How my RDA riders are inspiring me

I saw a great social media post shared a few weeks ago: "Ableism looks like calling people 'inspiring' for navigating a system that is designed for exclusion, while doing nothing to hold the system accountable". "Inspiring" is a word we hear a lot when talking about RDA, and other disability sports. It's not a bad word, but I think it can be thrown around without much thought. I've been thinking about how the riders I coach have inspired me recently - and what they've inspired me to do. Do you recognise any of these?

Natalie riding Maple and looking very accomplished at Regionals this year. The white armband on her left arm shows that she is a visually impaired rider.


The trust I see and feel in RDA sessions is the most frequently inspiring part of what I do. There is very little any of us could achieve without trust Anyone who spends any length of time actively supporting RDA sessions will know how meaningfully trust is earned. This is what makes it inspiring: the trust I receive from my riders is a direct reflection of how I earn it from them. If I'm earning trust, I'm doing something right, so I'm inspired to keep doing right to earn more.

Being allowed to act as a missing sense for someone is such a huge symbol of trust, and as the coach of a totally blind rider I am no stranger to this. Natalie had a fantastic ride at Regionals, earning a personal best score with the assistance of a full set of talking letters. A sensory impairment, especially one as clear-cut as Natalie's 0% vision, is both easy and difficult to imagine as a non-disabled person, because human beings are programmed to rely so much on their senses without really thinking about it. Sometimes I give Natalie slightly duff instructions, like mixing up right and left (she never does, interestingly) or timing things poorly - we joke that it's "problems with air traffic control". Sometimes I'm unable to prevent a horse from behaving unpredictably (even lifting a leg to swat a fly can feel unpredictable), and don't have enough time on the hoof to explain to her exactly what's happening. Without proper verbal feedback, so many of the sensations we experience as riders would feel absolutely terrifying if we weren't able to see what was going on. 

Yet, Natalie keeps bringing her trust to me in her riding lessons, and I'm inspired to keep working out how I can make her path smoother in being able to orientate herself, and do all of the things - big things, usually - she wants to do. Every time she gets on a horse, she's doing something I couldn't do. I'm not sure I'd even get as far as a foot in the stirrup if I wasn't able to see anything. The trust she has in me, and in her callers for dressage tests, is genuinely awe-inspiring: the responsibility of being Natalie's "riding eyes" sometimes sits heavier than I'd admit. I would be a seriously lazy coach if I didn't use the trust my riders have in me to try and make things work even better for them. 


Long-time readers might remember Laura, my eldest rider (and actually the only one who now predates me at our group). Last year, she had a whirlwind 24 hours prior to our regional qualifier, ended up coming down the centre line on a pony we hadn't even expected to bring, and bagged a score of over 70%. What I didn't mention in that previous post is that she's been juggling RDA with getting a degree in forensic science for the last three years - this blog post comes a few days shy of her graduation. This year, she juggled even harder and even more coolly to achieve a qualification for her first (and mine) bronze para championships in only two outings, before a bit of down time in which I switched to distant dissertation proof reader rather than dressage coach. 

I could learn a lot from Laura's stoicism, but the thing that inspires me most about her is her consistency. She instinctively knows what she needs to make happen, whether she last rode a week or ten weeks ago, and makes no excuses whatsoever for herself. In many ways, she holds me as her coach accountable to at least the same level of consistency - and sometimes I have to be the grown up and give her a stern instruction to take a breath or two. Although sadly Laura won't be able to claim her qualifying place at this year's summer championships due to horse injury, I have no reason to think that her future will be anything less than ultra bright. I also think that she's got so much to inspire our younger riders, going away to uni and returning with a great degree and interesting new job, so I'm going to make sure she comes home with an appropriate fanfare. (Hopefully she's reading this so she has warning.) 

Speaking of bright futures, a younger rider under my wing has been showing inspiring focus and consistency in a way that's totally her own. Orli has only been riding since the beginning of last year, but I often have to remind myself (and others) of this as she took to it very quickly in every possible way. Due to a couple of big things going on in her life away from RDA, she hasn't been able to ride every single week this year. I think this necessary inconsistency has actually made her motivation for riding more consistent: it's written all over her body language that she shows up looking for progress, and she has become very assertive in articulating what she would like to achieve in the future. This means I'm all the more inspired to try and make that happen for her in any way I can. Motivation is important when coaching a sport as a volunteer, and it's really special when you can be inspired by the motivation of those you coach.


