The best lessons learned about my RDA riders, from my RDA riders

Mia riding in London with Park Lane Stables

The best part about teaching people? You get to learn from people. It isn't the coach who's at the centre of a productive RDA session: it's the participants, aided by their horses. I've done a lot of thinking about RDA riders during my quiet first quarter of 2024: here are the best lessons my riders have taught me without even realising it.

If you don't let me have a go, I'm not going to learn how.

Years ago, I remember hearing a former coach mutter "X rider has been on Y horse for too long". I got a raised eyebrow for pointing out "that isn't the rider's fault" - but I knew I was right, because they weren't the one in charge of choosing who they rode each week. It's a grounding lesson for any coach to learn that if we don't put our students in a position to try - a new skill, a new horse, a new challenge - they aren't going to learn how to do it. There's common sense involved here: not every challenge will be appropriate for every participant, at every stage of their development. A big part of the skill a coach needs is to understand how to scaffold the approach to these challenges, without putting arbitrary obstacles in the way. I was once told there was "no need" for Natalie, a totally blind rider, to learn rising trot when she was struggling to do so. It was actually a very realistic possibility for her, physically, that made her more secure in the saddle - it just hadn't yet been made possible with coaching that considered her lack of vision. Good coaches make possibility possible.

I might need some time to get to know and trust you.

I've had a lot of RDA riders under my wing over the years, and the ones who waltz in, trust you, and chat merrily to you without inhibition from the first hour are definitely in a minority. Most have taken longer to open up and understand properly, and I don't mind that this means they were figuring me out too - whether at an arm's length, or by clinging to my hand like a barnacle and giving me a good stare. I've been asked "does X rider talk?" about a handful of different people over the years. My answer? "Yes, they just aren't into talking to you right now." 

It could be argued that you don't need to put the time into relationships with the people you coach, if you're able to coach safe and reasonably fun sessions. In my experience, it is totally a "need", if you're trying to make the experience of your coaching meaningful for someone else. Getting to know someone is a two-way thing that takes time. I've never regretted taking the time to understand someone else better, and so I'm never going to begrudge someone taking their time to feel comfortable with me as their coach.

I'm here to learn and to be helped by the horses: I'm not always going to know how to help the horses back

I had this conversation with a couple of fellow coaches last year. It's important, as a coach, to keep remembering that RDA riders are not always going to be able to conform to non-disabled norms or expectations for how they sit, or balance, or use their limbs. Not everyone is going to understand the weird horsey in-terms, either first time or at all, ever. It can be a difficult balance. I've seen RDA riders scream or shout and startle horses, or struggle to sit in a way that allows a horse to carry them comfortably - where safety (for anyone) or welfare (for anyone, but particularly for the horse) is in doubt, it is important for the organisation's ongoing social license that a line is drawn. The balance, however, works the other way: I've come across horses that aren't giving their RDA riders an inch (some haven't stayed in the job...), or seem to need an input that isn't in the ammo of a disabled rider with plenty left to learn. It all starts with the horse: well chosen, well trained, and well cared-for, so their relationships with our participants don't merely highlight the things that they aren't able to do. Because those things aren't their fault.

I spend a lot of time feeling different, so it's really good when I don't have to.

Isn't it true of everyone that we want to fit in, and feel we can be ourselves without judgement or hassle? For a lot of the disabled people I have coached, it's harder on average to find environments that fit the "fit in" brief. We live in a world that's very much designed by and for people without disabilities, and I've heard plenty of stories over the years about ways that's jarring, lonely and sad for the riders I coach. Riding, or other activities with horses, can be a big leveller: someone who can't walk independently with two legs can delegate to another being's four; spending time with horses can help regulate emotions in ways few other things can; someone who struggles to "join in" at school is immersed in a space which is all about including them as they are. 

