"I sat on a horse and never looked back" - an interview with Mia, 2022 RDA Participant of the Year
|Mia riding Jimbob (photo credit: Jennie Townsend)|
Sun - of all things - might've stopped some play at our first National Championships since 2019, but at least it didn't stop the winners of this year's RDA awards from receiving the recognition they deserved. I always enjoy reading the stories of each year's winners, but found that this year I already knew one of them quite well. This year's participant of the year is Mia, a long-time rider at my group, who while I don't coach her myself (my friend Alice does - she got me to help her write the nomination, and how glad I am I did), is one of my participant/volunteers on a Saturday. She is usually among the earliest and latest on the yard, supports every single one of my riders almost as hard as I do, and keeps me up to date with new Marvel trailers, amusing Instagram reels, and as many cute photos of our horses as my Google drive can take. Plus, she makes a mean chocolate cake. Who better, then, to interview? I hope you enjoy getting to know Mia.
How do you feel about being made RDA’s Participant of the Year?
I feel really happy that I've made everyone so proud. I've been at our RDA for such a long time and I've really got into being a volunteer too, and it's such an honour that I was nominated at all. So really honoured and really proud. It was a bit nerve-wracking going up and getting the award because of all the people watching, but it was fun (and weird) being dressed up in fancy clothes at a horse show and everyone was so nice. I think my mum and my coach started crying a bit!
Can you tell me your RDA story?
I think I was about four when I started RDA - there's some debate about exactly how old I was, because it was such a long time ago now. I had a physio at that time and she referred me for what she called "donkey riding" to my mum. Mum actually nearly said no because it was too far away, but we gave it a go and travelled up to this "donkey riding" place to find it was actually RDA, with horses not donkeys! I got there on this really cold night and rode a grey pony called Star with a leader and a side walker on each side holding me up, and since then I just haven't looked back. The only time I've had a long break from riding is during lockdown.
About three years ago I started riding with my coach Alice. I've learnt so many new skills from her and I've loved doing things like learning to canter more and gaining more technical skills. I've just started learning to jump too. She's so good at thinking outside of the box and that has really helped me to understand how to improve. It's so fun!
I've loved riding since the first day I sat on a horse, even when I was a little kid with my side walkers telling me "breathe, Mia!" because I'd be concentrating so hard. A few months after I started riding with Alice she talked to you about starting me off as a volunteer on a Saturday, because I'd been really keen to do and learn more, and to spend more time with the horses, for a while. Volunteering has been so nice because of the social side of it. I obviously love horses so was excited to do more with them, but I enjoy being able to meet up with people who have something in common with me too. It's a win win! I like being able to groom the horses, help look after them, and taking cute photos of them. I have scrapbooks stuffed full of my RDA memories and pictures.
|Mia and Star on the night of her first ever riding lesson|
What do you think your life would be like without RDA? Has it made a difference to you?
I wouldn't be as strong without RDA, or as able as I am now. I think I would struggle a lot more and be a bit of a hermit, really! RDA is my social life - because of it I can have a proper conversation now, and when I was little I couldn't really do that, especially as it was before my autism diagnosis. I don't think I'd be as happy without RDA. At school, I couldn't really be myself, and at RDA I can. Nobody minds my little quirks or if I need a bit of time to work something out or have a breather. It's so nice not to have to worry about any of that. It's teaching me how to stop apologising for who I am or what I do, although I'm still working on that a bit.
Can you tell me about some of your favourite horses and why they are your favourites?
I've had loads of favourite horses and I love all of the horses I've met at RDA, but I think that some who stand out are Ernie - the "not so mellow yellow" pony, because he's quirky which I really like and he's just so cute. He's a character and he challenges me in lots of different ways, but I love him. Then I think Rosie, because we've done Regionals and Nationals together this year. She has such comfortable paces and she's so pretty. When you get to know her and get through all the layers, she's really sweet. Even though Nationals didn't go to plan, with her getting a bit unsettled in the warmup and jumping out of the arena during my test, I was so proud of us both for getting through it. I really like Maple as well, I can't forget her! She's such a pocket rocket and I love her.
