Everything I loved about RDA Nationals 2023

Part of the Abingdon RDA contingent on the Friday of this year's Championships, with our decorated stables. Photo credit: the lovely Tal of Tails Photography

To pose a million dollar question: does the RDA National Championships live up to the hype I give it? It's no mean feat if it does: I've been known to throw around the phrase "better than Christmas". My first ever blog post was written during the hazy Monday-after-Nationals of 2019, so in many ways, the championships are responsible for my decision to write and share so much about RDA. It's also strange to think that this year's championships were the first full ones since that blog post in 2019, and how much has unfolded between now and then. A week on from getting home from Hartpury, here's what I loved about RDA Nationals 2023.

The weather

Yes. The weather. Even the thunderbolts and lightning (very very frightening) which were so localised we had a four hour suspension of competition on Saturday afternoon which led to even the most seasoned RDA folk declaring that Now This Is A New One. I think this was either my ninth or tenth Nationals, and I'm pretty sure the only weather condition I have left on my bingo card is snow. Never say never. Friday was a washout, Saturday was thunderous, and Sunday was a mixed bag - and very windy. 

Everyone I encountered who'd been there last year wholeheartedly agreed that this was better than the wannabe desert conditions we withstood in 2022. There was a cruel irony in having two years with no Nationals, only to have half of it whipped from under our feet because it was dangerously sunny (I'm grateful for that decision because I am much too pale to play fast and loose with extreme UV, but still). The perfect Nationals weather is a dry 20-22 degrees with cool mornings and evenings, but we were all grateful for considerably easier weather than last year to keep our faithful steeds happy and healthy. The extra waterproofs did push me over into the next size up of suitcase, but fair's fair.

The feathers

I'm sure there are a couple of people out there who are reading this who I haven't met in person, so just to say: yes, I was the feathery Coronation Chicken at the coronation-themed disco. I'm really sorry if you left said disco with any red or white feathers stuck to you, or if you found any red or white feathers within a ten mile radius of Hartpury on Sunday morning. I have been too scared for my soft furnishings to unpack the feather boas since returning home.

A Coronation Chicken and her royal friends - I made the beak myself...

The team

They say you never truly know a friend until you've been on holiday with them - how about RDA Nationals as the ultimate team-builder? We took the biggest team of volunteers yet to the championships this year, with support teams of staff and volunteers book-ending the weekend to assist with travel and a carful of volunteers who drove up for Saturday, alongside those of us who were eagerly waving our annual leave sheets and accommodation money. 

A large number of our team, including one member of staff, had never actually been to Nationals before - with slightly below average numbers of horses and riders this year, this was a great opportunity to get them all orientated and then absolutely hooked. We were able to rota the early morning yard duties for the first time (definitely one for the future), ran a paper plate award ceremony, and always had a spare pair of hands whenever they were needed - plus a bewilderingly large supply of shared snacks. We were joined by Frankie, our young independent rider, her family and two ponies - all of whom were very much part of the family too. The friendship and teamwork between likeminded people, doing things because they want to, not because they have to, will always be a very special thing: never more than during the whirlwind of a championship weekend, which tests so much about a team.

The horses

The real Most Valuable Players of RDA Nationals will always be the RDA horses. It was hard to believe that little Marshall, one of our cuddliest ponies, had never been to the championships before: he . As a fairly local group with the luxury of the option to bring horses for the day, we also saw a first dressage outing for new recruit Lisa, who gave a truly exemplary performance with one of our riders. For anyone who appreciates the "it's what you can do that counts" spirit of RDA, it's also a pleasure to look at all the horses that aren't yours. I don't think I've ever seen such a diverse range of horses at an event as I have at RDA Nationals. So many horses are schooled to an impeccably high standard - who said we just need plodders in RDA? - and to think of the amount of effort that goes into their care and training before they even set foot in an area is awe-inspiring. 

