Sally and Mari’s rowing progress

Sally and Mari’s rowing progress continues apace. You may remember a previous post (see link below) on the DBF Website following a visit by Keith Delderfield, his wife, Jess, and me to Marlow Rowing Club following the allocation of 2 Bader Grants.

Sally Hopewell had applied successfully to the DBF for a grant, on the advice of Mari, who had recently taken up rowing at the same club. Sally had discovered that she had an aptitude for the sport, and a big ambition (more of that to follow – no spoilers here!) and needed a boat of her own to take it further. She had identified a suitable second-hand skull for sale at a reasonable price and we were delighted to help her to buy it. Marlow Rowing Club, which has a wonderfully supportive para rowing group, applied separately for funds to buy another second hand skull which would enable Mari, who was showing huge promise in the sport as well, to row more regularly. Both boats would also be available to be used by their para rowing team, thereby giving more rowers and potential rowers with disabilities the chance to progress in the sport. Again, we were delighted to be able to support them.

The boats have been christened (with genuine bubbly!) “Spitfire” and “Lady B” in honour of Sir Douglas and Joan Bader.

Sally and Mari's rowing progress
Sally Hopewell and Wendy McCleave christen “Lady B” in a way she would have approved of!
Sally and Mari's rowing progress
Mari Durward Akhurst and Wendy McCleave christen Spitfire at Marlow Rowing Club








Sally and Mari’s rowing progress is largely due to commitment and very hard graft. Both have been practicing regularly and are going from strength, albeit with different aims in mind! Mari Durward Akhurst, a para dressage rider who originally took up rowing to increase her core strength to improve her riding, is already competing successfully in “Spitfire“.  Sally Hopewell has an exciting and ambitious goal to be revealed later (see – no spoilers!) and has formed a great partnership with “Lady B” in regular practice and strengthening sessions.

It is wonderful and means a lot to us when we get to see Bader Grants actually making a difference and this is definitely one of those times. Bader Grants Committee

We are excited to see what the future holds for this dedicated pair and have no doubt that Sally and Mari will continue to inspire with their progress. We are delighted to be a small part of that, and have no doubt that Sir Douglas and Joan Bader would be cheering them every watery inch of their respective journeys.

Sall and Mari's rowing progress

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Rounding off Last Year and Looking Forward to This One – Mari Akhurst

(Apologies for the late posting. Mari sent this update at the end of last year. I delayed making the post live as we are in the process of having a new website designed and I had hoped to christen the smart new site with this lovely positive report. However, as the site won’t be ready until early next month and Mari’s not known for hanging about(!), I’m posting the update now. Knowing Team Mari, there will be plenty more good news for its arrival!)

Here is my yearly update:

Wow how do I sum up this year; it has definitely been my best year to date. Dreams have come true and I still cannot believe that I am ending the year as a European Silver Medalist; it shows that perseverance and hard work pays off.  None of what I have achieved would have been possible without my amazing support team, my family and all my fantastic sponsors and supporters.

Living with a changing condition has its challenges but my motto is “everything happens for a reason” and I’m a fighter!! I really enjoy inspiring others to get involved in Para sport in particular Para Dressage; this year acting as a mentor for two young para rider’s. I also enjoyed carrying out my role as an Ambassador for Arctic One and for the Douglas Bader Foundation (DBF). I started my public speaking journey this year which has been amazing and I cannot wait to build on this in 2020. I am so pleased that I can inspire others.

Sky has been a complete superstar and shown that age is not a barrier!! He definitely doesn’t act his age more his shoe size!! 3rd Winter Para Dressage Gold Championships (one judge had us in 1st) , Gold Semi Finals 1st team test 71%+ and Individual test 1st  72%+, Hartpury CPEDI3* (2nd Team and Individual to a Brazilian, won the Freestyle) Qualified for the Gold Nationals but took Bear instead so Sky could have a break after the Europeans! First competition back out after the Europeans and a 1st place with 72%+ beating a Paralympian on both of her horses.

We went abroad for the first time thanks to the Anders Foundation. It was an amazing experience and my class was huge with riders from all around the world.

My dream came true and I rode down the centre line for the first time with a red collar on. The Europeans was an incredible experience and I do not think I stopped smiling for the duration of the competition!!

