The para vaulter: Why I need the RDA

In her latest blog for Your Horse, Lizzie explains what it means to be a para rider and why the RDA is so important to her. 

Our volunteers are better than yours! Having a ride in the rain after a vaulting demo at the Magpie Centre Open Day

Our volunteers are better than yours! Having a ride in the rain after a vaulting demo at the Magpie Centre Open Day

So far, I’ve talked a lot about vaulting and how it works without dwelling much on the ‘para’ side of it.

The fact is, though, that there's more to the word ‘para’ than having our own category to compete in.

I want to try and explain why it matters to me that I'm a para vaulter, an RDA vaulter and, indeed, an RDA rider. 

It’s widely acknowledged that giving disabled people the opportunity to enjoy sport – both recreationally and competitively – is A Good Thing.

It makes physio fun, it’s energising, and, as a reason and a vehicle for social interaction, it benefits mental health and emotional wellbeing enormously.

Rebecca riding Jacko with volunteer, Kathryn, at the RDA Champs 2015

Rebecca riding Jacko with volunteer, Kathryn, at the RDA Champs 2015

The RDA recognises all of this. Participants compete in riding, driving and vaulting and we take part in educational activities (from creative writing and art competitions to working towards awards and qualifications). 

The RDA provides opportunities for people of all ages who face daily struggles to succeed and achieve.

The benefits of riding

Clearly, there are enormous benefits to taking part in riding and vaulting for all kinds of people, whatever the disability.

Many of them are reasonably easy to see: happiness; confidence; physical improvements.

Others are less obvious, but no less important. To understand it, you need to try and see it from a disabled person’s perspective.

I'm incredibly fortunate to live in an area where there are plenty of opportunities for all kinds of disability sport.

I’m also very fortunate that I can train alongside able-bodied (AB) people too, which is largely down to the willingness of coaches and athletes to go out of their way to accommodate me.

Integrating into AB groups helps me to learn more and to practise more, so these extra sessions constitute a vital component of my training programme.

Sometimes people ask why I still want to go to disability-specific sessions when I could ‘just train with normal people’ (as a quick aside, no, ‘normal’ is not an acceptable word to use in this situation!). Let me try to explain.

When I’m in an AB group, I’m always aware of my difference.

This isn’t because people don’t accept me, but because the differences are obvious. When I ride, for example, I’m the one that has jazzy stirrups and one arm in a sling.

I may be able to canter and jump and perform a reasonable basic dressage test, but I look different and I am different. 

When I go vaulting, I’m the one who can’t do run-ins or mount on the move.

I’m the one that needs someone to hold her stick when she gets on, and to appear with it afterwards. None of this is a problem – without these adaptations I wouldn’t be there at all – but it still makes it obvious that I’m different.

Looking different and being different aren’t necessarily difficult in themselves. I like to be different and I want to stand out.

Me with Jodie practising our stable management

Me with Jodie practising our stable management

However, when you're so different that other people can't possibly understand your perspective, it ceases to be desirable. 

Being very different from other people is exhausting. Often, success as a disabled person depends upon your ability to fit seamlessly into an AB world.

Disabling conditions are tiring enough, and fighting silently to fit in only compounds this.

When you can spend an hour or two fitting in, it disguises the fact that the rest of your day is very different, and that you are battling significant physical challenges (for example, I spend the majority of each day resting at home with my head carefully supported because of neck instability).

The veneer is thin and feeling different is even harder than looking different.

How the RDA helps

This is where the magic of the RDA comes in! In an environment that's aimed purely at disabled people, you're in a situation where to be disabled is to be normal.

Imagine how amazing that feels! 

The word ‘disability’ itself means the reversal or undoing of ability: usually, the ability to perform standard daily tasks; in other words, to be ‘normal’.

As a disabled person, you're defined by the things you can’t do; by the ways in which you are, to put it bluntly, abnormal.

At RDA, though, you’re in a situation that has disability as default.

You’re not in the way, you’re not a puzzle to be worked around and you’re not a nuisance (well, not because of your disability anyway!).

It’s not that you’re in the way during an AB session, or that people don’t accommodate you – they do, and they’re simply brilliant. It’s just that, at RDA, you are normal. 

Feeling normal isn’t about being able to do the same things as other people - if it were, this need would be satisfied by integrating disabled people into AB sessions.

It’s about feeling understood, and however lovely people are they will never fully understand your position unless they can relate to it from personal experience. 

Pushing yourself in AB groups certainly has its advantages, but the implicit understanding that exists among RDA members gives you hope and reassurance that you’re not battling alone.

Being disabled - especially if your disability isn’t always immediately obvious from the outside - can feel very lonely and isolating.

You don’t want to go on about how hard every minute of every day is, but you can’t escape the body you’re in.

Having a large, supportive network that appreciates your efforts and recognises your challenges without having to explain them is more important and valuable than - try as I might - I can put into words. 

Come and see us in action at the RDA National Championships! – Hartpury College, nr. Gloucester – 14th-16th July 2017