Inside the RDA
Meet the amazing people behind one of the UK’s greatest equine charities
WE MEET THE RDA team at an exciting time in their near 50-year history of bringing horses into the lives of those who need it most. They’re set to take over Lowlands Farm, in Shrewley, Warwickshire, to transform it into a national training centre. Lowlands Farm is owned by one of the charity’s longest supporters, Ro Pudden MBE (more on her later!). Opening in autumn 2018, the centre will give RDA volunteers the chance to meet and train as coaches in the same place, bringing together years of knowledge under one roof. “The centre has been a dream of ours for a long time,” says Ed Bracher, CEO of the RDA. “The site at Lowlands is perfect. It’ll be a place that’s the gold standard for us.”
Making the dream a reality
While the £3.4 million target to bring the centre to life might be quite intimidating, the passion of the RDA’s riders and volunteers makes it seem easily achievable. “Everyone’s been getting involved with the fundraising,” says Cat Stuart-Yapp, who’s recently started her training to be an RDA coach. “Our chairman, Sam Orde, is taking on a big ride during which she’ll visit each of the RDA regions. We’ve also got another group taking on Ride London and then another of our riders, Max, is planning a pony trek to base camp at Everest!” Ascending a massive 8,000ft to get to base camp, a trip to Everest is a huge challenge and it’s expected to take Max, who has cerebral palsy, 12 days of hard riding to complete. “I’ve always wanted to do something big, crazy and exciting,” says Max. “I’ve been with the RDA since I was five years old and I approached them with my idea about six months ago. They were very keen to get on board, which felt really great.” With 500-plus RDA groups in the UK, we can only begin to imagine the number of other inspirational stories such as Max’s
from the 25,000 children and adults who the RDA supports. Not to mention Ro Pudden, without whose help the charity may not have found a suitable site for their flagship training centre.
The woman behind Lowlands
When Ro first started volunteering for the RDA 40 years ago, she could hardly have imagined the huge role the charity would play in her life (she was awarded an MBE in 2012 for her work with them). After helping to establish the Newbury RDA group, she moved to Yorkshire for a few years, before moving to Lowlands Farm in the 1980s. “When I came here, there was only the house and barn,” she explains, as she shows us around the grounds – which now include an indoor and outdoor arena, and stabling for 25 horses. “My brother thought I was mad at the time but I’ve had an interesting life and met people that I never would have otherwise. It’s been great to be able to help people see a new view of life.” It was while at Lowlands that Ro’s involvement with the RDA snowballed as she began coaching more and more riders of all abilities. “I started instructing groups locally and then schools started coming and it just took off from there. I guess my problem is that I can never say no!” she says. Now in her 83rd year, Ro’s showing no signs of slowing down and continues to coach riders at grassroots level. Far from handing over her responsibilities to the RDA when the new centre arrives, Ro will continue to live in the house at Lowlands and no doubt be an inspiration to the future coaches hoping to follow in her footsteps. “It’s amazing to have someone like Ro to learn from,” says Cat. “She’s done so much for the charity and the passion she has for what she does is really inspiring. I’m trying to pick up as many hints and tips from her as I can.” Caroline Ward, RDA communications manager, agrees. “Ro’s great. She says it like it is and nobody’s treated any differently from anyone else.” Soon to have the new centre built on her farm, how does Ro feel about sharing her home with the charity? “The farm’s something that I started from nothing,” she says. “So it’s brilliant to know that it’s a great legacy that I’m leaving in a safe pair of hands once I’m no longer here.”
The big build
As Ed explains, once the centre has been built, there are already plans in the pipeline for its development. “In the next three years, we’re hoping to double the number of people who can ride at the centre,” he says. “We want to be able to cater for all disciplines and have plans to put in a track at the site for carriage driving.” There are also plans for training facilities, classrooms and a viewing area for both the indoor and outdoor arenas, meaning workshops and demonstrations will be more interactive than ever before. “Along with the riders who’ll continue to enjoy the facility, we’ll be able to provide our volunteers and coaches with training that’s consistent across the board and make sure that people are given the quality support that they need,” Ed adds. “We have a vision that we’ll be able to help anyone with a disability to get involved with horses, as this isn’t always easy at the moment, and we want to continue to be the backbone behind Paralympic success.”
