Rosettes & mindsets: what I will miss about RDA Regionals in 2020

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

We've had lots of opportunities to vent our frustrations and sorrows over the cancellation of our calendars' most highly anticipated fixtures this year, but I've got a particular set of things I'll be missing about the RDA competition circuit. My group's qualifier for the South Region should have been taking place a week today, and I have seen many discussions on social media about what should have been happening for our groups on these sunny May days. These are the things and feelings at the top of my "missing" list for what should have been Regionals 2020: what are you missing the most about competing with your RDA group (or elsewhere)?

1. Focus

Focus, aims, and goals are all good for people. Focusing on competitive aims won't be a good fit for everyone: most of my riders don't compete, although the numbers will shift over time as they get older. When the goal is a good match for the rider, however, and all parties are invested in it, the focus that falls into place as a result can really power up RDA sessions. I like goal setting as a general rule and tend to have something in place for everyone (including myself), but I like being able to incorporate RDA competitions into that and the shape it gives to some of my coaching plans. 

Preparing for a competition also means a particularly intense sort of focus, especially if, as is the case at my group, opportunities to go to a formal away-from-home show are limited. A dressage test is perhaps four and a half minutes long; a spin round a show jumping course even less. There is a lot to be remembered during a regular riding lesson, especially if a rider is operating somewhat independently, and it's often during preparations for their first Regionals that I see their newly magnified focus really stretching what they have learnt. 

2. Team spirit

A team of RDA volunteers never feels more like a team than at the end of a competition "away day", and a good group will ensure that any successes belong to that team rather than to individuals. The talking letters of Team Natalie personified this for me all through last year. Just as our riders intensify their focuses for the sake of Regionals, the team on the ground does too. A Regionals schedule is usually pretty packed for us (see below), so it's all hands on deck for quick changeovers, producing the right dressage test at the right moment, pulling scissors, hole punches, baling twine and hair ties out of what appears to be thin air, and, literally, hand holding. It can be fraught and even bewildering, but I do think that ultimately our team spirit both increases and wins out as a result. The shared experience is valuable beyond belief, and it's never a bad thing to have more people to cheer at the prize giving.

3. Relief

It's an open secret at my RDA group that Regionals is the most stressful day in the calendar for any coaches involved. Nationals takes place over two or three days, and by virtue of the qualifying place required for entry, involves a smaller number of our riders. Regionals involves more riders, therefore more horses, more volunteers, more transport, more bottles of stain remover, more copies of more dressage tests, and more angst, all for a Sunday out which somehow is wrapped up by 3pm. Last year, when we had more than our fair share of last minute wrong-goings including an unwell horse, there were even strange dreams in the week leading up to Regionals.

Despite all of this, however, I wouldn't swap the elated feeling of a regional qualifier, or a chapter of one, finishing successfully. It's stressful because we care, and because it's worth doing. Whether it's your first, tenth, twentieth, fortieth Regionals, it can't stop meaning something to see your RDA families leaving happy and proud at the end of the day, riders proudly trailing rosettes and refusing to take off their show jackets. 

I got into RDA because I was interested in creating opportunities for others: a day out at Regionals is a self-contained representation of just that, and why it is so meaningful. If that's the pay off for the logistical headaches and weird dreams, I'll take it.

4. Growth

We watch our riders, our volunteers, and our own levels of experience grow all the time. At home, week in week out, it's steady but satisfying. At a competition, it seems to accelerate abruptly, and leave a participant seemingly older, wiser, and more ready for anything than they were at the start of the day. They will have had to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances, especially if they are inexperienced, and perhaps have had to solve a problem on (I'm so sorry for this pun, I really am...) the hoof with minimal coach intervention. 

It took me about five years of supporting my group's riders at competitions to be able to breathe during their dressage tests. It was never a case of not believing they could do it; it was more the sense that they were as alone and exposed as they had ever been on a horse during that four minutes inside the boards. This has over the last few years developed into a slightly healthier feeling of accumulative achievement: how exciting it is that they trust you, their horse, their support network enough to go out and take it on themselves. How encouraging it is that they have learnt enough to respond to the atmosphere, to changes in their horse's mood. It's a pleasure to watch somebody's character grow and strengthen every time they compete. 

5. Disappointment

I know - really? But like it or not, disappointment will always be part of anybody's experience of competition, whether it's para dressage, chess, swimming, Irish dancing, or hardcore spelling. I don't think you can make an honest claim of understanding the full value of competitive sport without having had a disappointing experience or two, and luckily enough it's very unusual for someone to get through even an amateur sporting "career" without just that. 

All competition exposes you and the people you coach to the possibility that others will be better: faster, smoother, more precise, more thoroughly prepared, calmer, bolder. In all RDA disciplines, there is also some element of subjective marking involved.  How this plays out will not always seem fair to all parties at all times. Everyone has at least heard, if not participated in, a conversation along the lines of "well-I-don't-know-what-the-judge-was-looking-at" after a disappointing score is received. 

Qualifying tickets for Nationals, the reason for Regionals existing in the first place, are also highly sought after. There have been years where my group has had three riders entering the same class in the same age division, thus making it impossible not to disappoint at least one who scores out of the qualifying places. Younger riders, buoyed up by the idea of excelling on their very first attempt, might be met with their first ever experience of disappointment at their first Regionals. Even coaches who keep a flawless poker face when debriefing their (disappointed or not) riders aren't immune to the odd moment of indignation when they don't quite agree with the score sheet. 

I wanted to write a lot about disappointment and sportsmanship this spring, but thought it better to wait until I was actually in the midst of both again. The digest is: perhaps the disappointment we risk feeling, as coaches, athletes, or parents, when investing in competitive sport at any level is the most valuable thing any of us can take from it. It helps us grow, and throws our triumphs into sharper and happier relief. Even if I'd rather have straightforward success over disappointment, I don't think I'd ever change it. I'm definitely sad that this year the only disappointment we have to work through is the disappointment of not having any of these opportunities in the first place.


Have you enjoyed reading this blog?

All RDA groups are currently closed as part of the response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. My group, Abingdon, is likely to suffer financially as a result of this closed period: our busy fundraising calendar has been wiped clean for the foreseeable future, meaning that we will lose thousands of pounds which are desperately needed for the upkeep of our yard and the care of our 14 horses.

Can you help?

We have set up a Covid-19 appeal for Abingdon RDA, and are asking in particular for people to consider donating a small sum of money which they will not be spending as usual during this difficult time: the cost of a trip to a coffee shop, or petrol you are not using for commuting or coming to the stables. We have been so touched by the generosity of our supporters to date. If you are not able to donate (and we appreciate that not everyone can), sharing this blog post is a great way of spreading the word and showing your support. It is all appreciated so much.