The comeback year: your RDA Nationals bucket list for 2022

A carriage driving line up at Nationals 2019 - also featuring the novelty of a BBC film crew

I'm not sure if I believe it or not, but a week from the time I'm writing this I will be at RDA Nationals. By the time you read this, it might be even closer. This blog was born from some thoughts put together the day after I got home from Nationals 2019: it's bizarre to think that we haven't been back since, and I don't think it'll properly sink in until I'm actually there - the last couple of years have given us all a weird relationship with looking forward to things.

There are lots of things which aren't quite the same as they were in 2019, but I'm still going into this wholeheartedly expecting Nationals' status as the Best Weekend of the Year (see also Better Than Christmas) not to be one of them. Whether it's your first time or twenty first; whether your last championships is a hazy memory and you need a reminder or whether you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of what you have to get excited about, I've compiled a bucket list to help you enjoy at least part of this very special weekend to the fullest.

1. Watch something new

Don't limit yourself to the disciplines you know when you have everything else on offer - if you've never watched RDA vaulting or carriage driving, want to see a model round on the Countryside Challenge, or are looking to get swept up in the buzz of the show jumping, it's all there for you. As someone who's had more than a few brushes with choreography and sequins, vaulting is my favourite discipline to watch, but that's not to say I don't like to watch a bit of everything. The best part is, you can still come and watch for free, even if your group hasn't entered or if you don't have a group at all. Go and have those horizons broadened.

2. Make a friend from another group

It's not often that you can spend a weekend in an environment where pretty much everyone you meet has something huge in common with you. RDA Nationals is about as safe and friendly an environment to meet new people as you could possibly find, so you won't even have to try that hard to make yourself a new friend or two from another branch of the RDA family.

3. Reunite with old friends

If you've done number 2 before, time to embrace your paths crossing with old friends: I'll be seeing people next weekend who I haven't seen since 2019, and how much has happened since then! The Nationals experience only gets more fun when you can use it as an opportunity to meet up with people you might not otherwise have met or had the chance to hang out with again.

4. Pop a bottle

There's much to celebrate at Nationals - especially this year! - so don't forget to crack open a celebratory drink or two, whether it's the fizz favoured by my group, or something else to suit your tastes (and ages). I have never drunk more heartfelt toasts than those made on a picnic table by the burger van at Hartpury, and a spare water bucket does the job as an improvised ice bucket - so I'm told, anyway...

5. Have a bit of a cry

I maintain a strict hard woman image in every aspect of my life apart from RDA, and specifically RDA special events and competitions. A well ridden dressage test is around twice the length of a John Lewis Christmas advert, but at least four times as tear-jerking. My more nervous riders are raised on the adage of "India cries at shows so you don't have to". You don't actually have to slam open the floodgates for this one, but it's definitely a Done Thing to get a little bit emotional at some of the things you do or see as part of a Nationals weekend. 

6. Bust a move or two

Some people aren't around for the Saturday night disco (fair enough) or don't enjoy a fancy dress boogie (I suppose we're all different), but between the "have a go" vaulting barrel; freestyle dressage classes; or unscheduled moments of excitement, there's an opportunity for everyone to throw some shapes in a way that suits you. If you aren't immune to disco fever, perhaps you will spot me and my group in our Disney fancy dress (very unsubtle clue/pun alert I am very sorry)...

7. Pick out the horses you'd most like to take home

...but for legal reasons, please do not act on this. But what a joy to be able to admire so many RDA horses at the same time. The closest I will ever get to being scouted on the street by a modelling agency is when people have come up to me at Nationals and said the horse I am with is beautiful and can they take a photo of them.

8. Tell a stranger "well done"

The atmosphere that makes events like this a cut above anything else you will ever experience is that the competition is great, fierce, and good natured. I remember at my first Nationals in 2012 feeling immensely touched by how other competitors, coaches and volunteers would wish my group and our riders well as we were going about their business around the show. I've always tried to spread a bit of this random kindness and good sportsmanship in subsequent years, and I'd recommend it.

Daisy riding Speckles at Nationals 2019

9. Say your thank yous

It's near enough impossible to quantify the amount of effort that goes into getting a rider to the point of mounting their horse at Nationals: from those who coach; to those who help in the lessons which got them there; to those who look after the horses (and washed the stains out of their coat before dawn that morning); to the team who plan and run the event. Being in such a bustling environment at a stay-away championship is sometimes the first real opportunity competitors and their supporters have to appreciate the level of behind the scenes commitment. Nobody you see at Nationals is going to resent doing what they do - there's a lot of passion behind it too - but a thank you goes a long, long way, and everyone deserves to feel appreciated.

10. Take a breath and enjoy

I don't think a list like this needs to have "win my class", "get a personal best", "beat XYZ" on it. It's good to be competitive - within reason - and to set high standards for yourself - again, within reason. Competitions of any kind also aren't a bust if you don't do any of these things. I don't think it's as simple as "it's taking part that counts": what it's all about is taking on the competition with a positive attitude and enjoying being part of something this big. Whatever your role in this huge great show, you get to take a minute to feel proud of yourself.

11. Cheesy chips

Don't miss out on of the main Nationals food groups. It doesn't taste the same anywhere else.

12. Go easy in the heat

If the last decade has taught me anything, it's that you can entice most horses to drink when it's 30 degrees plus at Hartpury... on the other hand, you can tell all the competitors it's OK to waive the show jacket requirement, but Laura will absolutely not remove hers. (I'm pretty sure she's reading this - I see you, just watch me whip out the handheld fan...)

See all you bucket-listers at Hartpury!

Rosettes lined up for a prize giving at Nationals 2019