Who wants to be an RDA coach? How to work out if it's your thing - and what to do to get ready

So - you want to be an RDA coach? 

It may be the best non-job job I'll ever have, but it's not always the easiest to convert people to the same mission. There seems to be a bit of momentum building around coaching at my group at the moment, and I've heard a few people express an interest in this step up in their RDA relationship. I can't be the only coach out there who found that many of the experiences I had before starting my official training were as important (if not more so) as what I learnt when I was a coach in training. As a result, I thought I'd put together a post with a few tips about what you can do to get yourself in shape to start your coaching journey, including working out whether it's the right thing for you: the stuff that you won't necessarily find typed up on the RDA website.

Fancy a walk in these shoes?

What makes a good prospective coach?

The first thing I think a prospective coach needs to have is a straightforward one: consistency. You need to be sure that you're able to come to your RDA group consistently (this is not the same as "constantly"!) during and after your coach training, even if there's a gap between these two phases. If you are aiming to take on responsibility for a regular class group, for example, that will mean you have to think more about fitting it around everything else in your life than you might have previously. 

My own coach training was pretty low pressure, especially compared to the responsibilities attached to my coaching now: I trained on the old pathway, which didn't have the same modular approach of the old one, and also didn't train with a view to taking over a class immediately as I was still at university, and my group didn't actually need me to fill a gap straight away. Even though this meant I didn't need to be massively consistent, I knew from how I kept up my commitment during the holidays that RDA was going to be a regular fixture in my weekends as soon as that was practical for me. The basic principle is that if you are developing new skills and habits, consistent practice will be good for those new things.

Consistency is also important in developing both your confidence and your competence. Any RDA group will want both of these things from a volunteer they are putting forward for training, although a good one shouldn't be worrying about how long you've taken to reach that point or who you are to start with. Coaching isn't an extrovert-only game, but I think the act of putting yourself out there at the beginning is probably easier for that sort of person. This isn't a fake-it-til-you-make-it sort of deal, and it's fine to take years developing your competence, regardless of how confident you feel. Do you know what you're looking for when it comes to tacking up a horse safely, ready for an RDA lesson? Do you feel as settled leading a horse in a lesson as you do side walking? Ultimately, a coach will need to oversee and make decisions relating to all of these things, so spending time building your skills and your confidence in them will be more than worth it in your coaching future.

There is a huge people-focused element to coaching in RDA, so I also think it's important for a prospective coach to be interested in the people they'd be coaching - or participants in general. Who are these participants? What are they doing? What are we able to offer them? Where have they come from and where are they going? I like my volunteers to work with as many riders as possible, whether they end up being coaches or not, because I think it's great for everyone to have a big "circle" within their sessions. I think it's worth asking if you can spread your wings, even if you do typically work with the same participants, to help work out if coaching is for you.

What comes first: a happy rider or a happy coach? Lily enjoying a lesson on Elbow.

A good coach will need lots of attention to detail, so this is always something I recommend a prospective coach to focus on in themselves. My favourite kind of detail to pay attention to is my riders themselves: from their favourite horses and biggest goals, to anything they want to share about life out of the saddle. Coaches need attention to detail everywhere else, too: checking and adjusting tack; how different horses or volunteers interact with each other; even what the weather is doing and how that could affect a session. 

A great way of getting your eye in is to support someone who is already a coach. Some of my volunteers have been taking great initiative recently, helping set up the right tack before lessons start and even producing a plan for equipment for one of my lessons when I was already running on negative getting-stuff-done time (regrettably, that particular volunteer has a few more years to wait until she's old enough to be a coach!). I work with two other qualified coaches on a Saturday and we all help each other out in a not-so-different way: changing stirrups, setting up equipment, and even sometimes acting as leaders or side walkers in each others' lessons. 