My group were fortunate enough to borrow two wonderful horses: one from the family of an independent rider, and one from the National Training Centre, to enable all of our qualifiers to compete this year. They were wonderful to work with, and we are so grateful.

Sophia and Marshall: both would fool you into thinking they'd been to Nationals a million times before

The connections 

Among this year's first-timers were my two fellow Saturday coaches, Sue and Janine, who both seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. Janine said to me over the weekend "this is what it's all about, isn't it? The connections, the shared aims and motivations." It stuck with me, because she's right. So much of RDA is driven by connection: between horses and people, or people and people. I love the fact that I'm able to meet up with people I've known for years and make new friends every time my group heads to Hartpury, and this year was no different. It's not just about group-to-group connections, or building your own team, either: the event volunteers and staff from National Office put in a huge shift to make the championships happen, and it's lovely to spend time with them too.

Baby from the Elisabeth Curtis Centre proudly modelling the group's gift from Team Abingdon! Photo credit: Kyle Palmer

The sharing

RDA Nationals has never been an unfriendly place, but this year felt exemplary in terms of the way those attending were relating to each other: offering advice, encouragement, and occasional last minute equipment loans. I decided to start a new tradition and make a few gifts for friends and groups who have supported us over the last year - plus some surprise horse treats. It was joked that I was like a Nationals Elf, scampering about trying to hang bags on stables in secret, but it was more than worth how much they were appreciated. If you can't spread the kindness and generosity you want to see in the world at Nationals, where on earth can you? We experienced plenty of generosity and kindness in return, too, and some particularly excellent dancing from our friends at Park Lane Stables.

The canine showbiz

Last year, the notorious heatwave cancelled not only a whole Sunday's worth of competition, but also the disco. Naturally, we had already prepped for the disco, which was destined to have a Disney theme, and had nine potato-printed spotty tops and nine sets of ears inspired by a childminder on Pinterest ready to rumble. We were going to be 101 (*9) Dalmatians. Nine Dalmatian outfits are a lot to have hanging around with no purpose, so a rush of blood to the head (not mine!) after Regionals saw Abingdon RDA's first ever entry into the costume freestyle class: a real bucket list item. 

I did feel a very clear sense of "this is it: I really have cracked" when stood in the warm up arena, but thoroughly enjoyed my four and a half minutes as "Dipstick" (or "Principal Dalmatian 2"), and the sheer emotional turmoil of my flight from Cruella De Ville. Poor Cruella had to work very hard to ride her pony and keep a straight, villainous face at the same time. You will have to track down the full video on the Abingdon RDA Facebook page, and can enjoy working out which parts were planned and rehearsed and which parts just felt like the right thing to do at the time. We achieved a very respectable fourth place, and reviews of my acting which surmounted even my now dusty A* in GCSE Drama. Fun to remember forever, and I loved watching the other entries too.

Not quite 101 Dalmatians. My internal monologue: "you have finally found the weirdest thing you're prepared to do for RDA"

The meaningful things

I've never said that competitions are the be-all-end-all-mean-all of RDA life. RDA participants do not need to compete, and for many the championships wouldn't be a good fit for their journey with the organisation. That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't incredibly significant things that happen at and connected to a large-scale event like Nationals. This year, in a group (possibly even organisation) first, we took a mother-and-daughter duo, Tara and Sophia, to the championships for the first time. While life-limiting circumstances made the significance of having both qualify extra poignant, I think the whole group felt particularly committed to making the perfect conditions for lasting memories. I loved seeing both Tara and Sophia throw themselves into the weekend, and Sophia (who I coached until a couple of years ago) gave me the biggest compliment of my RDA career when she described me - and my feathers - as "the life and soul of the party". Actually, it's the meaningful nature of this biggest of weekends that deserves that label - I'm thrilled she liked my dance moves so much, though. 

