16-year-old autistic rider overcomes mental health struggles to impress at Area Festival Championships

  • Although national titles were on the line at the 2024 Petplan Winter Area Festival Championships – and riders were doing all they could to vie for top honours – the supportive and encouraging environment really re-focussed attention for this writer on why we compete in dressage, and what draws us to the sport.

    Namely, that deep connection and trust with the horse that riders can feel between the boards – which, at its best, allows us to set aside our real-world struggles.

    This sentiment was perfectly encapsulated by 16-year-old Ruby Kelly and her palomino gelding Sir Nunn’s Just Rudi, who finished eighth in the under-21 novice bronze on 66.59%. The class was won by Lydia Holmes on Caramelle with 71.59%.

    Ruby and her family originally bought Rudi in November 2020 to help with the severe anxiety and mental health struggles Ruby was experiencing relating to school and social situations.

    “I later received an autism diagnosis, which explained a lot of my struggles with day-to-day life,” says Ruby. “High school is rough enough at the best of times but I found it incredibly hard so I’m now homeschooled, which allows me more time to spend with Rudi.

    “Without Rudi, I don’t know how I’d cope – when I’m around him all my worries fade and I’m in the zone with him. I love him to absolute bits. Whether grooming, riding, sitting in the field with him or even mucking out his stable, it’s like a form of therapy.”

    A snapshot of Ruby Kelly and Sir Nunn’s Just Rudi’s journey together so far.

    Ruby adds that she and the now 13-year-old Rudi tried showjumping, cross-country and showing before realising dressage is where their passion was.

    “We started with introductory unaffiliated dressage in April 2021 – it wasn’t the prettiest test but after I had that thrill of trotting down the centre line, I couldn’t stop,” explains Ruby.

    Since then the combination has gone on to be prelim dressage to music champions at The Midway Championships at Hartpury and are regular Team Quest under-21 competitors with the West Midlands Dressage Group Bluebirds.

    “It’s been a rollercoaster,” says Ruby, who has been helped along the way by Kirsty Imm at Bromyard Equestrian.

    “It took a while for me to get used to his little quirks and for both of us to adjust to the gaps in our experience, but we both understand each other. He needs a quiet and patient rider and he has a gentle persona, which helps calm me down when I’m stressed out.”

    2024 Winter Area Festival Championships: “To have fun together is our main goal”

    Reflecting on her experience at the championships, Ruby adds: “The atmosphere was next level. What I liked about it was that I got to be social in a way that I feel comfortable with – we’re all there to compete so there’s no room to feel out of place.

    “Saying that, the day before the test Rudi was wild – throwing numerous shapes in the exercise ring, which was a bit off-putting but no way was I going to let it take over our achievement of getting there.

    “The stewards were lovely helping us have multiple quiet exercise slots to calm us both down and although it wasn’t our best test, we went down the centre line and halted at the end, and that was all I ever wanted.”

    Ruby now has her sights set on the Summer Petplan Area Festival Championships – that is once her GCSEs are out of the way – but is keen to keep the experience as fun as possible.

    “Although I’m competitive I need to remember where we’ve come from, it’s so easy to get ahead of yourself so I want to stop pressurising myself. To have fun together is our main goal in the long run.”

    Ruby’s mum Charlotte adds how proud it makes her to watch Ruby compete: “The incredible bond they have, creates a low-stress, non-judgemental interaction which provides Ruby with a huge amount of self-confidence and belief.

    “We never imagined they’d have this magnetic silent connection so in tune with each other’s emotions – it’s captivating to watch.”

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