I am more collaborative now, as a coach with a number of years under her belt, than I ever was in my early days of volunteering. What really sold coaching to me was the satisfaction I got from working with individual riders as a leader or side walker: seeing if I could help them understand better, or offering advice to make small improvements in the middle of their big group lesson. I also enjoyed being able to understand them better and building trust through the chit chat in quiet moments. I coach riders now who remember me and the things they used to bend my ears about when I was walking next to them. If I were to pick out potential future coaches myself, I would look for those people who were able to make the little differences to the individual riders they assist - not undermining or overpowering the existing coach, but supporting what they are trying to help their riders achieve. I don't often get the chance to be a helper in another coaches' lessons any more, but it's a role I still find enjoyable to step back into.

Florence's dream job is to be a riding instructor - she brought this to one of her lessons laying out her goals!

Two last things I think are really important for prospective coaches to own, enjoy, and explore: interaction with other volunteers. One of the biggest steps up from volunteer to coach is the responsibility you gain for managing, supporting, and developing other volunteers. Some of that you will definitely learn on the job - I'm still working out plenty about training, motivating, retaining and generally supporting volunteers. A great way to get yourself ready for coaching and double check that it's something you will enjoy is to make sure you are being a team player: do you know everyone you're volunteering with? Are you the kind of person who is able to offer help, and who people are happy to approach with questions?

Finally, are you enthusiastic about learning new things? Coaching is a step up in your RDA career, but it's also a step into a bigger, more complicated, more humbling learning curve than you might have experienced before. It's not about ticking the boxes and getting the certificate: coaching is about developing people, and you are the first person who you will get used to developing. I've been involved with RDA for almost twelve years now, and I think my newbie 18 year old self would be surprised both by how much I now know, and how much I've accepted I don't know. Some weeks, you will be the person in your classes who learns the most. If you're up for learning that never really stops, coaching could be the right call for you.

Carriage driving on our recent trip to Park Lane Stables RDA: a first for literally everyone

What can I do to get ready for coach training?

Soul searching aside, I know that there are lots of keen would-be coaches out there in search of some practical steps to take to get themselves in good shape for entering the official RDA coaching pathway. My recommendations are:

  • Share your ideas: get used to talking about coaching with the coaches who are already at your group. I don't mind if I need to explain why XYZ wouldn't work if you bring an idea to me - if I explain nicely, everyone keeps learning. It might be that you have an idea which is a total game changer and helps to build everyone's confidence. Part of training to be a coach is finding your voice, so don't keep it all in your head.
  • Work out where your gaps are... and ask! There will be things you don't know, or that you don't feel confident about. Are you good at asking the questions about this stuff? I know I've found it very difficult at times to feel able to admit to the stuff I don't know, especially on mainstream yards when I was younger. I feel very strongly now that RDA needs to be different. So - be honest with yourself about your knowledge gaps, and speak up. Sometimes it takes years to close these gaps, sometimes it takes a couple of weeks of practice. Either is just fine.
  • Build up your experience. Even if you've come into RDA with a wealth of experience from elsewhere in the equestrian world, it's always worth it to take some time to work out your group, and RDA in general. RDA adapts more, for more people, than any other equestrian organisation I've known, and that takes a bit of getting your head around. If you're already settled as a volunteer, make sure you are taking the chance to get as involved as possible in anything to do with coaching. Can you work with a different rider this week? Act as a side walker in a different class to the usual? Get involved in a non-routine event like an own a pony day or in house competition? Even watching someone else coach - without any other distractions - can be a brilliant way to soak up ideas and good practice. Don't totally bust a gut - you are likely doing this as a volunteer - but be open minded and proactive on a scale that works for you.
I'm not going to put this as a bullet point because it feels incredibly self-promotional, but I've also heard from a few people that they found my posts really useful to read while they were a coach in training. If you're willing to believe them, these posts might be a good starting point...

Watching a lesson with Waveney Luke

If you're reading this at the start of your coaching journey, I'm wishing you everything you need! I hope you gain as much from the experience as I have.