We have an interesting relationship with fear in RDA, because it usually isn't a child's personal choice to start doing it. Many of our riders are referred by physiotherapists or other professionals, or their parents seek out RDA groups because they've read about the benefits of riding. My group's youngest riders are only two years old, so they're hardly organising their own activities! Compared to a non-disabled child eyeing up ponies and campaigning for riding lessons, there's a lot more room for fear, or at least doubt, for new RDA riders who have been introduced to horses because of hoped-for therapeutic benefits. 

I was thinking about new RDA riders and how they can be a bit wary when I was watching seven year old Freddie in one of my classes at the weekend. Freddie started riding almost two years ago and spent most of his first session hanging onto whichever side walker was easiest to grasp. While at that moment, it didn't seem a given that he'd enjoy it enough to keep going with RDA, it's easy to forget that first ride when he spent last Saturday's lesson the picture of zen - even while his classmates were engaging in some serious fighting talk about the games we were playing. He's much more likely to turn to a side walker and tell them "I am fast" when trotting than hold onto them for dear life, and actually I'd prefer if he was slightly less nonchalant about (not) holding onto his reins sometimes. I think it's really important to be able to support RDA riders - who often haven't chosen horses for themselves - with as many opportunities as possible to have fun and grow in confidence. It's inspiring to work out how to empower others, particularly when that involves RDA participants finding their groove and loving their sessions as more than just another physio appointment.

Lily, who has just turned nine, wasn't the sort for first-timer's-fear when she started RDA sessions aged four. She has, however, experienced anxiety around riding different and particular horses during her RDA career to date. Two weekends ago, I reintroduced her to Elbow, a pony who she had found difficult in the past for a number of reasons. My calculations had them as a solid match at this point in time, but I know that Lily was not confident about riding her and as an autistic rider, was finding it particularly difficult to move past that that lack of confidence. We listened, we structured, we empathised... and Lily has had two fantastically fearless lessons on Elbow over the last two Saturdays. "She's my friend now," she told me: all kinds of inspiring.

Freddie riding Bryn. He's holding a birthday card!

Entrepreneurial spirit

Rider and (for me) volunteer, Mia (you might remember her from her amazing Volunteer of the Year award win) is a dab hand at all things crafty. Part of the nomination I helped her coach to write last year mentioned her fundraising side hustle, making and selling friendship bracelets. As a master of passion projects which bring me fulfilment but make me absolutely no money - like being an RDA coach - it was actually Mia who inspired me to try selling the proceeds of my self-taught embroidery and calligraphy hobbies. Make no mistake: I won't be on Dragon's Den any time soon, but I don't think I would've cultivated the same entrepreneurial spirit if I hadn't seen Mia's at such close quarters. Her very kind, very genuine encouragement counted for something too. Her business is much more scalable than mine, so I hope the Dragons are looking out for her.

Owning "normal"

Watching the accomplishments of disabled riders is impressive, especially for people who don't have the same capabilities in the saddle. I am at the fortuitous stage in my coaching where I have at least one RDA rider who is already a better rider than I am. I don't think it's inherently bad to find yourself wondering "how do they do that?" when watching someone who can't see, or can't walk, ride, and ride well, but there is often a subconscious ableism in how a non-disabled person contemplates a disabled person's normal.

When I've discussed this sort of question with a few of my riders over the years, their perspectives are pretty incredulous. "I do wish people would realise," Natalie once told me, "that I'm just getting on with my day." I've heard similar from talking to the parents of my riders, and reading words from other parents of disabled children: there's no choice but to power on and "deal with it", because that's just how it is. What's inspiring about normal? (Those parents inspire me too, by the way.)

What is inspiring is meeting an RDA participant, or perhaps a supporter or relative of one, who totally owns whatever normal means to them. That "normal" regularly shifts, or is stressful or misunderstood, or comes with complicated feelings attached, and that's all OK. I would support any of my riders to the ends of the earth wherever they were with their normal, even (especially) if I have to spend some time working out how to do that well. Above all, it's uplifting to meet anyone who is unapologetically themselves - for many disabled people who've got this nailed, it's is in opposition to what much of society expects of their abilities. I know I've been inspired over the years not only to own my own normal, but to work harder to defend and support whatever my riders' is. I can only do and be better as their supporter if I make the effort to understand what normal looks like.

Lily riding Elbow in a lesson: "we're friends now"

At the end of this week, I'm looking forward to heading off to Nationals: one of the most inspiring weekends of every year. As ever, I'm looking forward to living every second and seeing what I come home inspired by - please don't be a stranger!