Nine golden moments for nine years of RDA involvement

Laura and Charlie B at Nationals in 2014: one of my best ever golden moments caught on camera

It's that time of year again: I'm marking my "RDA birthday" (the anniversary of when I first started volunteering with my group). I have now been involved with the organisation for nine years; a length of time which in the RDA world is both a long time and hardly any time at all. For me, it certainly isn't insignificant; it's all of my adult life, and I've been very fortunate in having so many of what my fellow coach Amanda (co-producer and illustrator of my group's new book...) calls "golden moments". To mark my nine years in the RDA world, I've selected nine of these lovely memories...

1. Thank you

I remember a great deal of my first week as an RDA volunteer, and when reflecting on those memories for the purpose of this blog was struck by one of the simplest, most enduring things: I remember how I felt when every rider I helped (I had my green card signed off and did three classes on the bounce: a phenomenon which seems to be equally enduring in my RDA Saturdays now) said "thank you" to me. In all three cases, their parents did too. "Thank you so much for helping her." "She has had a lovely ride." I wasn't really sure how to react; I'd walked around leading a pony, I'd had a nice chat, I'd tightened a few girths. It wasn't so different to what I'd been doing a couple of weeks previously in my mainstream riding school, but I'd never really got such meaningful thanks there. In the nine years following, I've realised more and more what's behind all of those thank yous.

2. The best kind of waiting

My first Nationals was in 2012, and I had the excitement of experiencing a group win for the first time (and a couple of other times after that; it was a very good weekend). This particular win, earned by a talented young rider called Tom who was about 13 at the time, and much missed Brandy, had an extra level of excitement attached because we didn't know it until the moment it was called in the marquee. In most cases, we would check the score boards before sitting down at the prize giving, but on this occasion the placings hadn't been written up and Tom's score was equal highest in the junior category. Knowing that the tie would be broken by collective scores, which we couldn't yet see, the count down from sixth place was very exciting indeed. I think our cheering and whooping would have embarrassed most teenage boys, but Tom was so chuffed he didn't even have to pretend not to mind.

3. Coach-in-training-in-waiting

Sophia, who is nine years old, was a little bit early for a non-routine private lesson I had organised for her earlier this year. It was an utterly miserable Saturday shared with Storm Ciara (if anyone remembers that weekend), and I wasn't feeling especially enthusiastic about being somewhere so without central heating for most of the day. Sophia's enthusiasm for being at the stables in even the most revolting of weather conditions was a welcome reminder that gale force winds or not, I was there for a good reason, and because the howling wind and rain were so bad I asked her if she would like to "help" me coach the group I was teaching. She did a wonderful job of shouting out game commands (from a suitably safe distance), picked bean bags out of buckets, and even offered unprompted words of encouragement to the riders in the class. "That was so good," she told me when the lesson was over, "when I'm older I want to be two things: a mermaid, and a coach just like you." Sophia is a sparky, resilient child who has dealt with more in her nine years than I have in three times as many (she will certainly be the subject of a future Rider Story). When she is grown up, I hope she'll realise that it's actually me who's been aspiring to be more like her.

Sophia at Regionals in 2019
Credit: Darren Woodlow

4. Just smile and wave

One completely routine Saturday last autumn, I was starting off Woody's class: tack checking, mounting, etc. Over the summer holidays, he had progressed to riding for the full hour, and had recently participated in his first Fun Day: things were already pretty good. As he rode around the school with his helpers, he looked right at me, gave me a smile and a small wave, and carried on riding. I am so glad that my experiences with RDA have made me appreciate how meaningful such a small moment of connection can be.

5. Spread the word

Speaking of "connection", I am allowing one golden moment that didn't happen in the presence of horses (or even RDA riders) a space in this list. At the beginning of this year, quickly tiring of the cold and the grey, I wrote a post, "10 reasons why RDA volunteering might just be the best cure for January blues". I have been pleasantly surprised by the traction that any of my posts have gained since I started this blog last July, and as I do not write for profit or ad revenue am not especially driven by views (some of the posts I am most proud of haven't been my most popular). This one, however, really took off, and has been read close to 3000 times: that's a lot for Coach India's Blog! When I started writing about RDA every week, I didn't realise what a good feeling is when somebody finds something to relate to, be encouraged by, or to consider worth spreading in your words. The conversations I've had and people I've connected with as a result of sharing blog posts have led me to experience so many other people's golden moments (in various digital formats). What a privilege.

