Ten parts of RDA I'm grateful for this Christmas

A pony stands silhouetted against a beautiful winter evening sky, with the sun setting over its field shelter

Christmas is almost here, and that means that 2021 is almost over with too. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that in many ways it's been a harder year than 2020, and that's both a mean feat and also readily applicable to RDA life: this has been a real year of ups and downs. That's not to say, of course, that the good parts haven't been as uplifting, exciting, and enjoyable as this RDA coach could've hoped for. Christmas is a great time of year for reflection and for gratitude (alongside twinkly lights, party games, silly jumpers and chocolate - I'm here for all of it), so here are ten parts of RDA I am feeling grateful for this festive season. I wonder if you would choose the same ten things?

1. Health

We're still living through a global pandemic, so health - whether or own, or that of those we care about - has to be one of the biggest things we should be grateful for. I'm glad that my own health hasn't stopped me from doing anything for my RDA group this year, and that the volunteers and riders who have struggled, whether with Covid, issues relating to their disabilities, or other health problems in general, have not had to struggle too hard or for too long (touch wood). It looks like we won't be able to take this stuff for granted for a while longer, so all the more reason to be grateful and careful.

2. Progress

I found the lockdown at the beginning of 2021 really hard: everything felt a bit stagnant, and I remember thinking often in times of frustration that I "just wanted to get somewhere" with the riders I coach this year. While I never actively told any of them this, they all brought their own brand of drive to their riding lessons, and we did get somewhere: Natalie took on a new calling system and trotting (both sitting and rising) with me stood in the middle of the school, not riding strides for her from the ground. Almost everyone expanded the number of different horses they ride, and for the most part absolutely loved the new choices. Maiya, a new rider to me (although not to our group) moved up to one Saturday class in 2020 and then moved up again to one of my classes this year, where she just keeps growing and thriving. Every single one of another class has "graduated" from loop to regular reins this year. We've done that together.

3. Laughter

There's no tonic quite like a good cackle in an RDA session (I am, whether I want to be or not, a cackler), and I'm very grateful for all the laughs my riders and volunteers have given me this year. Matilda has developed an excellent line in theatrical facial expressions for comic effect, and has been known to declare "a bit slow!" when trotting on some of our slower paced ponies. Last week, we were all in hysterics over one tiny rider saying "Christmas tree" repeatedly in a funny voice, and at the other end of the scale, Laura keeps me entertained with her tales from uni and my riders-come-volunteers are experts at taking hilarious photos of the horses. You don't have to be laughing to find something fun, but if you are laughing, you're definitely enjoying yourself. Thanks for all the laughs, everyone.

4. Opportunity

So it turns out that Virtual Nationals isn't quite like the real thing (what is?) and not every bright idea (new horses to ride, new lesson plans, etc) is as bright as first hoped, but how good it's been to have opportunities this year. RDA is an opportunity in itself, but I know I'm not alone in wanting more for the people involved in the sessions I run than just showing up to those sessions. Virtual competitions; online training and enrichment; a return to some of the events we enjoy at the stables (like holiday Pony Days, the annual Fun Day, themed lessons for Christmas, Halloween and Easter...); fundraisers big and small; fun big and small. It's been great to experience creativity and aspiration in the ways we can improve RDA practice and RDA experience - for everyone.

5. Introductions

There are five new riders in my classes who weren't with me last Christmas, and plenty more new volunteers who have come through our gates, particularly in the last third of 2021. (Indeed, we'll be looking for even more of them come January!) Expanding circles and meeting new people definitely wasn't the flavour of 2020, and although it's still not as big a thing as it could be now, it's been great to have those introductions to new members of the RDA family. People are great - they're the most interesting thing in the world - and it's been great to help start off what will hopefully be long-lasting relationships with our group for both volunteers and participants.

Thomas and Marshall, a small black gelding, help to decorate an RDA Christmas tree

6. Trust

This is something I'm grateful for all year round, but one of the things that really strikes me about this year is how much trust has been placed in me by the people I work with at my RDA group. In lockdown limbo times, it's been clear that my riders' families have respected that I would do what I could when I could and be as proactive as possible in getting their children back in the saddle. In the months after restarting I have felt the same trust when trying and doing new things, getting through confidence wobbles, and generally organising things for the classes I run. "We'll follow your lead: we trust you"; "they feel so accepted by you"; "they'd probably take that better from you than for me" are all votes of confidence which mean far more than a throwaway remark might first seem.

7. Loyalty

There are lots of different types of loyalty which can be found in a good RDA group, but here I am thinking specifically of the often genuinely tireless loyalty, dedication, and graft of the volunteers who help with my sessions. I love to coach, but it's not a one woman show. Some of our current volunteers have been resolute in their loyalty to the group when we know it's been hard to keep hold of our whole roster through lockdowns and the days of operational limits; others have come in fresh this year and made a real impact already. RDA volunteering is the best thing ever but it also isn't necessarily easy: the loyalty of those who help make it work really does mean a lot to me.

8. Clarity

Lockdown wasn't fun the first, second or third time, but the "circuit break" it forced upon us did give me extra thinking time. I did plenty of this before 2021, but we have had more than half a year of uninterrupted RDA (at least for those who were able to return first in the spring) and have built back much busier than we ever manged in 2020. Somewhere in the middle of this weird dance of busy and not busy has appeared some clarity in what I do and don't want out of my relationship with my RDA group. This isn't a surprise as I had a very similar experience with my day job and work-life balance, but I'm glad to know a bit more about what I want, what I need, and where I'm going in 2022.

9. Space

I couldn't not mention the most obvious new space my group has opened this year: our new indoor arena. It was built not by luck but by sheer hard work and grit, but we all nonetheless feel incredibly fortunate that it exists, and it's already opened up so much about the way that we are able to operate. I know of several other RDA groups currently undertaking similar large-scale projects, and really do wish the same fortune for them too. Solid metal "spaces" aside (or whatever other kind of infrastructure we're dreaming of), it's important to remember the importance of RDA centres as spaces for people to grow, to thrive, and to heal. I love seeing my riders walk around the stables with their families to say goodbye to the horses after their lessons. I love how at home our volunteers are on our site. I love the quiet moments I get to myself at the very tail end of a day, putting out the horses' hay as the sun goes down and considering anything that's niggling at my mind. I'm grateful to have and to help facilitate that space, for me and for others.

10. Talk

I might enjoy a quiet few minutes at the end of a busy day, but for the most part, I am powered by talking to others. This year, alongside the encouraging, entertaining, and occasionally cathartic chat I've been able to have with my friends and peers at Abingdon, I've also had a fair few people get in contact with me because they've read something on this blog and want to share their own experiences and/or ask me more about it. I've been genuinely humbled by how open some folk are willing to be, and by how much others are willing to help - because I can often be found sniffing around people's DMs asking for advice too. I've said many times that I am not an expert, but I enjoy writing and feel strongly about what I write about. I'm so happy to know that my writing has encouraged and helped others this year, and I've really enjoyed the talk that's come out of it too.

Young rider Florence riding Elbow, a small piebald cob mare, over trotting poles arranged in the shape of a Christmas tree

Regular blogs will return on 8th January. For now, I'd like to wish everyone reading this (and indeed everyone who has read what I've written this year) a very Merry Christmas, and a New Year that's everything you want it to be. May all your Christmas wishes come true!