RDA recognises COVID challenges in Annual Awards

RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) has recognised the heroic efforts of its community of riders, volunteers and ponies in its annual awards. In a year characterised by group closures and thousands of participants unable to benefit from spending time with horses, the awards celebrate those people and ponies who went above and beyond to support their groups and the wider RDA family.

Here, we meet the winners…

Millie Smith – Participant of the Year, sponsored by Childs Farm

Winner of the Participant of the Year, Millie Smith, of Equipower RDA in Scotland, has not let lockdown stop her pursuing her equine activities. Millie began riding with Equi-Power Central Scotland RDA in January 2019 and has cerebral palsy and severe hearing loss.

The past year has affected everyone in one way or another. For Millie, riding and vaulting was put on hold due to the national lockdown. However, Millie prevailed and did not let circumstances stop her following her passion. She took to studying online through Zoom, gaining her RDA Horse Care Level Three and Four Awards, her BHS Horse Knowledge One and Two, the BHS Horse Health Challenge Award, and an RDA E-learning certification in Equine knowledge. She was also part of a team who raised £20,000 in the Equi-Power Virtual Kiltwalk for her group. Her awards continued coming in, being recognised twice by Youth Scotland Hi 5 awards for volunteering and in the National Satire Awards.

“As a group we have been so impressed by Millie’s achievements, courage, resilience, team spirit, adaptability during lockdown, commitment to learning, commitment to volunteering and commitment to riding and vaulting,” said Equi-Power’s Amanda Namey. “She is a shining example to other participants, and we feel she thoroughly deserves recognition.”

Millie has returned to riding and vaulting in 2021 after lockdown, despite losing muscle tone and strength during lockdown. She is determined to attend, rain or shine, and has embraced technology introduced over lockdown. She qualified in dressage, won first place in the photography class and second place in the collage class in our RDA Virtual National Championships 2021.

Her father, Steven, expressed how proud he was of his daughter, saying “It’s now starting to sink in, and we’ve had some lovely messages of support and congratulations. The benefits Millie has gained from riding, volunteering, and vaulting have been immeasurable. Winning this award is the most special thing ever to have happened in her riding adventure. I really can’t thank you enough and RDA and of course the people who picked Millie to win the award.”

Ava Sharp – Young Volunteer of the Year, supported by the players of People’s Postcode Lottery

Ava Sharp of Wenlo RDA has won Young Volunteer of the Year. When Ava reached her 12th birthday, she asked if she could be considered as an RDA volunteer when she was old enough. Since then, she has attended every Saturday without fail. She learnt alongside the other girls how to tack up, assist in bringing horses to and from the school, and fetching special equipment.

When the first UK lockdown happened, Ava continued to assist looking after the ponies, meaning the older and more vulnerable volunteers could stay at home. She grew from a shy, quiet girl into a confident young person, taking her volunteering seriously.

When sessions returned, Ava was there and became a skilled leader, pre-empting what was going to be asked. She handles the horses and ponies with skill and confidence, and never stops absorbing information and new skills. She is mentoring Duke of Edinburgh participants and has become an excellent communicator with young participants with ASD.

Wenlo Coach Dawn Whitmore-Kirby commented: “She is the Mrs. Five Star of the Future!”

Sharon Garner – Volunteer of the Year, Sponsored by Godolphin

The pandemic meant that Wenlo RDA would close temporarily, like many other RDA Groups, but without an income to support the upkeep of the horses, this could have been permanent if it weren’t for volunteers like Sharon.

Sharon took to the phones, finding grants and support for Wenlo RDA, stepping outside of her comfort zone. She secured vital funding from Sport England, the Cooperative Society, the National Lottery, and many more. For their 30th Anniversary, Wenlo started a month-long challenge in November asking for people to take on a personal challenge for sponsorship. However, another lockdown hit. Sharon persisted and made sure the event could go ahead, finding ways for participants to compete from their homes.

Thanks to Sharon, their horses were fed through the toughest of times. One of their suppliers now sponsors them by donating haylage on an ongoing basis, all thanks to Sharon’s talent of building relationships. As well as providing funds, she also made sure volunteers and participants had a way to have a little fun, even in lockdown.

“Sharon really has lived out the RDA motto of “it’s what you CAN do that counts” said Wenlo Group Treasurer Claire Maden.

Dawn Whitmore-Kirby – RDA UK Volunteer of the Year

Dawn makes sure she has time for everyone, from her volunteers to participants families. Dawn is the Regional Coach for RDA North Midlands and always takes on extra responsibilities for the organisation. To help RDA groups across the UK to restart after lockdown, Dawn created a guidance video on how to implement a safe return, and supported the RDA UK network to enter the Virtual National Championships.

Dawn’s efforts enabled riders in her region to return to riding independently and within COVID safety guidelines. She also utilised local media, appearing on radio and television to promote the work of RDA.

“Her ethos that ‘when you mount a horse your disability disappears, and your abilities appear’ resounds throughout her team, but I would go one step further and say when you step onto her yard the disabilities disappear,” said Alison Johnson, Coach at Ashmount RDA. “Nothing is too much trouble for Dawn – this is not her role, but her calling.”

Smudge – Horse/Pony of the Year

Smudge is a 12.2hh pony at RDA Glasgow Group. For many participants he is the first pony they sit on.

Smudge has done it all. He was one of two driving equines, enjoys long reigning hacks and is a long serving therapy pony. When he did drive, he was the hit of the show at Christmas, coming out dressed as Rudolf and bringing Father Christmas to visit the children.

After lockdown, Smudge was there as a hippotherapy horse. He rarely pulled a grumpy face as riders sat sideways on him or lay on his back reaching for his tail. The PPE required for hippotherapy posed no issue for Smudge either.

He is the Glasgow RDA Groups poster boy, starring in Regional Dressage and Countryside Challenge competitions, fundraising in a Kiltwalk, and is often featured on their social media pages dressed up. Smudge takes it all in his stride.

“If we could have a yard of 20 Smudges from 12.2 to 16.2 we would a very lucky Group indeed!” said Rhona Scott, Group Coach Co-Ordinator, Glasgow RDA.

The pandemic has posed challenges for everyone, and this includes all RDA Groups. The awards show how, even in the hardest of times, there are ways to keep going. These inspirational people – and pony – embody what RDA is dedicated to achieving, improving the lives of people with disabilities through equine activities.