Dear Diary: a realistic Saturday in the life of an RDA coach

Three and a half years into the blogging game and I've realised that I've never actually written about what my coaching days look like - a missed opportunity, given how nosey I know I am about other people's routines. This "day in my life" is from earlier in March. What do your RDA days look like? 

Two of my riders at work during a lesson

My Saturday morning alarm was a struggle this week. I'm a morning person, but it's an earlier start than my regular working day and at this time of year, getting up in the dark is wearing thin for everyone. My work week is also taking its toll: it's been the penultimate week of term for the university I work for, and term time means an eight-week concentration of events which start to catch up on you towards the last third or so. I actually got to work with a special school focused on deaf education this week, which was a lot of fun and a great way of joining up my day job and RDA skills. I'm still pretty knackered though, and end up putting on a pair of leggings which I've forgotten have a dodgy waistband (it falls down) (all the time) because I'm concentrating too hard on reminding myself of when I came back to RDA after lockdown and swore I would never take my Saturdays for granted ever again. 

I get to the yard by bus. While this is a curiosity to many of the more rurally-orientated people I come across when I'm actually there, this works really well for me - those of us who do have RDA groups on public transport routes should shout about it, because it's actually a real boon to all sorts of people who are involved, or who might be in the future. Three ponies in the front paddock, Marshall, Bryn and Bobby, take a break from hassling each other to wander over to the fence and stare at me while I walk down the drive and unlock. Like many yards, we are in quite an exposed spot, and it's always fun (heavy sarcasm) to see how much colder it feels there than it does in the city. As I'm usually the first person on the yard in the mornings I am designated breakfast chef, and unfortunately the small number of horses who stay in overnight know this very well and are impatient customers. I have to dupe our miniature Shetland therapy ponies into going out of their warm stable and into their paddock. I can't blame them for enjoying their home comforts, but I do wonder what their hardy Celtic ancestors would make of them.

There are only two horses who have had to stay in overnight and only a little more mucking out and stable prep to get on top of, so when the rest of the team start arriving a few minutes after me this really helps to streamline our morning routine and start bringing in the rest of the horses. The balance of volunteer numbers on a Saturday is something I am yet to finesse. It's been very tricky keeping numbers consistent and viable during the last couple of months for various reasons: illnesses, injuries, other weekend commitments, and a natural drop which tends to happen during the colder months of the year. While none of these things are limited to weekend operations, it is a particularly big ask for people to give up half of their weekend on a consistent basis around all of the other stuff - I don't begrudge this at all, but I've spent a few Friday nights lately counting up late absence messages, and anxiously redoing my numbers. The beginning and end of the day are always the times when I have a smaller team of helpers, but those who come for 8 o'clock (plus our gap year groom Julia, who I think may be my guardian angel - poor girl) are machines with a fork and barrow. 

May is always happy to see people arrive in the morning

I'm able to get my tack for the day sorted really promptly which is usually an omen for a good RDA Saturday. Like many (most?) groups, we switch reins and stirrups for different riders to suit different needs. Once I've started teaching on a Saturday I don't have much time to spend in the tack room in between lessons, so it makes much more sense for me to get it done at the top of the day and take any further changes out to the arena with me. I can often be found wearing loop reins and stirrups around my neck like a feather boa while I get myself sorted ("getting sorted" is an eternal work in progress). As more volunteers arrive and start grooming the horses ready for their lessons, I have enough time in hand to commandeer a couple to help me set up some equipment in our large indoor arena. I choose lots of different elements this week: cones, poles (in straight lines and on corners), blocks for bending, lanes for halting, and small football cones set out for different shapes and movements. A busy arena can sometimes be a bit of a hindrance and I'm not into getting the equipment to do the teaching for me, but the biggest benefit here is that I can adapt this for all of my group classes - no mean feat.

My first class of the day starts at 9:30, and I have three out of four of the lineup present. This class is still fairly young - the youngest is seven - but all are working towards being as independent as possible and have huge potential. I love that they love what they do and clearly feel comfortable in being themselves while at RDA. There are lots of things in my arena setup to keep them busy, and they like busy.