Bear has grown up massively over the last year and I have got to grips with containing the power and turning the titanic! Highlights include coming 2nd to Sky at the Gold Semi Finals with 70%. Getting 73% in the Team and Individual test at qualifier competitions. Bear finished 2nd at the Gold Nationals (just missed 1st place as we had a small jog which was very costly). The International we were picked for didn’t go to plan for a number of reasons even though Bear was a superstar. We learnt from this and have been working extremely hard on the contact and now have a plan going forward.

In this most successful year to date I finished the year as an International Champion and a European Silver Medalist. Both horses have qualified for the Gold Para Dressage Winter Championships 2020.

I am so excited to see what next year brings!! Having been awarded a place on the World Class Programme at Podium Potential I will be striving towards selection for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics and going for GOLD!! Bring it on!!

(Mari Durward-Akhurst, Para-Dressage Rider and DBF Ambassador)

We wish Mari and her beautiful horses, Sky and Bear, a fantastic 2020 when that long-held dream of winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics becomes a deserved reality. Nobody could work harder or with more commitment than Mari. We are delighted to have been able to support her on this journey so far and can’t wait to see what this new year brings. More soon. Keep watching this space…

Please click on the link (it will open in a new tab) to visit Mari’s Facebook Page where you will find more news and information about this very talented young rider.

Mari Getting Closer to her Goal…

An update from DBF Ambassador Mari as the 2020 Olympics draw ever closer. The competition is obviously hotting up and, as ever, Mari is finding ways to enable herself and her equine teammates, Sky and Bear, to give their best performances, and getting very promising results as you will see. With her inspiring determination and commitment, not to mention ingenuity, we feel sure that she will reach her goal and be competing for Team GB in 2020. 

We wish her continued success with her preparations. 

As Tokyo is fast approaching yesterday marked 300 days to go my aim is to campaign both horses; with selection officially starting next year (still awaiting selection policy).

The last few major competitions with Bear have not gone to plan for one reason or another. He has qualified for the Winter Para Dressage Championships in just two outings. He also has two scores over 73% in the team and Individual test. Bear has shown people his potential and we have had some very positive feedback.

The British Dressage Nationals was Bears first major show there is nowhere else that has the same atmosphere as the Nationals not even the Europeans. Bear was a really good boy but got a bit tense and a jog cost us the win; we still came 2nd!

Then onto Keysoe CPEDI3* Bear did three super tests and we were all delighted with him and the work we produced; sadly the judges didn’t agree. But that’s dressage for you and the subjective nature!

Due to my Ataxia I find having a stable contact and keeping my hands still extremely hard but we were really marked down on this at Keysoe.  So we have worked really hard and found a way that seems to be able to stabilise my hands and as a result Bear is a lot happier and walking out so much more as he has stable connection to walk into. I just need to get the classifiers to agree the adaption and then we will go out into competition and see what the judges think.

I took Sky to a local competition it was a winter qualifier but he has already qualified as he has a bye from competing at the Europeans. He felt on top form and scored 72.5% to take the win beating a triple Paralympian on both of her horses!! A great way to start our campaign with even more to come.

(Mari Durward-Akhurst, Para-Dressage Rider and Inspirational Speaker)


Mari and Team GBR Achieve a Silver Medal at the Para Europeans!

We couldn’t be more proud of DBF Ambassador, Para Dressage rider Mari Durward-Akhurst and her beautiful horse Sky, who together had a fantastic 10 days at the Para European Championships in Rotterdam achieving several personal bests and a Silver Medal for the team. 

For years Mari’s dream has been to win a gold medal for her country at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics and she has worked tirelessly to fulfil it. She has just brought that dream a giant step closer!

Read on for Mari’s report about this truly fantastic result, which was gained through sheer grit, total dedication and extremely hard work. 

Huge congratulations to Mari and Team GBR.


Wow how to sum up the last 10 days they have been incredible!! There have been so many special moments and it was awesome to be part of team GB. I think my smile said it all; a dream come true riding down the centre line with my red collar jacket on and representing GB at my first senior championship.

I had a fantastic week scoring personal best scores and all scores over 70% and then a fabulous 75%+ in the freestyle finishing 4th; two judges had me for the bronze medal!!!! 

