I think it's a perfect example of where I need to get better at focusing on what I can do, rather than what I can't control.

A smiling rider during an RDA session

The number of hours in my own day

The comedian Joe Lycett once told me "you have the same number of hours in the day as Beyonce... but not the resources". This is highly amusing, but also pretty wise. I think there are a lot of people in RDA with a similar personality to me: we believe in the cause, we want to do everything, so we will make it work. There will usually come a point when we stop being able to make it work, because of very normal constraints on time, space, or any similarly insignificant things. I've overstretched myself for the good of RDA plenty of times, and I've seen others do the same plenty more. If you believe in a good cause, it can be really hard to draw the line - why put a limit on the amount of good you're doing?!

Only this weekend I was feeling a bit down about not being able to do it all. I was at critical volunteer levels (it's been half term); had already turned down a very genuine request for a rearranged riding lesson due to lack of time; knew I had a list of prep and packing to do for a competition the next day; and was on the verge of cancelling the largest group lesson of the day as it didn't look like we'd have the manpower to run it safely. The boost I needed came from others: fellow Saturday coaches were very quick to offer reinforcements from elsewhere and general positivity about pulling together and making it work. Nobody needed to miss out, I actually ended up teaching one fewer lesson than expected, and we had a really positive day. Had I been taking on the weekend solo, something would've had to give - and while I would've felt awful about it, it wouldn't have been the end of the world. Some days we can only do what we can do.

The (trickier bits of) horses

Horses will always change if you stick with them long enough: the worst thing about the good ones is that they don't live forever, or at least as long as us. There are no horses left at my RDA group now who have been there longer than I have, which seemed like a solemn milestone when our old gentleman Mr Brown (and lovely Candy, who came a year after me) was put down at the end of last year. I had to negotiate telling a young rider that her favourite horse had been put down only a few weeks ago - sadly, there's no way of me being able to dodge those duties.

There are also, of course, other parts of dealing with horses which are beyond anyone's control. I can't change the ever-lurking possibility of a horse who was an integral part of that week's lesson plans coming in from the field lame, or another having communication problems with its rider, or something truly uncontrollable like the weather making a usually dependable pony out-of-sorts. I will freely admit that I am training myself to feel less inconvenienced by this sort of stuff - I'm a goal-orientated planner who is deeply annoyed when something messes up my weekly to-do list, and while I can think on my feet, the made-in-advance Plan A was what I actually wanted. There have been times - notably, on the eve of regionals last year, stood in the arena with Horse A who had just pulled up lame, Pony B who was the last possible option, and a rider who had fallen off Horse A 30 minutes ago and ridden Pony B precisely once before, in August 2021 - when I have questioned if I'm cut out for rolling with the punches of the equestrian world. (Turns out the rider was as she got over 70% and a good anecdote...) 

Trouble is, the fact that I like horses, like sharing them and riding with other people, and like spending time with them, seems just as impossible to change as all the tricky stuff. Better keep rolling with it...

The riders

This one is actually a good thing, but I have been surprised by the number of people who have heard about what I do with my RDA group and assume that the riding sessions we offer are "life changing" in the sense of curing a condition, or at least eliminating its symptoms. It would be wrong for me to try or even want to change who my riders are: my role is about working with that person and helping them to pursue enjoyment and engagement. I am not a green witch training flying monkeys to do my bidding, nor am I trying to fit any RDA participants into the shape of a non-disabled person. One thing I have in common with my fresh newly-qualified coach self from all those years ago is that I have no interest in changing who the people I coach are, and I'm never planning to do so. 

Two riders having a lesson in an indoor arena