Space to grow: Abingdon RDA's new indoor arena and what it means to us

RDA CEO Ed Bracher cutting the ribbon for the Barlow Arena (with the original Barlow in the foreground). Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

A full sized indoor arena with all mod cons is on the wish list of every equestrian organisation that doesn't already have one - why wouldn't you want one? The reality of building one, of course, is that it costs the same amount as a small or even medium sized house, and for RDA groups that's the sort of spare change that doesn't tend to be hanging around. I can't remember the first time I heard Ann Barlow, my group's chair, tell me about her Great Plan to raise enough money to build one of these mythical structures for us. I think I must've been still at university with my head full of lots of other things when I came to the stables at the weekends, and probably thought "that's going to be a lot of tombolas" followed by "dream on, Ann" in quick succession.

Half a decade on (ish), RDA CEO Ed Bracher snipped a ribbon and our group spilled into the completed arena. Despite seeing it constantly in various states of completion and even lightly using it myself, I had struggled until that point to recognise it fully as a real thing: I did a double take whenever I turned down the drive and saw it for a solid three months. But there we all were and there it was too. Counting up the number of people the freshly minted and perfectly named (so says everyone apart from Ann) Barlow Arena had proved wrong would be no task for the faint hearted. It's been a wearing year and a half living through a grim but significant period in RDA history, so what a lift to be able to share such an important milestone in our group's own narrative.

The question now is of how we are going to put the new arena to good use. We were already fortunate to have an indoor arena, if an undersized one, and to the uninitiated (or merely weather-hardened) the pursuit of a bigger indoor arena may have seemed, for want of a better word, greedy. I suppose there's no shame in saying that the needs of our horses and riders, and our group's ambitions, had outgrown what we had available. Like any RDA group, we worked with what we had for a long time: weeknight groups riding after school had to deal with using an undersized space, even when the riders moved onto bigger horses and wanted the room to start moving faster and trying more ambitious lesson plans. Natalie and I made it work, either shouting over the wind and the neighbouring dual carriageway, or taking every movement with the caveat of "it won't feel like this at a competition" when navigating through her dressage test. Perhaps if we hadn't had Ann so determined to level up our facilities, we would've kept doing so. 

On my to do list are some small grant applications to secure a proper set of arena boards so that Natalie can learn and progress in a space that stays the same at home and away: this will be the first time she has had access to a standardised space and the possibilities for strategising how to ride independently in it. (It's a pleasant irony that the new arena is too big to be able to do this straight away!) Our horses, especially the larger ones, will benefit from the much improved surface and extra space for schooling and other training, and perhaps we will finally get show jumping off the ground (another pun... I can't help myself...). An additional space of any size means the possibility for additional sessions (when we have secured some more people to coach them, at least), a greater reach and a shorter waiting list. And for the broader RDA community, in our region and maybe even further afield, the options for training days and other activities yet to be fully imagined have opened right up. For the time being, my focus is going to be on getting my riders and my own head used to the new space, just as the horses have been doing for the past few months. I'm looking forward to my younger riders growing up with all that space to become stronger, smarter riders, and looking back at riding in it for the first time and getting lost. I wonder if there will be a way of counting up the number of people, from our RDA group and beyond, who have their experience of RDA and of riding improved by it being there. We can be optimistic and we can be excited.

While I can take no credit at all for our beautiful new facility, I do know that I will be able to play a big part in making sure it's kept full with achievement, fun, and belief: all things which were never in short supply on our yard, but which now have extra space to grow and flourish. I suppose there's a moral here: firstly, that it always helps to have someone as tirelessly dedicated and, frankly, bloody minded as Ann to keep an organisation committed to making things happen. Secondly, that progress has to be pushed along, if not steered, by lots of people coming together to do what they can. That's an RDA lesson if ever there was one.