Lily is riding one of our newest horses, Annie, for the second time, so needs a bit of space to build up her own understanding of a new mount. She can be a little wary of new horses, but I think she's also quite chuffed to be the first person in her class to have this one (and crucially, I think she did a great  job the week before). Thomas is riding Duke, who he's ridden a handful of times before, but who still feels quite "big" to him. I think Duke is turning into a good fit for him, although I appreciate that starting to ride bigger horses takes a bit of adjusting physically - as a person with CP, Thomas is using at least three times as much energy as another rider might to do the same things. (Learnt from social media posts during Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month.)

Thomas enjoys the details in riding: he is less adrenaline-seeking than his peers, and that's fine. He's been really up for trotting more lately, including rising trot (this has been a bit of a block for him in the past), so when he says he's ready to keep it in walk in the last third of the lesson, I'm happy to go with it. While my job as a coach is to push at least a little bit, I also need to listen, and over the years Thomas has built up a lot of trust in these two halves of my role. Florence is riding Bobby: she's a regular on all of the small ponies (because she's still small enough for them) and does a commendable job of riding them on her own - especially those who spend most of their work hours on a lead rein. Bobby is the sort of benevolent gremlin pony many of us will recognise from our own childhood. He is just the right side of cheeky for RDA, and keeps Florence and her "negotiate to win" strategies on her toes. It's actually a lot of fun watching them together. When she first started riding him, Florence wasn't quite tall or strong enough to apply the right leg aids to make Bobby properly respond to her - a couple of growth spurts down the line and she's ready to hold those conversations with him herself. She reminds me that "I really like riding the big ponies too", which I gracefully accept and remind her that I need her to show me that she can adjust her trot to a slower pace before I let her go faster. An understanding is reached and she and Lily offer their assistance to the volunteers with untacking - success.

My next lesson starts at 10:45, and is a less independent class with a big range of ages - and characters. I am missing one rider today, leaving me with four. Last week, I decided on a themed lesson - one of our other Saturday coaches, Janine, established herself very early in her training as the Queen of the Theme, and I ask myself in times of imaginative drought "What Would Janine Do?" The answer was apparently "pirates", so I leant into steering around desert islands and surfing waves and walking the plank and treated my volunteers to a high tide of pirate puns. Partly because I want a little more technical focus this week, and partly because I'm keen to dodge a mutiny (some of the puns were, admittedly, very poor), I make use of my equipment setup to reinforce some of their skills: steering independently, balance (standing up in the stirrups at walk), halting at specific markers. There is a lot of appetite for trot today, so where appropriate we also do some work on rising trot. Six year old Lucas manages his very first rising trot on the move - a bigger deal than perhaps he even realises. Lucas and his brother Charlie are both in this class, and came to RDA for physiotherapeutic help with their shared condition of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. They had only ridden for a few weeks when I first met them both: Charlie was very shy around the volunteers and Lucas was struggling to sit up in the saddle. Both of these things are considerably different now and I can hear both cackling away with their side walkers in between exercises. Lucas is valiantly trying to keep me relevant to the youth of today by telling me all about Roblox.

Charlie last weekend, very pleased with his "big horse"!

This lesson is full of little wins. 15-year-old Conall, a long-time rider with charm to burn, responds really well to reinforcement about his posture and hand position. He has been a bit tipped-forward on the bigger horses he is riding these days. I think the increased height off the ground doesn't help as he struggles with depth perception, but he has been growing, as teenage boys do. He does like Bill, the horse he has ridden the most lately, and I enjoy the fact that they both have matching moustaches (Conall's is neater and cleaner than Bill's). Conall puts in a great shift today, poised and attentive, with a bit of banter along the way. Meanwhile, nine-year-old Maiya has Bobby (I teach her what "gremlin" means and she is amused) for his second lesson of the day and concentrates incredibly hard on being stronger with her arms and hands to direct him. Maiya is proof that hard work and harder listening really does get you places, and she is so keen to do everything (including winning all the games, I'm not sure I intended to make this class so fiendishly competitive but Grandmother's footsteps is pretty intense nowadays...). I don't rely on my riders to fuel my drive - I'm a volunteer, so I kind of need to bring my own - but it can really make the tough weeks easier when you are coaching that sort of enthusiasm.

