The year that was: snapshots of magical memories and lessons learned from RDA in 2019

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

2019 is ending. Although this blog is yet to pass its first birthday, I saw no point in passing up the opportunity to reflect on what has been an endlessly interesting, challenging, uplifting year in my world, and in the RDA community at large. The organisation turned fifty, my group forty-four, and my own involvement hit its eighth anniversary. There are far too many things to write up into a truly exhaustive review of the year (not one which anyone would care to read, anyway), so I have written my overview of 2019 in the form of "snapshots": short moments, scenes, memories, which will stay with me as the clock strikes midnight and ushers in the next decade. Big things are built up of many small things; what could be more fitting?


At the beginning of this year, Alice and I ventured into a new realm of social media for our group by setting up the Abingdon RDA Instagram page. We were (and still are, just further along) in the midst of a big fundraising drive for a new, full-size indoor arena, and our chairman had been advised that grant applications can be boosted by (inter)active social media presence. Although we were already on Facebook and Twitter as a group, we have yet to find a more enjoyable way of raising our group's profile and connecting to its existing community than we did with Instagram. We are some way off being "influencers", having amassed a modest 3000 followers over the past year (a couple of genuine equestrian influencers do follow us though!), but are one of the most-followed RDA accounts on the platform. We have used it to support fellow RDA participants and volunteers, follow our Paralympic heroes, and have been able to answer questions and give advice to those interested in volunteering with their local RDA groups. A level of commitment, alongside professionalism and safety, has been essential to how we run our page, but I would nonetheless recommend it to any group looking to raise their profile and enjoy doing it. We will certainly follow you!

Two new riders started in one of my Saturday morning groups; one who had moved from another day of the week, and one who had moved "up" from another one of my classes. My RDA group doesn't have formalised levels for each coach's classes (partly because we deal with such distinct individuals in every single group), but we do like riders to be moved up and on if they begin to outgrow a class in ability. Bored riders do not successful therapy make! The resultant class was, on paper, incredibly mixed: cerebral palsy, Jacobsen syndrome, Down's syndrome, Global Development Delay, autism, and deafness (treated by cochlear implants) were all represented in a group of five riders aged 5-12. RDA classes do generally cover a broad spectrum of riders and needs, so this wasn't anything that I wasn't used to expecting, but there's always a bit of trepidation in my head about how a new group is going to work together (and what if they just don't?).

It took one class with its new lineup, however, for me to realise that it was really going to gel. I realised that all of the riders had the potential to ride independently in at least two paces, some already pretty much there, others working towards it in different capacities, and that all of them had a genuine love for riding and horses, not "just" as therapy. The riders look out for each other, cheer each other on, and laugh together. Some weeks are chaotic and giggly, others I stand back and take in the serenity of watching the whole class quietly get on with achieving something. I am adding one extra rider to this all-star gang after Christmas, and I hope she loves it as much as I have loved teaching it.

RDA National Office released a report earlier this year, 'Horses, Health and Happiness', which confirmed what many involved in the organisation already knew or had already experienced anecdotally: RDA is good for us all as human beings. I enjoyed reading the report, although the "numbers" page (page 5 in the report itself) gave official percentages to what I had already recognised in the weighting of different age groups across RDA volunteers. I wrote about this briefly in the final point of this post. It didn't take much to open up an ongoing conversation with National Office about the younger segment of RDA volunteers, what they are attracted to and what they gain from their experiences. Matt, Beth and Caroline in particular have been incredibly accommodating and happy to listen this year. I am very encouraged by the number of conversations, connections, and genuine friendships which have sprung up over the course of 2019. Talking to people, whether it's to share a grumble or a dream, is an important step towards a good future for RDA.

April is a busy time for Regionals preparations, so I found myself doing a lot of something I love: teaching private lessons. Group lessons are full of personality and interesting dynamics, but private lessons enable a coach to focus completely on the personality of an individual. Two of my riders, 17 year old Laura and then-11 year old Daisy, are not new personalities to me, but brought particular tenacity and conscientiousness to their riding which left a big impression on me. They were both, at their different levels and paces, applying corrections without drawing breath, riding with genuine insight and independence, and telling me with every stride they rode that they were ready for the next challenge. All things that a coach can hope and prepare for, but can't completely teach. I think that we are all at some level aware of this phenomenon, but April really taught me to listen to my riders when they show or tell me that they are ready for a step up.

Laura, who has regular individual lessons, keeps letting her riding tell me that the bar needs to be raised. Her performances at Nationals this year will stick with me, and because they were her highest ever placings or scores. Due to her scheduled ride going lame, she ended up riding Jimbob more on the actual day of the competition than she had done in the eight months previous (one hasty lesson to run two tests the week before). It didn't faze her in the slightest; I wish the same could be said for me...

