Six things I'm not actually missing about in-person RDA regionals this year

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

It's been just over two years since my group was last at a regional qualifier. Whirlwind wasn't quite the word then, but it also doesn't quite cover the reality of our bizarre here-and-now either. It still feels very strange to be missing that date out of our calendars when my group has been attending its regional show since the regional show was established, but we do have preparations for all-new Virtual Regionals in full swing. While feeling wistful about our lost show days I decided to flip the coin and consider what I'm not particularly fussed about missing out on this year... Do you agree with any of them?

1. Horse juggling

Horses aren't the easiest things to juggle, but if you've got to identify the ones who will be suitable for travelling to a competition, pair them with all of the riders who want to compete, and make sure nobody is going to be over-worked or over-committed, it has to happen. And then, even when you think you've juggled enough, one of your key equine players will come in lame or waving some other kind of sick note. If I could wave a magic wand and take away any part of the regular Regionals experience forever, it'd be all of this. Filming virtual competition entries within regular class times and days provides the exact same number of logistical difficulties as a regular set of RDA sessions, give or take a bit of filming and maybe someone to read a test. My group also has horses who are absolutely wonderful at home but don't tend to travel for various reasons, so virtual competitions actually open up more equine possibilities anyway. Could a horse still go lame the night before lights/camera/action? Absolutely. But finding a replacement in a pinch is a much easier task when you're working around the regular constraints of a particular session or day, and when you aren't running on the adrenaline and anticipation of a Big Day Out. 

2. Wardrobe malfunctions

Some of my riders are immensely keen to dust off their full dressage outfits for Virtual Regionals. I am, of course, all for it if they are. Some people definitely get a bit of a psychological boost from putting on a "costume" for a competitive performance, and I think I'd be one of them in their boots. There's just something about taking the whole outfit on a road trip which can give rise to all sorts of dramas which can baffle even the most battle-hardened of competition-goers. Stray blobs of ice cream? Travel sickness? (I don't think I need to say anything more...) Smart, netted hairdos for riders who really don't enjoy having their hair done? Boot zips breaking? Buttons falling off jackets? I've seen them all, and on top of that at least two of us have had to sew up jodhpurs (the ground support does like to make an effort too!) with plaiting thread in the back of a horsebox. Almost all of these things would either be easier to manage or just not happen at all on our own yard, and that does give me a little burst of inner peace. Having the option not to go total dressage glam, especially for newbies or for growth-spurters, is also a bit of a novelty. 

3. Tired and emotional

I've written posts about confessions and regrets, and yet the Monday after Regionals in 2017, when I was working at my first proper job after graduating from university, somehow hasn't made it into either. The regret? Not booking the day off (I didn't get a whole lot of annual leave from that job). The confession? I spent the entire day staring at my computer screen with glazed-over eyes, this close to putting my head on the desk and snoring my way to 5pm. Many folks are tougher than I am and many will actually need to go to work and apply themselves appropriately even the day after a whirlwind in-person qualifier, but for me it's been a good reason for a day off ever since. We pack a lot into a day at Regionals, including travelling there and back, and take more riders than we do to Nationals: on the basis of this logic I have always stood by my point that Regionals is the more draining of the two experiences (I sleep less than usual at Nationals, but there are sections of it designated for the purpose). It isn't a bad kind of tired, but it will be a novelty only to feel my regular levels of post-RDA tired after filming our tests for the qualifiers.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

4. Hey big spender

If competitions were prohibitively expensive for my group, they wouldn't go to any. Even so, travelling our horses (even with friends who only ask us for their fuel costs), entry fees, and any related bits and/or bobs do cost some money. We can also offer much of the kit our riders need (we have a beautiful little tweed jacket which has been to more RDA competitions than anyone can work out), but there are often things our riders and their families need to shell out for too. Our region has made Virtual Regionals free to enter and will be paying the entry fees for any qualifiers, which seems an apt and kind gesture after a year where fundraising has been so tough and where our families have been so generous in supporting us. Of course, in person events will cost more to run and attend, but it is a nice to have a cost-neutral experience to offer our riders.

5. The stain, the pain

My group's horses spend plenty of time in the field, but scrub up very nicely indeed when they are booked in for an appearance off the yard. They also seem to go to classes on how to pick up obvious stains which they would never usually pick up at the 11th hour before their first test time. One grey mare stays pretty clean (for a grey) most days of the year, even if she has to stay in overnight. Whisper "Regionals" in her ear and she will set about planning and executing a poo stain the size of a small town. Bonus points, it would appear, for developing said stain while travelling to the event, after getting on the lorry clean and lulling everyone into a false sense of security. Not only would this sort of thing be easier to deal with at home, sod's law means that it probably won't happen anyway. Grrr...

6. First time fuss

It's fair to say that competing at a regional level in any sport is at least a medium-sized deal, and it's nice to make our riders' experiences of competing fun and special: why bother if it isn't? This year, however, I have two very young riders giving the introductory classes a go for the first time and I can't quite believe my luck at the timing for their first tastes of dressage. Although they are very different children, they both love to feel that they've achieved something and really love earning rosettes, but for their own reasons jumping straight into a regular Regionals might have just been a bit much for a first go. (I still find it a bit overwhelming, so fair enough.) The way this year has worked out means that it's a great, no-fuss introduction which will enable them to decide whether they'd like to aim for the in-person stuff, and the qualifying classes, in the future. They are both talented riders whom I have no wish to scare or put off, and their non-horsey families aren't being thrown in at the deep end either. I know that Covid-timing hasn't been kind to a number of disabled equestrians, so I'm really counting my blessings for these first-timers. If it works like I hope it will, I'm sure you'll be hearing plenty more about their future successes.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

So, Virtual Regionals: lots to like, and some things we might even miss when we go back to the original in-person version. Would I swap all the perks for a return to the full-on, all-in, horse-juggling rollercoaster of the real thing? I'll say it very quietly, but I think I might...