On the road: a visit to the Avon RDA Open Day

Team Avon equines Cricket, Bertie and Tom, with their excellent Level 3 show jumping demonstrators

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in one of my own blogs about how important it is for those involved in RDA to connect with one another. A few days after publishing that post, I realised with a start that even if I had met plenty of other "RDA people", maybe at Nationals, at county training days, or even virtually, I had never in eight years visited another RDA centre. (The only exception is South Bucks RDA when our regional qualifier used to be held there, and a couple of mainstream riding schools with very small RDA groups over the years). The hypocrisy! Thankfully, Coach Alice and I had already written the Avon RDA open day in our calendars. Bristol isn't so far from Oxford, so last Sunday we trundled off (with Alice's mum, Julie) for a day out, and to rectify this gap in RDA experience.

Whilst we had a very useful and interesting day at the Avon Centre, it was the power of RDA friendship that gave us the initial push to get on the road. A handful of Avon riders; Cat, Stella, and Millie; were some of the first people from within RDA to find the Abingdon RDA Instagram page when Alice and I started it up earlier this year. We met them in person at Nationals in July and fell very quickly into the role of honorary Avon cheerleaders. All three are a similar age to us, and despite experiencing RDA from different sides (as coaches and participants) found that we had a lot in common in terms of commitment and enthusiasm. We watched Stella and Cat win this year's Pairs Dressage title with their beautiful Harry Potter themed test (and beautiful almost-matching mounts, Baby and Tom), and thought it would be fun to see them ride it again. Why not?

I was also interested to see what might actually go on at an RDA centre open day, as it isn't something that Abingdon currently does. There were a number of things going on to raise money for the group (a raffle, a tombola, cake etc), but I got a real sense of pride and enjoyment from the staff, volunteers and participants at the centre. An open day is a chance to raise awareness and showcase what is already being done for a cause, and Avon were clearly committed to doing just that.

One fundraising idea we are definitely taking home is photos of our horses on cakes! All 72 of these sold out, and we deliberated long and hard over which one we wanted...

We were introduced to Kim Langbridge, RDA Coordinator for the centre, who shared many of our own concerns and frustrations about sourcing, training and caring for RDA horses (as well as, of course, our enthusiasm!). Avon has a large yard of around 25 horses, and it was valuable to have Kim's inside view of how new horses are found and integrated into this environment. There are, of course, differences between how Avon operate, and how we do with our yard of 13. I think, however,  that the most interesting part of pursuing best practice in RDA lies in exploring our groups' similarities in the context of their many differences. Ultimately, the ethos of RDA is universal: groups then use their own resilience and ingenuity to make the most of their less universal circumstances and environments.

One thing Kim said which particularly struck a chord with us was that not all horses who will "gel" with RDA work will do so immediately: "some horses are in training for longer than others". This is pretty straightforward logic, but I think it is very easy for us to lose sight of this when a new ride is required urgently, or has not been found in months, or even years. As far as horses go, incidentally, we watched the parade of the majority of the centre's horses, and fell in love with all of them. The only thing which kept us from squeezing as many as possible into the boot of Alice's car was how obviously well loved, respected and cared for they all are. I remember a similar feeling when I met the horses at my own group for the first time, and it's a good one.

The lovely Jim, beautifully ridden and led for the Level 1 Show Jumping demonstration

We also enjoyed watching two demonstrations: firstly, Cat and Stella performing their winning Pairs Dressage routine, which was just as enjoyable as it was at Hartpury. I would love to field a pair of my own riders for the class some day, so it's good to know what a winning test looks (and sounds) like, but I find the performance elements of any kind of dressage to music incredibly compelling in any case. When my own potential pairs are grown up enough to take on the challenge (I'm playing the long game, of course) I'm sure I will be bending their ears about how it all fits together.

The second demonstration was given by county coach Gill Edwards, and offered an expertly guided tour of levels 1-3 of RDA Show Jumping. Jumping is very much on the Abingdon Group's to-do list (pending suitable space and equipment, and the necessary training for our coaches!) and I appreciated the clarity with which Gill laid out each level and the progressions within them. Cat and Stella reprised their demonstrator roles, and we also enjoyed seeing Millie ride a lovely few rounds on Robbie, a horse who was fairly new to her. What I particularly enjoyed was the way in which all of the demonstrators were encouraged and corrected, regardless of their level. I love learning from watching other coaches teach, and when you already know all of the other coaches at your own group, visiting another one is a failsafe way of getting exposure to additional coaching styles. I loved the progression, consistency, and warmth in the way Gill coached her three groups of riders: all things I hope to be able to make clear in my own coaching in the fullness of time. All of the riders we watched rode beautifully and were clearly comfortable in the environment of the centre, even with an audience. 

We all also crashed, rolled, and skidded through the hobby horse show jumping course, and were in no way the only adult visitors to do so. Honest.

A final observation made by all three of us was how the non-RDA riders also accommodated by the centre were described: "non-disabled", instead of the more commonly-coined "able-bodied". This stuck with me all the way home: "able-bodied" implies that disabled riders are "non-able-bodied", which shifts the focus (even if very subtly) onto what these riders lack. "Non-disabled" carries far less weight and implied privilege, and I think I will be making an effort to use it in my own vocabulary in the future.

Cat on Baby (L) and Stella on Tom (R) giving a masterful Pairs Dressage performance

Thank you to everyone at the Avon Centre for the warm welcome they gave us, and their willingness to share experiences, enthusiasm and expertise. I'm glad (if not surprised) that the experience of visiting another RDA group just for the sake of visiting yielded so much in terms of enjoyment and broadened horizons. Until next time!