Ponies past: memories of some of my favourite former RDA horses

I've had a few conversations recently about some of my group's past RDA horses of note, and have also realised that there's only one horse left on the yard, the legendary Mr Brown, who has been there longer than I have (my group has been running for 46 years, so we have plenty of people whose own original cast has been gone a long time already). It's been almost a year since we lost Speckles, probably the most irreplaceable RDA pony I will ever meet. What unites pretty much everyone in the RDA community are our fond memories of the equines who have shaped our experiences. I am thinking a lot about the present and future at the moment, so this week's post is a bit of a fun retrospective: memories of some of the most notable equines from my time with my RDA group. I would love to hear about your "ponies past" too.

Brandy (left) and Luke

Brandy

I always think that Brandy, pictured above, is what an archetypal RDA horse looks like. He was a sensible 14.3hh, had a kind face with big dark eyes, was solid but remarkably graceful, and a patient, understanding educator. He had a beautiful walk and would produce the most workmanlike, accurate square halts when riders learnt enough to ask him nicely for them, and also a trot which split opinions between "rhythmical and a little bouncy" to "excruciating" (most were prepared to forgive him for it!). He was a regular at regional and national competitions with a record to rival Speckles', and was universally loved by children, adults, and even certified-non-horsey parents. He genuinely thrived in an RDA group atmosphere, which is never guaranteed for even the horses who are perfect on paper.

Perhaps Brandy's greatest flaw was that he could be cold backed, and sometimes liked to keep us guessing with quite how cold backed he was going to be on a particular day. During my first ever trip to Nationals in 2012, despite having been worked in at the start of the day, Brandy had a bit of a funny moment in a warm up arena with a young rider. A flurry of horse switching ensued and I was dispatched to sit on Brandy until he remembered what the title of "one of Abingdon RDA's very best horses" entailed. As the competition was in full swing, this meant a bit of a trek to find anything that resembled an arena where a non-disabled rider could ride, and the length of the walk seemed more than adequate for him to have a good think about what he'd done. The next day, with another young rider, he came in first in an enormous class (Carl Hester even presented the rosettes) and order was restored. We have been without Brandy for seven years now and I still think of him regularly. He was one of the good guys.

Meg in her starring role

Meg

Many of our most treasured former ponies are those who have turned their hooves to everything, including competitions and training for more technical, advanced riders. Meg doesn't quite fit into that category, but she is one of the ponies who really captured a lot of hearts during her time with us, and who is still talked about almost five years after she was put down (before her time due to a sudden and short illness). Meg was never intended to do the fancy stuff: she was bought as a sweet, solid investment who would womble along taking no notice of wriggling children or multiple side walkers, who would neither be surprised or do anything surprising, and who would stand for hours being fussed if the occasion required it. She was a world beater for all of these things, even if she had no understanding of dressage, a trot which shook the bones far more than Brandy's ever did, and a default pace which could be politely described as "gentle". 

Meg knew what her specific niche as an RDA pony was, and happily stuck to it. She was a riotous success as the Cheshire Cat (or part of it, anyway) in our 40th anniversary mounted production of Alice in Wonderland, not looking twice (or even once) at the audience, the sound system, or her eccentric pink and purple outfit which no other pony on the yard at the time could have pulled off. Riders who wiggled around, who made unexpected loud noises, or who tried to climb off/up her neck mid-session, were all no trouble at all to her, and she never had an off day for accepting hugs and kisses when they had dismounted safely. The only moment of rebellion I ever remember from her (if we aren't counting moving very slowly as an act of rebellion...) was when she picked up a plastic duck intended for her rider to handle and closed her jaws around the poor creature's head. It came out complete, but with a very crumpled head and beak. She never bothered with the ducks again, so I assume she was expecting it to taste better...

Sophia and Charlie, her first favourite pony!

Cheeky Charlie

Cheeky Charlie (official, passported name) was responsible for starting off more than one generation of Abingdon RDA riders in his long and (mainly) distinguished career. Little, grey, and very, very hairy, he had a kind of charisma which meant that riders retained their Charlie Fan Club membership for many years after they had outgrown him. His charisma was very big for his diminutive size, as was his physical strength: even in his final years, he fairly regularly found it in himself to give even the strongest of volunteers a high speed voyage from his field to his breakfast which is to this day the closest I have ever come to trying waterskiing. He had a particular "razzle dazzle" setting which he'd put on, completely of his own accord, for competitions, loading himself into the lorry and putting himself out in the field when we got home (we were usually too tired to argue and anyway, he always knew where he was going). No high speed antics for the small children he graciously inducted into the world of competitive dressage, either - he saved all of those for when he thought the grown ups weren't paying enough attention. He stayed with us to retire, and spent his last couple of years doddering about the fields and perking up whenever one of his current or former small humans came to see him. The last time Alice and I saw him was a couple of days before his final vet visit: he was enjoying the August sun on his back, and was thrilled to receive a selection of organic summer fruit which Alice had packed for her lunch as a "goodbye old man" picnic. "It's the least he deserves!" she said, pitting cherries by hand which she'd earlier claimed were some of the most expensive fruit she'd ever bought. She was right. 