One of my clearest memories of May is of Alice and me filling a supermarket trolley with sixteen individual bunches of flowers. I smell of saddle soap, and she smells of the shampoo we use on the horses' tails. We are making sure that our helpers, especially Natalie's callers on their inaugural performance, are shown the gratitude they deserve. A greater writer than I once wrote that the course of Regionals never does run smooth (or something), and this year was no exception: unwell, new and untested, and just plain rogue horses were all in the mix. No matter how much we repeat that it's all for fun, it still means something to so many people, so there are lots of feelings in the air too.

Daisy, who was upping the ante in April (and much earlier), was chasing her first Nationals qualification after competing capably for a few years in dressage and the Countryside Challenge without quite getting there. I managed to do her out of a proper warm up after a quick-but-not-quite-quick-enough dash between Natalie dismounting and her mounting, but she was far less rattled about it than I was. "I'm ready." A smile, a shrug of the shoulders, and I believed her completely. She didn't just get that qualification: she got it with a score of 72%. The Facebook status I wrote that day read: "Time given to helping others achieve their dreams is time well spent, whether the time or the dreams are big or small." The quiet steel, and then quiet pride, that I saw in Daisy's facial expressions that day will always remind me of that time well spent.

In June, we had the first of two clinics with para coach Clive Milkins, who I find I invoke often when I am writing my blogs. Clive visited us on an extraordinarily hot weekend at the end of June, and we all slowly fried ourselves in the sun in aid of learning as much as possible about our riders, our horses, and how they might work together. I wrote in this post that I felt this year was the first that "I have felt my own teaching style crystallise", despite having coached for much longer. I think that the way Clive invited my questions and encouraged my opinions that day, despite having a full schedule of riders to focus on, really made me feel that process properly for the first time. There were many things I learnt from him and wanted to emulate in my own lessons, but as Coach India, not anyone else. Although I didn't act on it until July, this was also the month that I first gave genuine thought to starting a blog, to chart the learning experiences and conversations to which I was becoming more and more receptive. I'm glad I did.

I could write pages and pages about Nationals. The first blog post I ever wrote was about Nationals. It is hard to write about much that happened in any July that wasn't Nationals. This year, however, was a particular vintage flavoured by fun, pride, and body-and-soul exhaustion. I cried when Natalie made her final salute to the judges in her dressage test, for how far she had come since Regionals, since the beginning of the year, since I had started working with her. It's very rare that I am seen crying anywhere outside of the RDA bubble, but there I was, stood on X, eyes leaking. I'd just about pulled myself together when we visited the scoreboards and saw that Natalie's score wasn't just a good one, but the highest of the whole class. "This is becoming a problem..." said Alice as I started sobbing again.

We shamelessly kept the result a secret from Natalie (her mum was in on it too) until the prize giving, and watched her every emotion as she processed her name and placing. "Now I understand why you wouldn't take me to the scoreboards. I suppose I forgive you!" she said, as we tried to find a way she could balance her silverware in one hand and still use her cane with the other. As so often happens at Nationals and at competitions in general, I watched a rider become properly acquainted with their own power that day. Natalie is smart, bubbly, and not exactly shy, but she is still a nine year old girl working out a number of worlds she is unable to see; the equestrian world a particularly complicated example. There were times during training when Natalie's perfectionist tendencies threatened to get the better of her, or when she was wrong footed by an honest error made by those of us guiding her vocally. Buoyed up by her successes, Natalie set about continuing this "best day ever". She held court with para coaches (whom she had considered quite scary mere weeks before) in the queue for the ice cream van, cheered on our other riders with gusto, and even ended up upside down in the safe hands of our friend Lizzie: "The Para Vaulter" as she is known to many. The winning was amazing, but I know that Natalie will remember the way that all of those other things felt for the rest of her life. Nobody can "lose" in an environment where everyone is a friend who is proud of you, and nobody questions the limitations which your disability may (or may not) put in place.

"So, when can I do this on a real horse?" Natalie meets The Para Vaulter

The summer holidays, with their long, hot days and dry, sandy fields, feel a million miles away at this time of year. Our yard is not blessed with good hacking, but a ride out around the neighbouring farmer's fields to try and catch the odd breeze is a pleasant enough activity during a heatwave. It was on a Saturday like this that I sensed a landmark achievement approaching. Many of my readers will remember Woody, the focus of my first ever "Rider Story" post. When I published his story in early August, he had just started to be integrated into his class. A few short weeks after this, I took the class out for a ride around the fields, followed by a couple of circuits of the obstacle course set up in a paddock for our annual Fun Day. I was pretty confident that Woody would at least enjoy a ride out, and it wouldn't be an issue if I needed to get him down early. As I watched him out on the track (on an unfamiliar pony!), I had a sudden and definite sense that he was going to manage the whole thing. He seemed so at ease, with the sun on his back and Jasper marching along, and was as a result particularly engaged with the activities on the obstacle course (the bean bags were a real hit). I handed a very tired child back to his parents at the end of the full hour's session and we exchanged huge smiles. Mine didn't fade until I went to sleep that night. Woody was definitely living up to his cowboy namesake, and most importantly was happy doing it.

