My favourite RDA horse... and how they got that title

Who is my favourite RDA horse?

Whether your RDA group owns one (or even none), ten, or twenty, or whether you just happen to know a horse or two, you are likely to have a favourite. Horses offer us the enjoyment of finding a personality that clicks with our own without the complications of human emotions, like jealousy or any sense of injustice over not being your favourite. Horses are also, in many cases, doing a job for us. Certain equine personalities will lend themselves to doing that job (it's different for every stable yard) better than others, making us even more likely to warm to one of our four-hooved friends over another.

Of course, when put on the spot by my riders or volunteers, I often take the easy way out. "Oh no, I couldn't possibly have a favourite! I'm not allowed/the others would get jealous/how could I possibly decide anyway?" There are definitely times when it's helpful to plead neutrality, but when all is said and done I do have a favourite at my group, and I've never explicitly mentioned them (or why they are my favourite) on this blog.

So, this is Candy.

Candy at Natalie's first Regionals (Photo credit: Darren Woodlow)

Candy joined our yard about 18 months after I did, in the spring of 2013. She was a gift from a family in a neighbouring county whose daughter was ready to move up to something a bit bigger, was in her mid-to-late teens and had spent the years prior to moving in with us doing just about everything. She was nicely schooled, forward going but not hot, and looking for a new job where she could be useful and well-loved, perhaps without the intensity of her former busy schedule of competitions and Pony Club rallies.

When Candy had settled in, my younger self was trusted with the task of being the first person at our group to ride her. This wasn't a deciding factor in her eventually becoming my favourite RDA pony, but it did give me an opportunity to get to know her quickly. "Quickly" was, at least initially, the operative word, as Candy was a bit of a snappy mover and was initially confused by the idea of bringing the pace down for our RDA riders. She was also quite put out by the idea of being a lead rein pony (not least because leaders had to keep up with her) although was never nasty about it, just a bit stand-offish. But, ultimately, she is an intelligent and well-educated horse and was just as quick to catch on. Now her advancing years have started to slow her down a bit, it's hard to imagine her doing anything else. RDA horses need to be either intelligent or empathic as a baseline, and although Candy doesn't go in for the touchy-feely-overgrown-dog style of equine empathy, I think she understands her important purpose as one of our special steeds.

Candy and Sophia in a lesson in August 2020

Nowadays, my list of "great RDA pony" attributes crosses over with a lot of Candy's descriptors. She has lovely paces which are easy to sit to, and which (now) exist on an adjustable scale of slow to fast. She is a lovely medium size (we have always said 14.2hh, although I don't think we've actually ever measured her to confirm this): small enough for tinies held on by side walkers, but big enough for them as they grow up. In her younger years, she was regularly ridden by teenagers and smaller adults, and was never a bad fit for any class (a tall order for a human rider or coach!). Candy responds well to a rider using two schooling whips in place of leg aids, and does a good line for many of my young riders in listening to them, but making sure they actually make the necessary efforts for her to set off in trot, turn at the right letter, or halt. She is also a sensible width for keeping riders comfortable, even if their hips and legs aren't quite compatible with some of our chunkier models. Finally, and crucially, her level of "not bothered" for screaming children; strange human contraptions like the hoist or mounting gallery; equine transport; Christmas tinsel; soft toys and balls whistling past her ears; and handy pony obstacles is impressively high. I don't think Candy considers any such things worth the time it takes to spook at them.

I have trusted Candy with many things when using her in my RDA sessions; in turn, I have no doubt that many of our riders over the years have trusted her with their own dreams, worries, and secrets. As a coach, the sense that you can trust a horse with what you want to teach, and what you want a rider to gain from their session, is something I prize beyond almost anything else. I have watched Candy teach many riders to ride, without any rye comments about her "really teaching the kids to ride" which are usually attributed to riding school rogues with athletic back legs and wicked senses of humour. She isn't so ready to please she'll do everything for them, but I know that my riders are going to learn something, achieve something, and enjoy riding Candy. Why wouldn't I want that from the horses I use in my sessions?

I do think, however, that personality is important in establishing any horse as your favourite. Candy is definitely useful, trustworthy, and wise, but I get on well with her as a "person". Actually, she isn't the most outgoing or affectionate of horses. Many people describe her as "aloof", and she won't stand there and take displays of affection she isn't interested in receiving. I've known Candy for seven years now, and I respect that about her. She is intelligent, and quietly asserts her need for respect. I've seen her positively roll her eyes at adults reaching into her stable to pat her, and then in the same hour respond with a patient, open heart to a child wanting to spend time with her. When you do know how to approach her on her terms (and ideally on the side she can see you from: she is blind in one eye) she is as sweet as her namesake; less so when disciplining younger and/or rowdier members of the herd in the field. If she were a human, I think she'd be the kind of person I'd like to have in my office or generally on my side. 

Candy and Isobel during our phased reopening this summer: it was hard to believe either had had so much enforced time off

Like any and all horses, Candy has her foibles. Even the late, great Speckles, often billed as "the perfect pony", had his little quirks (an infamous disregard for halting on the centre line in a dressage test, and a lack of patience for side walkers who walked in the wrong place or at the wrong angle) which had to be worked around. The most notable of Candy's niggles is how she managed, three years in a row, to come in very lame from the field 1-3 weeks ahead of the regional show. As an excellent competition pony she was, naturally, in demand, and despite being signed up for fewer and less intense dressage tests each subsequent year seemed to have it in her diary to perform some sort of damaging manoeuvre under the cover of darkness. She still likes to kick up her heels in a muddy field and perform dramatic sliding stops when the mood takes her, so there are educated guesses as to how she managed to pull this off.

Candy did make a competitive comeback at last year's Regionals (pictured at the top of this post), at which point she was so utterly thrilled by the idea of being at a busy pony party that our erstwhile rock solid dressage diva barrelled off the lorry like a five year old. She took some convincing to settle ahead of her first test of the day, although did eventually remember she was taking care of a completely blind nine year old who hadn't done any of this before, ever. She also took another of our first timers, one of her biggest fans, around a led dressage test, and got around the Countryside Challenge leaving all of the real apples unscathed, so it certainly wasn't a write off. Now she is really reaching "venerable old lady" levels, it's likely that that day was her last competitive appearance away from our yard, but I'm sure she remembers her RDA and non-RDA competitive careers fondly. She is certainly a decorated veteran.

If I could change anything about Candy, it would probably to make her ten years younger and less any residual damage from her previous leg injuries (she has been limited to walk and trot for a few years now, although takes great pleasure in disregarding this guidance in the field). She is distinctly unbothered by being blind in her left eye, and I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing that she makes her feelings clear when she's had enough of being prodded, cuddled and brushed by small riders: she is never nasty about it, and is teaching said small riders an important equestrian life lesson. I'll even turn a blind eye of my own to her enjoyment of giving her head a good scratch on whoever is leading her up to the mounting ramp (if you're really special, she'll even do it to you in the field too...). Candy has been a good friend and RDA colleague to me for the last seven years, and has given so much to so many members of our group. I am very grateful to her for her part in so many good memories and achievements. When she does finally agree to retire, I will miss her a great deal.

Candy and Lucy out for a hack at the end of 2019

And the best part? She's a very practical colour...


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