Mickey, shortly before "Fun Day splashdown"

Mickey

"Gentle giant" is one of the equestrian world's biggest and oldest clichés, but I've yet to meet a horse who lived that description more than dear old Mickey: the only mickey he ever took was his name. He was part Shire and all dependable soul, although in his later years his XL proportions did mean that he couldn't take any corners whatsoever in our indoor arena. He took on the world at a pace he deemed appropriate for himself and his RDA participant charges of varying sizes (I don't think he even noticed the weight of the under-10s who got to have a go on him, but he was conscientious nonetheless) and looked on sagely at smaller and/or younger horses overtaking him in gymkhana races. On my first ever Fun Day with my group, while negotiating an obstacle course as Mickey's Designated Helper Human, his rider stopped at a particularly fun obstacle which involved dropping things into a trug full of water, balanced on a large upturned barrel. Mickey's young jockey caught this with his foot and precipitated a veritable waterfall which soaked everything in its path: the grass (fortunately), and me (unfortunately). Mickey turned his head briefly to give me a wry "oh dear oh dear oh dear" sort of look, but was otherwise unmoved by the spectacle, and by the resultant screeches of laughter from all around the yard. Bless him.

Charlie B with Laura at Nationals 2014

Charlie B

Just as when you have multiple Olivias or Bens in a primary school classroom, Charlie B gained his initial because little Charlie (as above) was there before him. A pure bred New Forest pony, his show name was Bakeburn Matador, which hinted at the flourish he brought out for his competitive performances. Many of our riders would start on Cheeky Charlie and progress to Charlie B, who was everything an RDA group could possibly want for their members to cultivate their dressage skills (including his hair-advert-shiny, practically coloured liver chestnut coat). He is up there with Brandy and Speckles for the number of successes he had at the National Championships. His last ever appearance was in 2015, when he flicked his toes to "You've Got a Friend in Me" with Laura and gave me my first experience of ugly crying at an RDA competition - that was before we found out that they had won the junior section of both of their classes, and only 0.5% behind the adult class champion in one. Like all the best RDA ponies he thoroughly understood his job, and took this as justification to be as enthusiastic as he pleased when ridden on grass by a non RDA rider: I was offered the chance to ride him on the Ridgeway during my first summer as a volunteer, and genuinely had to wipe the flies off my teeth when I got off...

Wherever he went, our chairman would have to swat away endless enquiries about whether he was for sale and what she might be happy to take for him (no, nothing, and absolutely not were always her responses). Charlie B was a versatile creature who took on all sorts of less technical lessons and challenges on at home, and was so good at his job that when he started to show signs that he wasn't enjoying it any more, it was only fair that he was listened to. He enjoyed a four-year-long retirement at a couple of quiet homes connected to the group until his time finally came early last summer, not so long after we said goodbye to Speckles. It will take some incredible luck to find another like him, and I don't think my riders will ever stop talking fondly about him.

Blue (dishonourable mention)

I had to end this post with a dishonourable mention for a pony who was a notable character, if not quite a favourite. Small, grey, and allegedly in his "slowing down" years, Blue (unimaginative but descriptive passport name: Little Blue, alternative name(s): Little B-insert what you would like here) on paper was a matching stable mate for our well-established Cheeky Charlie. In practice, he was not on board with the "quieter speed of life" plans and although I don't recall him being bothered by any equipment, sights, sounds, or unexpected things our riders did, he was equally unbothered about taking instructions from leaders. At about 11.2 hands, he was also the perfect size for crawling out of stables and under fences (electric switched on? No worries - an interesting challenge!). I have spent more time than is optimal chasing our current Welsh Section A, Bryn, around the yard or the wrong field when he's pulled one of his Houdini tricks, but he is a delight to use in lessons and, proportionally, Blue spent way more time dishing out those sorts of shenanigans.

Blue was only with us for a summer, just long enough to be involved in the annual Fun Day, when I was awarded the job of being his designated leader. Every small child allocated to him won every single gymkhana race, and despite several years of doing a sport involving lifting actual human beings above my head I have yet to experience an upper body workout quite like the experience of keeping Blue in an RDA-appropriate pace. I think that day made it very clear that he was not interested at all in scaling down to RDA life with our smallest riders - it certainly isn't for every horse! - so he didn't stay long term. We do still laugh about how he towed me about that day, though...

Blue vs. India's arms in action... Charlie, right, looks decidedly more civilised.  

Big, small, hairy, and sometimes a bit rogue, we couldn't do anything without our RDA horses. Who occupies the prime stable spot in your memory?

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