Hi, my name is Mari Durward-Akhurst and I am 26 years old. I have cerebral palsy, a chromosome disorder, ataxia and dystonia. Despite all of this, last year I won a team Silver Medal at the Para Dressage European Championships.
I started riding at my local Riding for the Disabled Centre for therapy as suggested by my physiotherapist. I won my first Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) competition at 11 years old and the following year I qualified for the RDA National Championships. I was then talent spotted at a local Para competition. I have represented GBR at Junior and Young Rider level in International Competition since 2007, and in 2016 I won the Grade 3 Restricted Winter Championships.
When I was younger I was different to other children, and my disability made it hard to make friends; I was bullied a lot. I found horse riding changed everything for me. It was something I could do which helped me physically and mentally, and most of all I could excel in it where I couldn’t other things. I was able to develop a fantastic partnership with my horse and this inspired me to persist with riding. Horses have given me the freedom that I don’t have in a wheelchair.
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 very downhill. Being regraded was a huge positive change in my career. Since then, I’ve sadly lost horses along the way including my top mare who I was hoping would be at the Rio Paralympics with me. These difficult times have given me a chance to reflect; I have three things which I remind myself when I’m having a bad day: remember that I am following my dreams, everything happens for a reason (even if it is not always apparent straight away), and focus on what’s important in the bigger picture.
My favorite memory of my riding journey so far has been attaining a podium result and being presented with my first ever medal. All the blood, sweat and tears that myself and team put in has finally paid off! Winning a medal had always been a dream of mine and for that dream to come true at the Para Dressage European Championships was an amazing feeling. Winning a silver medal made it even more special! The next dream is to get the gold at the next Paralympics, but first I must get through selection for Tokyo.
My experiences over the years has taught me to always believe in yourself. It can be daunting to try something new and often you question if you should even bother trying, but you never know what could happen unless you take that risk. I would be truly lost without my horses and the freedom they give me.