Going for gold
Their impressive record at the Paralympics is something that the RDA are incredibly proud of – and who can blame them when stars like Natasha Baker and Sophie Christiansen first started their riding career with the charity. In fact, Ro played a part in paving the way for the current popularity of the Paralympics. Not that she’d tell you that. It took Your Horse a good hour to get anything out of Ro about her involvement in the first Paralympics, let alone how successful her and the team were. “It was an uplifting and interesting experience,” says Ro thoughtfully. “I guess we were trailblazers at the time.”
We have a vision that we’ll be able to help anyone with a disability to get involved with horses
As a trainer for the first British Paralympic team, alongside Diana Mason as Chef d’Equipe, Ro led the team to glory at Atlanta, winning three golds in the process. “To see the flags go up was one of those once in a lifetime things. It was hard work and not always easy, but so rewarding,” she says.
Everyone’s a winner
While the Paralympic riders achieve feats that us mere mortals can only dream of, winning gold medals isn’t the sole goal of the RDA. Their priority is to bring horses into the lives of people with disabilities. “If someone thinks that the activities we do at the RDA can be of therapeutic benefit to them, then they’re more than welcome to come and join us,” says Caroline. “A valuable part of what we do is working to each individual’s goals. “For some, this might be trotting, for others it might be doing a dressage test. Being able to sit up straight and ride unaided can be a huge achievement, too.” At the moment, 30% of the RDA’s riders and carriage drivers have physical disabilities, while the remaining 70% have learning difficulties, including autism. “There’s no doubt that the RDA can be therapeutic,” says Caroline. “We have a vaulting team with autistic members. I’m sure people will tell you that those with autism struggle with teamwork but there’s no team quite like a vaulting team! It’s amazing what they do.” Friendship and community is also a large part of the charity’s ethos. “We have a group of ladies in Scotland that have MS and have started a club,” explains Caroline. “They ride together and fundraise for equipment they want. There are days when some of the ladies won’t be feeling well enough to ride but they still come in to watch the others and have a slice of cake and a chat. It’s not just about the riding – it’s great to have that social side.” Speaking from personal experience, Max adds: “Through the RDA I’ve been able to gain relationships and a sense of community that I’d never have had access to without them.”
Be a part of the RDA
The RDA is clearly very close to the hearts of its riders and volunteers, but how can new people get involved? “If you’re interested in riding with the RDA, I’d recommend contacting your local group and going along to see what they do first,” says Ro. “Just go along and watch, see what you think. The RDA has grown so much and meets the needs of people with a whole range of disabilities now. Everything is taken into consideration and rides will be built around the individual.” If you think coaching is more your thing, there’s no reason you can’t start straight away. As Ed explains, you don’t have to wait for the new training centre. “The centre will give us the opportunity to ensure that our coaches are provided with quality support when they need it,” he says. “But we already have our coaching pathways up and down the country that follow our key principles.” Cat is also keen to encourage people to get involved to safeguard the charity’s future. She says: “Our coaching network helps lots of people learn the skills they need to coach people with disabilities,” she says. “If you’re interested in giving it a go, just try it! More than anything, we need the next generation of coaches to enable us to carry on Ro’s legacy.”
Our coaching network helps lots of people learn the skills they need to coach people with disabilities
Artist impressions give an idea as to how the new centre will look when it’s completed next year
Max training for his Everest trek with the help of friends, Livi and Giles
Always smiling, Ro says the RDA has given her an interesting life with many emotional rewards
Soon-to-be coach Cat urges anyone thinking about training with the RDA to give it a go. If it makes Cat smile like this, we think we just might!