This is the Greatest Show: How RDA Nationals became my favourite weekend of the year
I tweeted this photo from the first day of the RDA National Championships last Friday with the caption: "If I could bottle up the way this makes me feel and keep it all year round, I'd be the happiest person on earth." It's certainly testament to this that I have come home from what has been perhaps my favourite Nationals since my first in 2012, slept for a deep, dreamless 12 hours, and bounced out of bed with the idea of writing about why precisely this weekend is the most anticipated event in my diary.
The premise of the championships is a simple one. Participants qualify for Nationals at a regional qualifier in various equestrian disciplines, the most popular of which is dressage. Qualifiers then descend, with their horses, coaches, grooms, and support networks, upon Hartpury College in Gloucestershire for three days of competition in mid July. The event's giddying magnetism runs a fair bit deeper. My memories of my visits to Nationals are intense, which is a fair representation of the experience. Early mornings, late nights, adrenaline, pride, and love thrown together with horses, in all their charismatic, slightly unpredictable glory, make for a 72 hour-long perfect storm.
I spent my first year, 2012, almost entirely with my jaw on the floor. The buzz around the approaching London Paralympics was riding high in the RDA community, who had seen the majority of the soon-to-be gold medal winning GB dressage team begin their competitive careers at Nationals past. Even coming as I did from a group with a diverse range of participants, I had never seen such breadth and depth of diversity; or of the understanding of such diversity. The energy was like nothing I had ever felt before. At the end of the first day, I realised that it wasn't merely inclusivity driving the energy. It was the fact that it really was a competition. Where other sports or activities might have showcased a disabled participant "just because", or put out an inclusive (but essentially non-competitive) team because it would be "inspiring", RDA was putting on something that was accessible and inclusive, yes, but also unapologetically competitive. No standards relaxed. Even now, with several championships under my belt, I still feel that the sense of inspiration I gain from these competitions is underpinned by respect, and the acknowledgement of high standards and expectations. Just how it should be for a national level sporting event.
The good natured camaraderie of a Nationals weekend takes a firm but subtle nod to the organisation's therapeutic roots. Everyone wants everyone else to have their moment in the spotlight, and then to go home and be able to keep progressing for next year. Think these adapted reins might work for your rider? Please, take as many pictures of them as you want. Need a contact to find a good, honest weight carrier for your group? Give this number a call. Left your girth on the tack room floor in the rush to pack up the lorry? (Yes, this was our group one year...) This one looks like it will fit your pony. Every year, generous RDA groups can be found lending their horses, the most valuable assets of all, to others who have experienced equine illness, or transport issues. Sat in my office at the beginning of last week, the excited butterflies in my stomach were accompanied by a genuinely warm feeling that people across the country were sat feeling the same way as me. Inflicting a playlist inspired by one of my riders' freestyle dressage music on the office? That was possibly just me. (Sorry, if you're reading this...)
The properties of RDA Nationals also manage to balance deftly between fairy tale wish granting and gritty life lesson dealing in a way I am yet to see replicated elsewhere. I've watched dreams come true at Nationals before my very eyes, and for every one I've also had to field disappointment elsewhere. This is not a bad thing. I have a perfectionist streak of my very own and freely admit that I like to win and do not like to lose (whatever "losing" means...), but as a coach, sportsmanship and resilience are top of my list of priorities. You can't win them all, and when you are dealing with a subjective sport (in the case of dressage, which is my group's main discipline) and a live animal, you really can't win them all. I've discovered that if the ultimate goals are to enjoy the experience and to come away a better rider, it's possible to put a positive spin on pretty much every Nationals experience. When the wins do come (red rosette wins or otherwise), fairly and graciously earned, it's all the more worth it. Whilst I find myself getting tougher on my riders in their training as I get older and more experienced, I do also find myself becoming more inclined to cry at the good bits when we are away at the championships. When it all comes together, it'd take a pretty steely person not to get at least a bit emotional.
This post, and indeed this blog, comes off the back of another wonderful Nationals weekend. For me, 2019 was characterised by friendship. Due to a combination of my group's big push on social media this year; the number of people I have seen and said hello to at many of my previous visits; and some really productive and exciting conversations with RDA National Office (to whom I am so grateful for all their efforts on the championships this year!), I felt like I knew almost everyone. I found myself catching up with old friends, cheering on new ones, and feeling closer to my own group, which already took up a huge space in my head and my heart. It's human nature to respond well to feeling part of something, and I don't think I ever feel more part of something than when Nationals is in full swing.
With another Nationals weekend lived hard and loved deeply, my annual assertion that it is the best weekend of the year, the greatest show of all, has only grown stronger. Whether it's the sense of pride, friendship, achievement, wonder, the new experiences and spirit of adventure, the chance to meet people who are just as crazy about RDA as me or the opportunity to pull together with my own team, or the heady mix of cheesy chips and a cheesier disco... There is something unique and remarkable about the whole experience which keeps me counting down to the next from pretty much the moment the last one ends.
If you had a part in making the RDA National Championships what it is, whether this year or any year in the last quarter-century, I can only say "thank you".