This is still the greatest show: why I'd rather be at RDA Nationals this weekend

Abingdon RDA horse Princess takes in the scene at her first Nationals in 2019

My last post talked about how we shouldn't get hung up on the "shoulds" of what we would otherwise be doing if this year had turned out closer to how we expected, and I stand by my enthusiasm for constructive, positive thought about all things RDA. This weekend, however, many of us are staring at diaries and calendars and seeing what should have been RDA Nationals: the best weekend of the entire year. I am not shy about the excitement I feel about Nationals, and suspect that my office breathes a collective sigh of relief when I gallop out of the door to start my "Nationals leave" after putting up with five to ten days of anticipatory squawking. At this point on Sunday morning, I should have rolled out of bed before 6am, probably still wearing evidence of the previous night's disco (last year it was the glitter hairspray, which enabled me to shimmer gently in the scorching sun as I watched my riders compete), to conduct the last morning stain removal exercise of the weekend. If you are reading this around the Sunday teatime mark, I should be snoring gently to myself after falling asleep mid sentence on the car ride home (please don't worry, Alice is always the designated driver). 

It was the unique magic of Nationals which inspired me, almost exactly a year ago, to start writing this very blog. Reading back my first post, written the day after I returned from one of my favourite Nationals to date, is extra bittersweet against the backdrop of everything our community has lost this year. So, in honour of the championships that should have been and the future championships we have to look forward to, here is a sample of reasons I'd rather be at Nationals.

I have, despite doubting myself, managed to keep writing weekly for this entire year: read on to the end to find details of the giveaway I am running as a "thank you" to everyone who has read, shared, and supported my blogging endeavour!

Rosettes ready for prize giving at Nationals 2019

All the people... so many people...

It isn't an unusual phenomenon right now to be craving the buzz of somewhere busy and exciting: a concert, a party, a bustling city street, an airport at the start of a holiday. RDA Nationals is a busy place, but one which has space for everyone. There are just enough quiet spaces and just the right people to produce an atmosphere which has something for everyone. A short walk around Hartpury on the first day of the championships (the quietest competition day) is all that's needed to confirm this: you can see different groups unloading their lorries and trailers and greeting each other like old friends; "overhear" conversations conducted in BSL or Makaton; bump into first time families, their children in their smartest, brightest group colours, quietly buzzing with anticipation. Stables begin to be decorated with bunting, posters, and rosettes, and lines and lines of RDA horses calmly take in their surroundings. It's the best kind of busy, and the best kind of people. Nobody needs to justify the hours of graft and dedication they have given to be there, because you're in the company of fellow RDA people: they get it, and they're living it with you.

Smells like team spirit

It's hard to bet a trip to Nationals for a team-affirming experience, whether it's your first ever qualification or whether your group has been competing since the very beginning. The experience will test your team, through back-to-back early starts, logistical nightmares, perfectionism, disappointment, emotional stamina, misplaced dressage tests, or somebody forgetting their share of the prosecco. The prize for tackling all of these obstacles: seeing your horses and your riders compete on the biggest stage of its kind, in front of a community who sees and celebrates them, is more than worth it. The bonds we forge in regular RDA sessions reach new levels at the championships, and win or lose we always seem to come home better, stronger, and closer.

Carriage driving at Nationals 2019, accompanied by a film crew helping to mark the 50th anniversary

Everyone's a winner (maybe)

Winning is a good feeling, and winning specifically at RDA Nationals is, from the celebrations I've seen and been part of over the years, a particularly good way of feeling it. Even as a member of the team behind a winning rider, the buzz of seeing "1" next to their name on the scoreboard or hearing their name called at prize giving is hard to beat. When Natalie won her class overall last year, I cried in the scoreboard tent (but I am just a big crier at shows anyway). I still get misty-eyed at photos I took of riders posing with their rosettes years ago. But, if you took away all the wins, the experience of just being at Nationals would still be the standout part of the weekend. I think there are very few people out there whose enjoyment of the championships hinges exclusively on taking home a red rosette. 

Sportsmanship is also very important to me (as an RDA coach and otherwise), and I think the atmosphere at Nationals is the perfect, positive backdrop to what I try to teach my riders about winning something from every experience at a competition: trophy, life lesson, whatever it is. It is rare for an event to strike a balance between being truly competitive and truly open to celebrating everyone who is willing to give it a go. I'm going to keep living for RDA Nationals until I find anything else that even comes close to replicating that balance.

You've got a friend in me

I don't think there could be an easier place in the world to make friends than Nationals, whether or not that sort of thing comes easily to you at home. In many ways, the ice is already broken with the people you encounter arena-side or around the stable blocks: they know what RDA is and why it has brought all these people together, and in the overwhelming majority of cases are happy, excited, and open to new people and new experiences. Then, if the ice needs breaking any more, there are always horses to talk about. I love being able to introduce our horses to passers by who are admiring them in their stables, or chatting to someone else about their group's horse when I've complimented them in the warm up arena. Acceptance is the default at an RDA group, and at Nationals it's the same, but scaled up. Many friendships have been forged at Nationals over shared experiences, discussions about tack adaptations or ways of communicating, or straightforward investment in what RDA groups and their horses can do. At the end of every Nationals weekend, Sunday afternoon has a soundtrack of voices calling "see you next year!" across the lorry park. I am looking forward to making even more new RDA friends at Hartpury in 2021.

Laura and Jimbob after her freestyle test at Nationals 2019. JB wasn't meant to be her Nationals ride and was thrown in last minute due to another horse going lame, so this was only the second time she had ridden him in at least a year, but he fell completely in love with her George Michael freestyle track.

I can show you the world...

I have never forgotten how wide my eyes were opened by my first visit to Nationals in 2012. The competition was so strong, but there was a space for everyone. There were disciplines I had never seen in person before, and ways of adapting access to those disciplines which I had never even thought about. The sky was blue, the anticipation for the London Paralympics was building, and I felt like I had been hit by a wave of possibility for my group's riders and what they could aspire to achieve. Now I get to see other volunteers and riders experience it all for the first time, and if anything, that's even better. Nationals means a lot, for a lot of reasons, to a lot of different people. I think that same sense of possibility underpins every single one. Whether it's the place you chase bigger dreams, fit in like nowhere else in the world, feel most proud of yourself (or your friend, or child, or pupil...), or just have the most fun, I don't blame you for wishing you were there right now.

Only 360 days to go...


1st Birthday Giveaway: ENTER NOW!

My blog is a year old. What started last summer as a bit of an experiment has produced more than fifty individual posts, many hours of reflection, connection, and discussion, and been read more than 26,000 times: modest numbers by modern "influencer" standards, but exciting given that I wasn't sure many people would be that interested in what I had to say (and all of those can't just be my mum). I have valued and enjoyed the conversations that have sprung up as a result of people reading and sharing the blog, and have become acquainted with people with whom I may never have otherwise communicated. I've also enjoyed being able to share the power of RDA beyond our immediate community.

To say a huge thank you to everyone who has read, shared, and otherwise supported Coach India's Blog, I am running a giveaway! (UK only) Fill in the entry form and share this blog post on social media: Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram (stories) before 1st August to be in with a chance of winning a £10 donation to your choice of RDA group; an RDA Nationals "2020: the missing year" polo shirt from Wainwright Screenprint (your choice of size and colour); an RDA pin badge and a horse print face covering.