28/08/2021

Spotlight On... Para Equestrian

India Collins-Davies

It’s a Paralympic summer, but don’t just watch the sports, try them!

Parasport's 'Spotlight On…' series offers a quick glimpse into the world of a Paralympic sport – the thoughts, feelings, emotions and behind the scenes details that may be hidden to the outside world. 

In the next part of the series, we spoke to para-equestrian coach India Collins-Davies.

The 27-year-old, who hails from Oxford, is calling for more people to get involved with the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) in order to nurture and grow the sport.

Tell us about how you got into para-equestrian and your progression to where you are today

“I've been a volunteer with an RDA group in Oxfordshire for about 10 years and I've been coaching for most of that. I coach riders from aged four until young adulthood who have a variety of disabilities, from autism, down syndrome and cerebral palsy. We encourage riders as far as they want to go - whether it's simply to access a session as therapy, or to encourage them to strive towards the RDA National Championships.

“All our coaches start off as volunteers. I wasn't necessarily looking to become a coach, but I knew I enjoyed teaching other people things, so I started off leading the ponies in lessons, side-walking with riders - sometimes disabled riders require one or two people on each side to support them - and helping around the horse's upkeep. Even at the Paralympics, horses still need mucking out every day! 

“The moment I wanted to start coaching was at the RDA National Championships in 2012 and I saw the standard on offer - it's the biggest event of its kind in Europe, or even the world. All the coaches were ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and the majority were volunteers. I pursued it with my group through the training pathway. I can't imagine my life without it now!”

Why equestrian over other sports? 

“It's as simple as I like horses! That's the main thing that drives volunteers into para-dressage and disability sport in terms of equestrian in general. I grew up riding, I enjoy being around horses, I really liked the idea of being able to support others to access it. Horses are wonderful to be around. 

“A lot of riders are referred to the RDA for physical therapy and physio, but also the emotional therapy that riding and horses provide. Ultimately, if people don't come to RDA liking horses, they will after some time! The organisation is a big family and we all adore the horses. 

“Specifically with para-equestrian, it's the sense of opportunity. As somebody who is non-disabled myself, it's been a valuable way to get me to understand what it means to be an ally to disabled people and athletes.

“RDA is all about allowing people to discover their own route through the sport, and that's the best thing sport can offer to somebody. I think it offers a unique way of developing physical confidence, and that applies to anybody with any disability." 

What’s the one thing you now know, that you wish you’d known before getting started in the sport? 

“How addictive it is. When you get the bug once you're involved with RDA, you don’t want to then step away. It's a really good thing because I'll be involved for the rest of my life now. I have no regrets for signing up and I can't imagine my life without it.

What’s been your favourite memory in the sport so far? 

“There are so many! But I coach a young lady, Natalie, who is completely blind. She rides by listening to people's voices, so I must direct her and describe surroundings to her. She went to her first National Championships in 2019, which was the last time they were held, and we had an entire team of callers for each letter around the arena. She reached the finals in Hartpury, and she won her class overall! She was only nine years old at the time so had beaten adults in her section - it was incredible.

“Now, at 11, Natalie's grown considerably, and we're working on building her confidence and getting her into more competitions. The fact she has so much trust in my voice is amazing. It's incredibly special to me as a coach.”

What's the best thing about the sport? 

“The best thing about being a coach in the sport is being part of so many individual stories. With RDA, you get to know the families and stories. When the riders succeed in a big way, or a small way, you get to be a part of it and that makes you extra invested. That's really special and it's a very big privilege.

“The riders and families put so much trust in us as coaches and we're there because we love the sport and want to help children succeed. I've done plenty of things with horses and been involved in other sports, but RDA and para-equestrian have the ultimate feeling of community and of worth and of trust.”

What’s something only a person involved in the para-equestrian world would know or appreciate?

“How special horses are. People can like horses and enjoy riding, but I think the understanding that our horses in our RDA group have is very unique. They understand when a disabled person is riding them and are much gentler.

“The affection that they have, the way they're able to calm somebody without having to say anything, is something that is so special. Other sports don't involve live animals in the same way, so it's a very different experience. It is just magic.”

What would you say to someone considering trying para-equestrian or volunteering with RDA?

“The first point of call for anyone wanting to get involved in any way would be on a club finder, which is accessible through Parasport and also on the RDA UK website.

“Definitely make use of RDA on social media where you can ask questions about the work that they do. On the whole, people with RDA are really happy to talk about what they do, so don't let any questions go unanswered because it's a really welcoming and friendly organisation.”

 

Gain an insight into the world of other Paralympic sports by visiting our Spotlight On… series hub page here.

Want to give para equestrian a try? Check out our club finder!