This week I’m excited to be chatting with inspirational British Para Dressage rider Mari Durward-Akhurst. Mari was part of the Team GB Para Dressage team who won silver at the European Championships and now has her sights firmly set on next year’s European Championships. Read on to discover more about Mari’s incredible journey, her ambitions, and top tips for success.
Tell us about you and your horses
Hi, my name is Mari Durward-Akhurst I am twenty eight years old. I have cerebral palsy and a very rare chromosome disorder with symptoms consisting of Ataxia and Dystonia; sadly, it is degenerative. I am a full-time powered wheelchair user; my condition affects all my limbs and my trunk.
When I was younger, I found that my disability made it hard to make friends and I was bullied a lot. However, horse riding changed everything – it was something I could do, which helped me physically and mentally, and most of I could excel in it where I couldn’t in other activities. Being able to develop a fantastic partnership with my horses inspired me to persist with riding, and horses have given me the freedom that I don’t have in my wheelchair.
I started riding at my local Riding for the Disabled Centre after my physiotherapist suggested it as a form of therapy. I won my first Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) competition at eleven years old, and qualified for the RDA National Championships the following year. I was then talent-spotted at a local para competition and went on to represent Great Britain at Junior and Young Rider level, and in 2016 I won the Grade 3 Restricted Winter Championships.
My riding journey has been full of ups and downs. Deterioration in my condition meant that I was competing in the wrong grade for a long time, and my performances were going downhill. Being regraded was a huge positive change in my career. After my reclassification in 2016, I went onto become Grade 1 Silver Champion, Grade 1 Gold Champion for two years and to win the Hartpury 3* International, I was selected to represent Great Britain at Waragem CPEDI3*, where I finished third in the freestyle. In 2019 my dream came true, and I was selected for my first Senior Championship, to represent GB at the Para Dressage European Championships. The team won a silver medal, and I became a European Silver Medalist. I missed out on selection for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics as a year’s delay meant my horse had to retire.
Sky O’Hara stable name Sky retired last year and now lives in Yorkshire with his owner. We go and visit him when we can, and he is still very much part of my team of horses. I had Sky on loan for a wonderful nine years from his owner Glesni Owen. Our biggest achievement together has to be becoming a European Silver Medalist, as well as several National and International wins. Sky was the horse that got us recognised on the International scene and our bond is very special.
I have two horses Lebensfreude, stable name Bear and Quaikin Guaranteed Good, stable name Damo. Bear is 13 years old an Oldenburg, standing at 18.2; but thankfully he is a big friendly giant. Damo is a bit smaller 16.2 and he’s 11 years old; he is a British Sports Horse. Bear has got the most amazing trot and canter originally brought as a grade 3 Para horse before my reclassification.
We’ve owned Bear since a five year old and he is such a dude; he is such a good boy and loves people. Unfortunately, Bear’s career hasn’t gone to plan and although he has competed at National and International level; he hasn’t really had a chance to show himself off. But he loves pleasing everyone and we are excited to get him back outside in the white boards soon. Bear can’t help being so big but that’s haunted him poor horse!
Damo is the new kid on the block, we have had him for just over a year. He fitted straight in and in a short space of time already has several National titles to his name and several top 4 finishes at International level. The highlight has to be coming second in the Freestyle at Hartpury CPEDI3* and becoming Grade 1 Gold Winter National Champion and Grade 1 Gold Semi Final winner this year. The World Championships came too soon for us as a partnership but we have our eyes firmly set on selection for next year’s European Championships. It will be the first Europeans since I won my medal. Damo is lovely but we found soon into having him that he has some serious confidence issues; but we have worked really hard doing groundwork with him and now have a much more confident relaxed horse. I am really looking forward to the future with Damo, he has an amazing walk and once the pilot brushes up on her accuracy we will hopefully be getting the higher 70%+ scores.
As well as my riding I decided to take up a new hobby after I didn’t get selected for Tokyo; I needed something new in my life. I found Rowing and the difference it made to my mental health was amazing. I had an hour where I could just chill out on the water and not have to worry about anything. I didn’t realise that I would be good at Rowing and I have now turned into a multi sport athlete: Para Dressage and Para Rowing!
How did your horses come into your life?
My parents were heavily involved in a local Riding for the Disabled Centre so I was born into horses. My mum was involved with horses from a young age and so my sister started riding and my poor dad just had to join in! He had no choice, he doesn’t ride. But loves his role of logistics manager and chief poo picker.
How long have you been riding?
Competitively at the highest level for over six years
When and where do you ride?
I ride at Trout Rise Farm in Rickmansworth; about four times a week.
How did you start riding?
I started riding with the Riding for the Disabled as it was suggested as a form of therapy by my Physiotherapist
What you and your horses currently working on?
I am currently working on my accuracy; I have no spatial awareness, so this is particularly hard for me. I need to get more accurate as I am throwing away easy marks! Me and my team will find a way to solve this problem. Currently we don’t have a full size 20 X 40 arena so test practice is very limited.
With Damo we are working towards consistency in our test walk and more of an uphill tendency. We are trialling a shorter loop on my loop reins and two whips to act as my legs as I am unable to use them. We will then go and do lots of test practice, so we are able to get everything right for our next competition outing.
With Bear we are starting to incorporate test movements for when we get back inside the white boards. We are also working on lift and hind end engagement.
What do you love about riding?
Horses are my legs and together we excel. They don’t judge me even though I’m different
They are my freedom from my chair. As I was growing up it was my paradise away from all the bullying. It’s something that I can do that I am very good at; I was always rubbish at running races and spent most of sports day on the floor.
What you would you like to be doing in the future and do you have any goals?
I would love to compete at a Paralympics and win a gold medal. But also it would be incredible to win European and World Championship Gold medals as well.
Have you ever had to deal with nerves in riding?
I used to suffer really badly from nerves but thankfully I have worked really hard on my mindset over the years with a sports psychologist. I am now able to deal with these nerves if they do appear. But it’s good to have nerves; I always think of them as butterflies in your stomach. As long as you are able to manage them then that’s fine.
How do you deal with them?
I have a routine that helps me to get into my zone and then a way of staying in or coming back into my zone. I have a ritual before I compete so I listen to music and always run through my test with someone beforehand on my test board in the horsebox. Being in control of the situation massively helps.
Your Top Tip
My top tip learnt from a sports psychologist is ‘you can only control the controllable’s’. It saves energy as there’s no point of worrying about something that is out of your control. But also, it massively helps you to put things into perspective. Like at the Europeans the bins were emptied in the middle of my test in a forest. This is not something you would expect or prepare for; so, it was something completely out of my control. I was able to deal with the situation.
Down the Centre Line
Who would be your dream horse to ride?
Who is your equestrian hero?
Para Helen Kearney
Able Bodied Ros Canter
If you could have five people to dinner who would they be?
Sir Chris Hoy, Carl Hester, Jonnie Peacock, Ros Canter and Dame Katherine Grainger.
Favourite colour horse?
Favourite horse event?
Favourite way to relax?
Reading a good book; sadly, I never seem to have time!
If you enjoyed meeting Mari you might like to view more dressage rider “chatting with” interviews here You can keep up with Mari’s progress and check out her instagram page here