The highlight of September was arguably our annual Fun Day, which left even my dad (roped in to help run a stall) feeling contemplative and uplifted by the sun drenched RDA golden moments he had witnessed all day. He mentioned specifically a conversation he had overheard between two teenage riders, Mia and Rosie, about what being a part of our group meant to them. Mia and Rosie both ride in one of Alice's classes, but over the summer and beginning of autumn both became my helpers on Saturdays too. I know that this isn't an at all unusual occurrence in RDA, but it was the first time I had taken on some of our own riders as regular Saturday volunteers. Watching the girls grow into their roles has brought me as much joy as coaching does. They both work incredibly hard, and are so conscientious about how they handle horses and riders. They are also both very well liked and appreciated by my riders: one small boy says only a few words, but always makes a huge effort to say Rosie's name. Mia blew me away just before Christmas with how she handled side walking with another, very challenging rider. I am so happy that they are able to feel the benefits of RDA from two angles, and that we are able to benefit from having them as such dedicated volunteers.

Woody taking the annual Fun Day in his stride


During a tough month outside of RDA (this was why), I found a huge amount of peace in appreciating the smallest of things in the sessions I run as the leaves changed and the mornings grew colder. "Small things" often translated into challenges for me, my volunteers, and my riders: things like switching from coloured reins to plain ones, and working out how much to shorten them, or focusing on riding a new shape or pattern. These things were not "big", but mastering them definitely was. For my riders at the more advanced end of the scale, I also decided to start challenging myself a bit more: I brought lateral work back into my lessons, which I had always insisted I was awful at and/or bored by teaching. I was honest with myself: just because I had a terrible attitude towards feeling like I was "bad" at doing something didn't mean that my riders deserved that, or that I would accept a similar approach from them. I was pleasantly surprised by how it paid off. A couple of other new ideas, new horse and rider combinations, and new perspectives reinforced the idea that I wanted 2020 to be a year of creativity and innovation: not necessarily out with the old, but definitely in with the new. As for my own head and heart, RDA gave me a healthy purpose and focus which I desperately needed. Facilitating therapy for others turned out to be just the therapy I needed myself.

In November I was honoured to be recognised by equestrian influencer Olivia Towers as her first ever "Blogger of the Month": my most popular post (at time of writing) was republished on her website. My hope for my writing is that it takes a small step towards enlightening or empowering someone in or out of the RDA bubble (especially, perhaps, out) each time something new is published. Olivia has a considerably larger audience than my readership, so this felt like a slightly bigger step on the ongoing treadmill that is this aim. It was also gratifying to know have proof that RDA coaches and volunteers can have voices worth listening to: we have something distinctive to add to the equestrian world, rather than being an endearing charitable sideshow for when a suitable moment arrives.

The end of the year is always enjoyable at the stables: partly for the opportunity to reflect on the progress over the past twelve months, and partly for the festive, sparkly, and often surreal, entertainment of our fun Christmas sessions. My mind lingers, however, on a quieter moment a couple of weeks before the Christmas holidays. Lily, who started riding with us in April and turned five in June, had her first independent trot on her favourite pony: diminutive and sometimes ditzy Welsh Section A, Bryn. Lily joined our group at a time when there was a lot happening in her home life, and to everyone's delight (not least her own) took very quickly to RDA and to horses. Although she can be unsure of herself with new horses, especially if they are on the faster side, she has quietly risen to all sorts of challenges over the past eight months: that Saturday morning, watching her trotting on the lead rein, I thought she is ready.

"Lily, would you like to try it on your own this time?" I asked her. "Yes." replied a small voice (Lily is a child of few words when she is concentrating on her riding, although she is opening up more and more when she gets the chance to unwind and chat a bit). That was that. Off she went, flying solo, remembering the many things a rider needs to remember when they are allowed to move up a gear on their own. A first independent trot always feels like a big mile stone to me, because of all of the parts of brain and body a rider needs to engage to make it work, and because it often feels much, much faster and bouncier than an independent walk. (Of course, it is not an essential mile stone, as there is no pressure on any RDA participant to reach it if it isn't appropriate for them.) Every time I looked at Lily after she had done it, she was smiling quietly, proudly, to herself.  Lily had no idea at the beginning of 2019 that she would end it as a rider: I am looking forward to seeing what else she achieves in the saddle to conjure up that proud, determined smile in 2020.

The last ride of the year: Sophia (and loyal friend Candy) at her RDA Christmas party. Sophia was kind enough to remind me that at the end of the next decade "I'll be 19, and you'll be 36!!!"

2019 has emphasised that no year is truly straightforward, but that "straightforward" isn't a prerequisite for "good". RDA has been perhaps the greatest single positive force in my life over the past year, and I am excited to see what the 2020s (my first full decade in the RDA world) will offer. I am so glad to have had the experiences of RDA that I have this year: new friends, open minded conversations, exciting achievements, team spirit, non-stop learning. I am also very glad that I chose to start writing this blog, which has been read by people from all over the world, connected me to many other like-minded RDA fanatics, and helped to teach others about why the organisation is so special. Thank you so much for your support in 2019: I hope you will read on in 2020.

Happy New Year. I hope it is everything you want it to be.