My right-hand woman on Saturdays and 2022 participant of the year, Mia, stayed with us as a volunteer all weekend after competing in the level 2 show jumping on Friday evening. She won't mind me saying that this was a big deal for her - and her mum at home, who dispatched us with a bag full of team cakes and some last minute jitters. Mia did an amazing job, surpassing the most important expectations of all: her own. She said to us all when the weekend was over that she had felt "so independent, but so looked after too": she'd done everything from being last woman standing at the disco (I think this surprised her the most!), to riding an unfamiliar horse in her show jumping class, from early morning feeds to cheering on other riders at late prize givings. You can't tell me this stuff isn't real RDA magic.

When Sunday at Nationals hits... Mia taking a break on a bale of hay!

The lessons

A good competition should offer lots of opportunities for learning and growth. I think my interest in coaching riders for competitions comes from the idea that for some people, it's a great way to learn about yourself, your skills, and your character. As a coach too, it really helps to focus goals and approaches to them, and is a great relationship-builder between you and the people you teach. I left Hartpury buzzing with ideas: ways to boost dressage scores and develop new coaches; ways to work with other groups; even ideas for team building tasks and playlists for next year. It is inspiring to spend a weekend surrounded by others who share the same enthusiasm for learning, and doing, more. 

The lights

It wouldn't be right to have a Nationals update without making reference to Natalie, my totally blind rider, and her fortunes. Natalie was the only rider I directly coach who attended both Regionals and Nationals this year. While I know I have some very eager other students waiting in the wings for their opportunity, it was a positive to have more time and energy than usual to focus on making things work the way both of us wanted them to. Natalie was a wonderful part of our team, gaining a very respectable score (only missing the overall class champion prize by 1%); introducing us to a friend from school who was by total chance stabled in the same barn as us; refreshing her barrel vaulting skills and generally buzzing from the atmosphere. 

I think a highlight for both of us were her callers, or talking letters. While I know I can get her round a dressage test, inside the boards, with just me stood on X, I am so glad to have returned to a full landscape of nine callers this year. As Natalie has absolutely no visual cues to rely upon, having audible ones around the arena actually makes a big difference to her accuracy - and my vocal chords. Natalie's original nine callers in 2019 were great, but this year's team have been sensational: not just my eight fellow letters on the day, but a small number of others who weren't able to attend and were also trained to a similarly high standard. Together we have coordinated a slightly new way of calling, with overlap between letters, which has been of a huge benefit to Natalie (and to me coaching her). I told them before Regionals that they were like lighthouses for her - it was only when I realised I was actually watching her ride her test during the movements that didn't need me to call that I had a sense of how brightly they were shining. (Is someone cutting onions in here?) There really has been above-and-beyond commitment and skill from every single member of "Team Natalie", and that's the kind of thing that makes RDA the best it can be. (More onions??)

Team Natalie: Nationals 2023 edition

The cheesy chips

Because my list would not be complete without them, although I won't be wanting any more for a good long while. Special shout out to our young volunteers who sampled their first Hartpury cheesy chips at 9:30 in the morning. (Lucy - I'm impressed by your commitment. In lots of ways.)

The laughs

Every year at the championships has its own character, and aside from the connections with other groups and the constant meteorological lottery, the thing I'll remember 2023 for is laughter. With the right work ethic, it's more than possible to have horses fed, watered, healthy and clean(ish) and plenty of time for fun. I loved how much my group was able to laugh and enjoy spending time together - and with other attendees, too. Being able to laugh and have fun with a group of people is a huge sign of trust and like-mindedness. Could I wish for anything more?

Cruella De Ville (in fact a twelve year old RDA rider, who knew?!), her vehicle of choice, Marshall, and Henchman Horace the Horrible Dog Catcher

As for the hype? You'll have to ask the rookies I convinced to come with us this year...

Until next year, Nationals!


  1. LOVE LOVE LOVE this. Thank you for being so lovely and sprinkling magic all over the place.


Post a Comment