I helped the team to take Silver in the team competition and considering 3 of us were all at our first championship; a fantastic result!! As my trainer Rob said ”what an achievement for someone that isn’t on any national squad!! We have chipped away, worked hard and pulled in the results making that Silver medal even more satisfying”.

I have learnt so much and have loved every minute the atmosphere has been electric. Sky has proven to everyone that he does not act or look 20. He has been wonderful all week and I couldn’t be prouder of him. He was back to the relaxed Sky during our freestyle and produced some super work shame we couldn’t produce that the whole way through the other tests. But we showed that under a lot of pressure and in challenging situations we can perform. Huge thanks to his owner Glesni for letting me ride this horse who is one in a million!!

The support we have had from the World Class Team during our time in Rotterdam has been super. Huge thanks to everybody.

Everyone dreams of winning a gold medal but to compete against the best riders in Europe/world in Grade 1 and to be placed is a fantastic achievement!! Time to build on what I have done and we will be going for the Gold next time!! To be selected to go was a dream come true to come back as a European medalist is indescribable!! It hasn’t sunk in yet!!!!

With yesterday marking 1 year until the opening ceremony of the Paralympics the future looks very exciting!! My attention now turns to Tokyo and going for gold; Sky will have a break now but he will be back before you know it!! In the meantime I have the Nationals in a few weeks’ time and then Keysoe CPEDI3* in October with Bear.


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Mari Durward Akhurst – Welcome New Ambassador for the DBF!

We couldn’t be more delighted to announce that Mari Durward Akhurst, Para Dressage rider, has accepted our invitation to join our small team of DBF Ambassadors.

Our Ambassadors are selected because they have shown outstanding support of the charity and because we feel that they represent the DBF ethos and the indomitable spirit of Sir Douglas, whose determination in the face of physical adversity inspired the inception of the Douglas Bader Foundation over 35 years ago. Mari has shown both in abundance and we are enormously proud to be associated with her and to have her as a valued part of the DBF team.

I am looking forward to continuing to work with the Douglas Bader Foundation to inspire others to achieve their dreams. Mari Durward Akhurst

Riding changed my life; I used to get bullied a lot when I was younger as I was different to other children but I discovered that I was extremely good at riding and this has led to me competing Nationally and Internationally at Para Dressage. Horses are my legs and together we excel.

I compete two horses Sky O’Hara (who is kindly on loan from Glesni Owen) and Lebensfreude. This year I beat a Paralympic gold medalist to win Hartpury 3* International and I retained my National Para Dressage title. I am 100% committed to winning a gold medal at future major championships with my eyes firmly set on being selected for next year’s European Championships. My ultimate goal is to be selected for and to compete at the Tokyo 2020 and future Paralympics.

I was originally diagnosed with cerebral palsy, hypermobility and lax ligaments. Due to the deterioration in my condition over the last few years I have been under investigation and my latest diagnosis is progressive spastic ataxia.

The Douglas Bader Foundation (DBF) has made a massive difference to my life and sport as their grant has allowed me to have monthly strength and conditioning sessions at Performance Hertfordshire which has meant I have been able to keep my core as strong as possible so that I am still able to ride. It has also helped in trying to slow down my deterioration. Everyone comments on how much straighter I look in the saddle and judges have commented on how strong my core must be to keep upright. I cannot thank DBF enough.

Living with a changing condition is hard but my motto is “everything happens for a reason” and I’m a fighter!! I really enjoy inspiring others to get involved in Para sport in particular Para Dressage; acting as a mentor for a young para rider. The feeling that sport gives me is indescribable; horses are my life.

I am honoured to have been asked to be an Ambassador for The Douglas Bader Foundation. I really enjoy being involved with this fantastic charity and having the support of the DBF team on my journey. I have been inspired by the ‘I can do it and will do it’ attitude shown by Douglas Bader. I am looking forward to continuing to work with the Douglas Bader Foundation to inspire others to achieve their dreams.