Ann giving the speech below! Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Having had the privilege not to have been saddled with the details of every in, out, up, down, and "what on earth?" this project required to get it off the ground, Ann kindly let me use the speech she gave at the opening ceremony to illustrate the length, scope, and many parties its construction involved. She would, I am sure, be very happy to speak to anyone from another RDA group with similar ambitions. Given that the arena has been named after her - whether she likes it or not! - I can't think of a better way to close off this week's post.

"Well, we made it – unbelievable! However, we made it as a result of the help, the generosity, the patience, the perseverance, and the kindness of so many people. Without the generosity and foresight of the funders, who put up with deadlines not being kept, with forms not being signed on time, and some terrifying muddles, none of us would be here to day and there would be no building or prospect of a building. Thank you all so much for realising what enormous value this building will be to disabled people, and to what amazing use it will be put.

The starting point was planning permission - what a minefield. However, Adrian Gould came to my rescue, and did the whole thing without appearing to bat an eyelid. Thank you Adrian for putting up with my constant phone calls and ignorance about the rules and regulations. In order to gain this permission we had to have loads of drawings, and for doing this so generously I would like to thank Richard Anderson.

We then ran out of planning permission time, and fortunately had sufficient funds to do the ground work thus allowing us not to have to reapply. Gordon Campbell and his two grandsons did a wonderful job with their diggers and laser beams, and were a delight to work with. The bolts were set, and we were on our way – just a little problem – we had run out of funds. We set too for a major fundraising effort, and two years later had all the funding we needed.

By then we had all the quotes from several building firms, and decided to go ahead with a firm from Wales – Shufflebottom. Many more drawings, changes of plan, and huge decisions to be made, and an enormous amount of patience by Rosemarie, we were on our way. One day there was ground work and nothing else, and 10 days later we had a building – quite amazing and a huge thank you to Bill Tracey and his two fellow workers. To all those who had any dealings with us, particularly Rosemarie, Bill, Steve and the ladies on the telephone in the office at Shufflebottoms, thank you so much – you were a truly delightful group of people to work with.

It is at this point that I must thank John. John saw us through Building Regulations, and was my saviour. His patience with both me and the Council was amazing, and we were finally granted the vital certificate. John thank you so much – we have never met, but I hope you are here and we will meet shortly.

Lighting maps – you may well ask, what is a lighting map? - passed by the Council, and Mark Orlando and his team were in to add lighting and power to the building. Again a huge thank you to people who never got in the way of a running yard, and were a delight to have on the premises.

By now we were nearly there. Colin followed with the kickboards and then finally Andrews Bowen with the surface. To kickboard Colin thank you so much for managing to get hold of the wood for the kickboards – I know how very difficult wood is to find these days, and to Andrews Bowen Colin thank you so much for putting the finishing touches to our arena.

And now to Waveney (Luke). If it were not for Waveney’s persuasive powers, this arena would have been 20 x 40 metres. She managed to make me realise what a difference it would make to have an international size arena, and she was undoubtedly right. Thank you and thank you to the 2 family funders, who right at the end provided the funds to pay for that last 20 meters.

And now a huge thank you to the Bunce family, who have done an amazing job turning what was a building site into a presentable yard. They have painted, cleaned, strimmed, and worked incredibly hard to turn chaos into order. Thank you all so much.

My final very grateful thanks go two volunteers in our yard – Sally and Sarah. Sally has been a wonderful fundraiser, and without both of them giving me constant moral support, the story might have been very different.

My final wish is that this building should enhance what is already a flourishing group, and give our riders more opportunities to have fun, to improve their riding skills, and move forward both physically and mentally. RDA is a fantastic form of physiotherapy, and also provides a secure family environment for both our riders and their families. This is all due to our amazing volunteers, and our wonderfully patient horses and ponies.

Thank you very much, and I do hope that you enjoy the rest of the Fun Day, which has been so brilliantly organised by Alice, Sharon and Amanda. Thank you, and all the volunteers who have helped you, very much for a day enjoyed by so many."

The Barlow Arena's sign. Photo credit: Darren Woodlow