For past favourite horses, obviously Star, because he was the first one I ever rode and he started it all. He taught me loads. Then Speckles, because he was such a legend. You could do absolutely anything with him, there aren't many horses like that. I also loved this little pony called Clipper who was the second horse I ever rode. He was so good, I'm pretty sure I learnt to trot off the lead rein on him. There are so many others though - I've known so many RDA horses and they are all so wonderful.
|Mia and Rosie at Nationals|
What’s something you would like more people to know or understand about RDA?
There are quite a lot of things. Sometimes I get comments like "RDA isn't a real riding school". It's just different, not worse or less than a regular riding school or stables. I think we're more than just that because we're a big family. People also say that all RDA horses are plod-alongs, but we have such a big mix of different horses because we have so many different riders. We treat everyone as individuals and that includes our horses, and they are cared for so well. As soon as there's any sort of problem we act on it right away, and our horses get things like regular physio, saddle checks, things like that. They're so good, our horses, and they do so much in their jobs. I wish more people would understand that. There's more to RDA than a lot of people think.
What’s your proudest achievement as an RDA participant (and volunteer)?
This year at Nationals. It went wrong, but not too wrong. After Rosie jumped out of the arena we went back in, had a little talk, and schooled her through the rest of the test. She was so good. It was actually the first time she'd been to Nationals, so I was so proud that we even got there together. I was proud of myself for riding her through it on such a hot day. We both did so well.
I think the other honourable mentions would be my entry to the VIRTUS virtual world championships last year (and getting a first and second place), probably jumping for the first time, and hacking out independently without having a helper on the ground with me. I've had so much fun doing all these things and the most important thing is to take part and give it all a try.
Can you think about a challenge you’ve faced during your time as an RDA rider, and how you’ve been able to overcome it?
I found learning to canter quite challenging, especially as when I started we weren't able to do it that often. That meant it was hard to really get it and it made the process a bit bumpy to master the skill. We have more horses to learn on now and more space in our new arena, and Alice and I have worked out ways to help me through it, like slowing everything I need to do down in my head. We try, and if it doesn't work it's fine, we try again. That means I've been able to progress so much more.
I also used to be so quiet and so shy, which is hard to overcome for anyone. I understand this a lot more since my autism diagnosis, but volunteering has also helped me a lot because before I did that, I didn't really go out anywhere. It's really good for me to feel so included in something, because I didn't really have that at school, and to feel like I'm making a difference. That helps a lot of people, I think.
|Mia and Jasper in 2020|
Can you think of a way that RDA could be made even better for participants like you in the future?
This is a hard question! I would love to have more opportunities to ride and compete outside of our group, beyond just Regionals and Nationals. Maybe a bit of everything with opportunities to learn things and socialise with other groups, although we're already very lucky at ours with our facilities and things. I don't know everything about the grading system but I think that needs to be worked on, because it doesn't seem like it's as fair as it could be to me.
What’s your next RDA goal?
I love to set goals for myself. I think one of my goals at the moment is to jump 50 centimetres, and when it's possible I'd love to do more hacking. I'm always aiming to improve my schooling and things like planning ahead when I'm in the saddle: there are always so many things to think about and sometimes I forget to plan where I'm going to turn and stuff like that. I want to become a more technical rider.
A personal goal which isn't so much to do with riding is to sell over 100 of my bracelets at Blenheim Horse Trials in September. I started my business Speckles Charms, which is named after one of our old ponies, to raise money for our group.
Can you describe your relationship with RDA in three words
Supportive. Inclusive. Fun.
Before we finish, I'd also like to say a huge thank you to all of the RDA people who've helped me - to you, to Alice, to Iris for looking after the horses, and a big thank you to all the ponies as well. They're so good at what they do, and it's so fun to have them all in my life.
|Mia and Mr Brown, at Regionals in approx. 2013|
Thank you, Mia, and congratulations on your award!