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New Year, New Season, New Challenges. 2018 Update from Mari Akhurst

Lovely to hear from our first featured Lady Bader Grant Recipient of the Month, Para Dressage rider, Mari Durward-Akhurst, who is pursuing her dream to compete with Team GB at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

Mari had a fantastic year last year finishing 2017 in 6th position overall with her young horse, Bear, and as no less than Grade 1 Gold National Champion with the more experienced Sky O’Hara, kindly on loan by Glesni Owen. She also had the huge accolade of being selected to the British Equestrian Federation Excel Talent Programme and receiving a British Dressage award. This was an extraordinary achievement especially as Mari, who has cerebral palsy which affects all 4 limbs, leaves her weaker down her left hand side and affects her coordination, balance and muscle tone, had experienced a worsening of her symptoms towards the end of the year.

Mari has now started the round of qualifying competitions for 2018 and, as you will see from her report below, they could have got off to a better, or at least less adventurous, start!

Champions! Mari with Bear and Sky
Worthy champions, 2017! Mari with Bear and Sky

 I have just got back from Lancashire and the Para Winter Gold Championships. We headed there on Friday it was a very long way and took us over 5 hours. Sadly it didn’t go to plan when we arrived we had to take two lorries so we had just put Sky in his stable and dad was taking Bear down the lorry ramp and no one has no idea what happened but dad ended up on the floor and Bear the other side of him thankfully mum caught Bear. But dad had a very nasty cut on his head and had hurt his hip, so mum took him to A and E they glued his head and gave him a pelvis xray thankfully nothing broken. It was not a great start I am just so pleased dad is ok. Unfortunately the boys were stabled by themselves as Bear is so big he doesn’t fit in a temporary box and so when we took one of the other horses the other one was left alone and they had serious separation anxiety which wasn’t good. Dad wasn’t able to help me get on as he wasn’t feeling great and was having to use my pink walking stick to get around. So all in all a bit of a disaster!!


I think just going down the centre line was an accomplishment on its own and I have shown people that I can compete under extremely difficult circumstances. The second day Saturday didn’t go to badly both boys did two decent tests Sky got just under 71% and came 3rd and is now half qualified for the summers. Bear got just over 68% and also had a good number of points towards summer qualification.


Day three the championship day didn’t go to plan. Sky was very stressed and so made a lot of mistakes in his test which were very costly we still scored just under 67% and came 3rd. Which is a brilliant result considering everything and it was 3rd to a triple Paralympic gold medalist and a European Champion. Just such a shame as had Sky behaved we would of been right up at the top to be honest would of probably won the class. So its tough but the selectors were extremely complementary and said I did so well to persevere and that most riders would have given up. We are not going to take two horses again to a competition, we learnt a hard lesson. Sky was like devil child and wouldn’t stop screaming. Bear did a much better test on the second day but sadly the judges slammed him. He was such a good boy and didn’t put a foot wrong just wasn’t very relaxed. But we have spoken to lots of people and know exactly what we need to do and hopefully our marks will be on the rise soon.


Thankfully after another 5 hour journey (hate the m6)!! we arrived home very late last night safely. Think it could take me a while to recover!! Even with everything that went wrong I really enjoyed it and it was fantastic to be back in the competition arena doing what I love. I am also extremely proud of myself for dealing with everything and still being able to compete and coping with the boys in their tests event though they were uptight I was still able to ride every movement and do a good job. I am really excited about the summer championships and showing everyone what Sky and me can do and hopefully finishing at the top again!

(Mari Akhurst)

Videos: You can enjoy a couple of videos taken during the championships of Mari competing on both her beautiful horses:

I think you’ll agree they make a beautiful team too and that she got great performances out of both horses, particularly given the inauspicious start to their day!

Many congratulations to Mari and our thanks for sending in these great reports, which give such a fantastic insight into what’s involved in competing at this level particularly when you are frequently doing battle with your own body at the same time. We applaud Mari’s determination and courage and are so proud to have been able to help her towards achieving her dream. 

Links: You can find out more by visiting Mari’s Facebook Page and her great Website/Blog.  Keeping horses at championship level is expensive and if you’d like to support this very gutsy and determined would-be champion, visit Mari’s Fundraising Page  Get Mari to the 2020 Olympics. Mari is very grateful for any financial contributions.

You can read previous posts by Mari and those of other Grant Recipients on the News Page of the Bader Grants section of the DBF website.