6. Hats off

This post would be completely incomplete without a moment of pure silliness and fun. Alice was helping me out one wintery Saturday, and was helping Conall (who at the time was riding with Sophia, Thomas, and Matilda) in his lesson. I have known Conall many years now, and have come to the conclusion that it is impossible not to be entertained in some way by watching him ride, or interact with his peers and helpers (last year, when participating in a demo at our county training day, he entered the gallery in the indoor school and announced "hello Clive" (to the demonstrator, who he had never met before), and "hello ladies" to the assembled group of coaches from Oxfordshire and beyond: priceless). Alice was wearing a bobble hat which Conall, to his delight, discovered that he could reach from his position in the saddle, lift off Alice's head and throw. I managed to do a deal with him that if he would leave it on Alice's head for the rest of the lesson, I would make a one-take video of it at the very end. The resulting footage remains perhaps my finest act of cinematography, and I was actually very impressed by Conall's riding that day...

7. Natalie's big win

Many of my fondest, "biggest" memories are from competitions. This makes sense: they are special occasions, and a cumulative point of many weeks and months of effort. One such memory came from Nationals last year, and Natalie's first experience there. After accepting our soothing assurances of "this is the first time you've ever done this and we don't have any expectations, we just want you to have fun" at Regionals, Natalie was pretty unmovable in her determination to be her own toughest competition at Nationals and was very nervous. Truthfully, so was I, and so were the rest of her team of callers: we wanted to get things right so we could still say "but you had fun, and that's what matters!". 

Once she'd done that four minute test, and we'd all cried a bit, Natalie was definitely ready to enjoy herself. She extorted a chocolate ice cream from our chairman, tried vaulting on a barrel, and watched every discipline going with us providing audio description. She delightedly proclaimed it "an excellent day", and I agreed with her. In a gap between all of these delightful festivities, we checked the scoreboard to find her right at the top of her class (I, obviously, cried a bit more). Somehow, this exciting information was kept a surprise for Natalie until everyone was sat down for the prize giving, and despite collecting her silverware and rosettes like a seasoned professional, we knew she couldn't believe what she had achieved that day. Looking back, winning was the optional finishing touch. In many ways, far beyond the competition, Natalie had already won.

8. Leg on

I posted a video on my Instagram account a couple of weeks ago. It received some lovely support, and hasn't been far from my mind since as an example of the tiny triumphs we are so good at celebrating in the RDA world. Thomas returned to RDA post-lockdown both as if he'd never been away and as if he was on a freshly-fuelled mission to somewhere beyond my expectations as a coach. Riding is a huge part of his physio and an equally huge part of the progress he has made in his independence away from the stables, so it must have meant a lot of things to him to be back in the saddle. 

Although Thomas is independent in so many ways in his riding, one thing hadn't quite come together yet: squeezing, or kicking, with his legs. This is an innocuous reflex for non-disabled equestrians: we just do it, without pausing to think about how many muscles are required to do it, or how many quickfire instructions those muscles need to receive from our brains. Thomas had to programme all of that in manually, and then still work harder than I would to produce the same movement. But he did, and is now able to complete upwards and downwards transitions completely on his own: a real building block moment which will help him reach new heights of independence in the future. Worth celebrating.

9. Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye

I knew that this autumn I would be saying goodbye to Laura, my oldest rider, as she was due to start studying at Keele University: at 18, she is as old as I was nine years ago when I started helping in her riding lessons. She is pictured at the very top of this post aged 12. She made very clear in her characteristic quiet-but-steely way not only that there was nothing final about this "goodbye", but that she would be maximising her pre-uni riding opportunities by squeezing in a last riding lesson hours before checking into halls. I am proud of Laura: her calm but determined work ethic (and sense of humour in all the right places) has already made her a great role model for our younger riders, and being able to wave her off to follow her talents and ambitions outside of the stables is just an extension of that. It is a real privilege to be able to see our riders through so many stages of their lives: I've known Laura for longer than any of her secondary school teachers. Now I need to keep myself switched on so I'm ready to keep challenging her when she reappears in the holidays...

Natalie and Ros celebrating their National Champion statuses

Now to look forward to the next nine years and beyond. I wonder what kind of golden moments I have to look forward to...