Another lesson changeover (they are fifteen minutes long and feel five times as fast) brings us to midday, when we have two classes running concurrently. One day we might manage to do this more often - we are so lucky, after all, to have not one but two indoor arenas - but would need more horses and definitely more volunteers to make it stick long term. The class that isn't mine at noon as being taught by Sue this week. Sue is another fairly recently qualified coach, but approaches things with a calm and patient attitude which I try to learn things from every week. She and Janine tend to share this particular class and complement each other perfectly. This morning, while I've been teaching, Sue and Julia have been mobilising some of the younger volunteers into some muck heap sculpture. It looks glorious and I am not worthy.

My last group lesson are the eldest of the morning: Ettie and August, both teens who came to us from the same RDA group elsewhere in the county, which didn't have the setup for them to keep progressing. These two girls are a delight, although it's unusual for me to take on riders who have already ridden for as long as they have: most of my current crop have been with me since early primary school, or I had them from the very start (or both). This is not a problem in the slightest, but I find it interesting comparing the ways you build trust and understanding with an older and more established rider. August is currently getting to grips with Maple, who is a more forward going horse than what she has ridden previously. We mainly use the poles in my arena setup for this lesson, and I'm really pleased with how she is handling Maple compared to the week before. 

Ettie is riding Rosie, who although she has ridden plenty before is the sort of worldly-wise older mare who would rather reward rider effort than give them hers for free. I have been trying to encourage Ettie to ride more assertively and this week, I am definitely seeing it - it's a positive lesson for both of them. Aside from their riding, I'm really happy that both riders seem to be more chatty and relaxed with me (and my volunteers) than they were when I first started teaching them. When we have more horses suitable for this class (we have a couple in training who will hopefully be ideal when they are in full work) I hope we will be able to expand it a little - I think it would be nice for the girls on a social level, although there are benefits to teaching in smaller numbers too.  

When I finish teaching the group classes it's just gone 1pm, so I treat myself to a little sit down with a sandwich and a bit of a chat with some of the volunteers. I like to make time to ask Sue (or Janine if she is on duty that week) how her class has gone and try to give useful advice if she needs it. Both of them are always very polite regardless of the quality of said advice. I enjoy being able to get volunteers' perspectives on how lessons have gone too. Our Saturdays are just too go-go-go to have a full debrief after every single session, but it's really useful to discuss when I can. Sometimes it's quite touching to hear the small observations my volunteers have made and sometimes it's absolutely hilarious to hear what was being discussed that day. 

Usually I would have at least one private lesson to teach in the afternoon, but I had a message earlier in the day to let me know that Natalie has picked up a bug from school, and Laura, who also has a regular private, is still at uni this weekend. I am genuinely always sad not to get to see my riders at the weekend, but finishing teaching by lunch time is a bit of a novelty and I am able to send the volunteers who stay on in the afternoon home a little early. Mia, my rider-helper-right-hand-woman (and last year's Participant of the Year), masterfully pitches a McDonalds drive through visit to her mum before she gets in the car. 

Laura, pictured a few weeks later, working on one of the exercises I found

I redirect the energy I would've spent on coaching into some peaceful solo mucking out before filling out my registers and the yard diary, making a lacklustre attempt at piecing together the horse list for next Saturday (it'll change before then anyway, I tell myself), then locking up and heading back to the bus stop. My heart tells me a little nap on the bus would be lovely but my head decides that researching some exercises to improve a horse's bend is a much better use of my time - Laura has got the points she needs for her first BD para bronze championship after two outings with Maple, and her scoresheets are identifying bend as one of her key areas for improving future scores.

When getting home on Saturdays I need a quick turnaround for my yard clothes as my partner (long suffering Alex) is allergic to horse hair, squeamish about horsey smells, and a little prone to being dramatic about both. Once out of the shower I successfully waste the time I gained this afternoon by sitting in my dressing gown watching Instagram reels. The week (and my early alarm) are definitely catching up on me and I'm probably flagging earlier than most of my riders are, but it's been a good day - I also count my lucky stars this and every Saturday night that Alex is such a capable and willing cook, so dinner is one thing I don't have to organise. I'm lucky to have such great riders and a great team behind me. After going to bed embarrassingly early, it's time to start thinking about next Saturday - and juggling the rest of my life, obviously...

This Saturday* is recounted from earlier in the month - you can see another RDA day in my life from February in a different format here. What do your RDA days look like?

*there was too much juggling, apparently, during this particular Saturday for any of the photos used on this post to have actually been taken on the same day. Call it false advertising, but I did promise this would be realistic.