The biggest thing I've taken from my riders about how to manage this feeling - of getting a break from being the different one - is to work them out thoroughly and then roll with everything else. I don't dwell on too much unless they want me too: a conversation with a young rider with cerebral palsy might go something like: "Are your hamstrings feeling tight today? What are you comfortable trying? Will you tell me if it gets too uncomfortable?" Breezy, easy, and with no talk of "well what can't you do?" I've known riders for more than half their lives and never heard them refer to their disability by its name, whereas others might wear it proudly as evidence of what they've had to overcome to feel so at home in their riding lesson. By creating an environment where nobody needs to feel uncomfortably different, you can foster one that's even better: where everybody gets to feel loved and special.

If we have a good relationship, it'll make my riding lessons good. If we have a great relationship, it will help me outside of my riding lessons too.

I'm not the kind of person who tends to choose "good" over "great", especially in a volunteer role which I've prioritised over other ways of spending my free time. As an RDA coach who's been around the block a few times, I've picked up on the potential significance of my hour a week with my riders. You can't engineer everything to ensure that every single lesson is an exceeds-all-expectations, life affirming, week-maker of a ride - we're dealing with humans and horses, there are a lot of non-controllables in the mix. When it does line up, you as a coach have the power to give someone an experience that lights them up well after it finishes. 

It makes my week to get a message from a parent when I'm sitting down in the evening that says their child is buzzing after their riding lesson. It's even better if it comes up that the confidence that they've been feeling in the saddle has translated into being able to do something new at school, or if some advice given in passing has helped them achieve something totally unrelated to horses. One of the biggest compliments I've ever received as a coach is that I "truly get to know the riders, listen to and understand them". I'll always try to keep that at the top of my priorities.

Things around the stables that make sense to you won't always make sense to me and my family.

I've learnt this from parents as much as I have from riders themselves - and from volunteers, too. Stable yards can feel like very closed shops: equestrianism is certainly the most gate-kept world I've ever tried to navigate. RDA isn't quite a reflection of the horsey world at large, but there are still lots of things going on, lots of things we talk about, lots of processes unique to each group, which make no sense to the uninitiated. Why don't these horses we see in the fields or stables get used for our lesson? Why am I allowed to help untack this horse but not that one? How are decisions made and who makes them, on anything from spaces at regionals, to how donations are spent, to whether a rider has two side walkers or one? Not everyone is going to feel confident enough to ask, but you can be kind enough to answer anyway.

I want to do as much as I can.

Anyone who decides for themselves that they like riding and wants to stick with it would enjoy going further with it. Nobody wants to stay the same. What "going further" means is totally dependent on the person: this could be progressing up competitive levels; learning to trot or canter independently; throwing an extra bean bag in a bucket or just spending more time around horses. I've learnt to test this theory by offering choices: "Do you want to try a longer trot?" "Do you want to film a dressage test next month?" "Do you want to try to touch your toe, rather than your knee, this time?" Even if the answer to any of these questions is "no", there will be something else that makes their eyes light up. One of my young riders will usually say no to that last, longer, or faster trot, unlike his peers (who are bloodthirsty adrenaline seekers). If I ask him about learning a new dressage movement, like a shape or change of rein, the answer is always yes. I'll also never forget the reaction I got from August, one of my older riders, when I asked her if she wanted to learn to canter in her lesson that day: I don't think she ever would've felt confident enough to ask it herself, but it was the question she was waiting to be asked. My favourite part of coaching is the part where I get to help someone do and be more.

I'm not dependent on you - but I like you being here for me

Perhaps this is the most meaningful thing my riders have ever taught me. They don't need me - and they'd be fine without me - but a lot of them really do like me being here for them, whether as a coach, a mentor, or even as a friend. I've been really touched in the past by being told even that a rider likes talking to me - there's nothing to say that you have to enjoy chatting to a coach or a teacher.

Nurturing a chance relationship into a choice relationship is a really special thing to do. I've recently made a big decision that makes it bittersweet to reflect on my riders, how I relate to them, and how much I've learnt from them. It will always be moving to find that the effort you've put into being someone's coach means that you become an important part of their experience and their support network. I am grateful for all of it.

A peaceful moment of focus for Orli