London Calling: Abingdon RDA meets Park Lane Stables

Earlier this month, some of the team from Abingdon RDA took six teenage riders and four volunteers to Park Lane Stables in West London: a summer holiday day out with a big scoop of RDA values. What happens when two groups of people (and horses) with similar aims and passions hang out for a day? Everyone has a really good time, is what. 

Our two teams all together!

Park Lane are one of a very few RDA groups who have broken through into the non-horsey public eye: their fundraising campaign to buy their quirky stables, in the middle of a suburban street, from an unscrupulous landlord went beyond viral in 2021. My group have been passing round copies of Park Lane founder Natalie's book about the stables for months. The reason for us visiting was, however, little to do with fame and much to do with the fact that Park Lane are currently taking care of former Abingdon RDA horse, Princess. 

Prin was a stalwart of our own stables for several years, but when she started getting switched off by school work - a must in our location, which struggles for safe hacking - we had to consider our options carefully to keep her happy and engaged. Where we conduct almost all RDA sessions in arenas, with limited hacking around the fields next to our yard, Park Lane's location forces them the other way: sessions take place in acres of parkland. Richmond has the most green space of any London borough, which meant it felt extra novel to blast down the M4 past towering city skylines, to end up somewhere that actually felt more like the countryside than our Oxfordshire home. 

Prin was delighted with her new London life pretty much straight away: lots of time in the great outdoors (she loves to hack), and still the hustle, bustle, and general human adoration which she enjoyed so much about RDA in the first place. We were told we would always be welcome to come and see her, so a trip to allow some of our riders to do so was dreamt up - alongside a return leg from some of Park Lane's riders to our stables, in the spirit of sharing and friendship. None of these things were my idea, but as a big fan of a Good Day Out and a bigger fan of bringing new experiences and opportunities to RDA participants, there was no chance of me not tagging along.

Alfie was so happy to see Prin, and Prin was happy to see him too

Six of our teenage riders (i.e. those who would be a little too old for our holiday activities at home, and who also would be up for a day out independent of their parents) formed the crew for our little adventure, accompanied by me, Alice, Becci and Bea. For most of the group, including the two riders out of six who I coach myself, haven't yet been able to get their teeth properly into things like offsite competitions. I love being able to take riders offsite - I think it builds so much about their characters, confidence, and relationships with others in RDA - so it was really special to be able to do this with them. Ettie and August are the two riders I coach, who came to us a bit under two years ago from a different RDA group. They were joined by Alfie, Lucy (who I taught for a long time and was overjoyed to be reunited with for the day), and Rowan and Mia, who both help me out around the yard on Saturdays. We would've happily taken more riders, although many who were the target age were already occupied with family holidays - a decent enough excuse! Like all the best RDA occasions, we were a real mixed bag of people with a few important shared interests and goals.

Our plan for the day!

The hospitality Team Park Lane showed us was a shining example of everything I love about RDA. We were welcomed in every possible way from the moment we stepped onto their yard at their current base in Petersham, including a blackboard outlining a full day of activities to get stuck into. Everyone we met was so positive and encouraging, and there were opportunities for our riders to be hands on with absolutely everything. I realised that our little group had a huge spectrum of experience with horses on the ground: some were used to being around the horses on our yard every weekend, while others hadn't had much chance to get hands on outside of their lessons. I could've talked to Verity for hours about all the horses, who seemed as pleased to see us as all the people did. Prin was happy to participate in what must be a universal learning-to-ride activity: points of the horse, with sticky labels. I am absolutely convinced that she recognised us all.

A big leveller was our next activity: carriage driving, which was a first for absolutely all of us. We did offer carriage driving at Abingdon once upon a time - our old pony Speckles was a dab hoof at it - but it's not something we've done for the best part of ten years now. I like new things, but wasn't quite prepared for how exciting it was simply standing on the back and watching our riders drive Sam. Mahmoud and Arthur were very relaxed and encouraging with them all, so even those who were less keen on new things were able to feel at home sat in a carriage rather than a saddle. Lucy was a natural, and it was really satisfying to hear Ettie and August find their voices (literally) to be able to get Sam to walk, and then trot. I'd love to have a go myself in the future, although having observed the ways that it's both similar and different to riding, I don't think I'd do as good a job as our riders did...

Ettie after driving Sam

Unusually for this summer, the weather meant we could happily sit outside to eat lunch - a huge success in its own right. The afternoon's agenda was riding out in the park, with everyone tacking up their own horses. I could make a whole happy day out from wandering around looking at other people's RDA ponies and literally nothing else, and I think it was an exciting novelty for everyone to see our riders looking so accomplished and relaxed on "strange" horses: Eddy, Frenchie, Maggie, Eliot and Peaches. Mia was thrilled to be able to ride Prin: a home away from home on horseback, who strolled happily around the park like it had been put there just for her. Mia was able to tick off a huge item on her bucket list when Natalie let her have a canter on one of the tracks - something that just wouldn't work with our hacking at home. I think her smile could've powered a small town for a few hours.

Mia and Prin enjoying their hack

Seeing the way our riders adapted to riding unfamiliar horses, in unfamiliar, open surroundings, was a really proud moment for me. Where it wouldn't be unusual for most to ride without assistance at home, this was all totally new. I had no reason at all not to trust Park Lane's adorable herd, but all of the riders seemed to have picked up on this intuitively and looked so at home in their new surroundings. We all accompanied them on foot and plotted light heartedly which of the horses we'd most like to try and fit in the boot for the return journey. We didn't leave empty handed, even if we hadn't resorted to horse thievery: medals, badges for carriage driving, and certificates for endurance were all presented to our riders, and I kept having slices of cake thrust into my hand by the younger members of the Park Lane family back at the stables. No complaints.

We all came home buzzing, every moment of the day enjoyed - even (especially?) the plane spotting I forced on my travel group in the car on both legs of the journey. (We had to feel like we'd actually spent a day in the city somehow...) By the time we were back on the motorway headed for home, even the quietest members of our cavalcade were chattering away about all sorts of things, mainly horses, obviously. I learnt that both August and Ettie are totally hilarious outside of their focused riding lesson personas, and Alice remarked that one of her riders was the most engaged and excited she had ever seen him. Taking our riders away from our yard was a big comfort zone exit for many, but it had paid off. 

We can achieve so much good in the space of our regular RDA sessions, but being able to pursue even more opportunity and fun away from home is so exciting and worthwhile. It also turns out that the big-hearted reputation Park Lane has built for itself is totally genuine and deserved, if anyone was wondering. The kindness we were shown and the fun every person was able to have is what RDA should always be about. I can't wait to help host the return leg of our "RDA exchange", and I hope our two groups can keep our friendship going for years to come. 

Thank you so much, Team Park Lane: you're what it's all about!

The group enjoying exploring the park