We introduced you to the Para Equestrian Foundation, a non-profit organization formed to support para riders, back in November 2020. Founded by international 3* Grade 1 para dressage rider Di Green, the Foundation aims to support athletes taking part in all the para equestrian sports – driving, vaulting, showjumping, reining and dressage – no matter what their goals are or what level they are at.

Now that the Foundation has been up and running for a while, we’re back to meet one of its beneficiaries and learn more about how the Di and the Para Equestrian Foundation has supported her on her journey. 

Flis Marriott

Flis’ story

Flis Marriott is a Grade 1 para dressage rider with a C5 tetraplegic incomplete spinal cord injury. On Saturday the 24th of May 2008, Flis was preparing to teach surfing to a group of Year 6 primary school children and, whilst running shin- deep in the sea, suddenly found herself face down, floating and unable to move.

Flis was first airlifted to the Royal Cornwall hospital and then transported by road to Derriford Hospital where she was later told she faced a life spent lying flat in bed or have complicated surgery to give her a chance of being able to sit in a wheelchair. As someone who had previously led a very active life as a lifeguard, swimming teacher and outdoor instructor, this was a truly life changing experience. Four days later, on Tuesday the 28th of May, Mr. Nick Haden and his team carried out an incredibly delicate 10-hour operation to stabilise Flis’ cervical vertebrae. It is thanks to their work that Flis has her mobility, sensation, dexterity and quality of life.

Following her surgery, Flis suffered from a collapsed lung which needed respiratory physio to resolve before she moved to the Plym Neuro-Rehab Unit to begin her rehabilitation, whilst awaiting a bed at the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Unit in Salisbury. Flis finally left Salisbury on the 10th of October 2008 able to mobilise with 2 sticks, although still predominantly being a wheelchair user. She was classified as a C5 tetraplegic incomplete. Here, Flis tells us what life was now like and how she found the world of para equestrian sport, having never sat on a horse prior to her accident. 

How did you find life in a wheelchair, having been such an active person?

My pre-injury sports and passions were not really relevant for me as a wheelchair user. I love swimming, kayaking and climbing and have returned to each individually however, I found myself comparing the experience to what I had been able to do. My body struggles with cold temperatures making swimming and kayaking challenging to participate in without further injuries. Climbing was awesome, although it now takes me an hour to do a climb, which would have taken 5 minutes without a rope.

I learnt early in my rehabilitation that it was vital to protect my shoulders. Wheelchairs are hard for me to push as my shoulder girdle is unstable and if injured it takes several weeks to return them to normal for me. Due to this I either use a powered wheelchair or I am pushed in a manual wheelchair. This is not something that was initially easy to accept but it is essential to my future.

How did you discover riding and horses?

I had never had anything to do with horses prior to September 2014 on a family holiday in the Wye Valley. Whilst planning things to do throughout the week, I asked if it would be possible to sit on a horse. We were not sure if I could ever hope to mount a horse, never mind have the horse move with me on board, but we gave it a go! It took us two days to find Severnvale Equestrian Centre who could accommodate my needs.

There, Debbie Wilding, another member of her team and my parents helped me to mount 25-year-old Major, a Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) superstar. I was led up the lane, around a field and it felt awesome. We went back again the following day. It gave me such a sense of freedom, making me feel more normal. That is where the dream began. Flis Marriott became a para rider!

Tell us about the difference horses make to your wellbeing and happiness

When I first began riding my specialist neurological spinal physiotherapist, Mel Benyon of Cornwall Physiotherapy Practice, thought it would be far too challenging. But, after a few weeks, she began to see the benefits of riding on my physical and mental wellbeing. Now, Mel creates riding-related exercises which positively impact my riding and enhances my daily quality of life. It’s amazing to have not only Mel, but a whole team who think outside the box to get the best out of me. I exchanged the wildness and exposure of rivers or rock faces for a horse with its own mind.

I used to regularly ride a wonderful RDA horse called Karry. It was amazing to build and work in partnership with her, enabling me to do things that were otherwise impossible. Nicky, Jim and Lucy Tilsley enabled Karry to be ridden by North Cornwall RDA with Mark Cunliffe and Becky Monk at Lakefield Equestrian Centre.

Does riding impact your physical wellbeing too?

My injury effects my entire body from my neck down. I have hyper/hypotonia throughout my body, spasms, impaired sensation, decreased dexterity, reduced range of motion, cross wiring for signals to navigate, decreased core stability and coordination. Riding Karry would stretch my legs and she would do her best to understand the signals I was giving her, even though they were often different and unsymmetrical, especially when leg spasming occurred. Karry was my first horse friend.

Since the age of 8 years old I’ve been a competitive sports person, once injured my natural mentality was to train and get back doing what I loved. Therefore, I already had a strict training programme before I started horse riding. I always strive to push my limits to better myself. Riding with the RDA showed me possibilities, reigniting my ambitions and adapting my training programme. When not on a horse, I attend GLL’s Bodmin Leisure Centre gym with support using several pieces of the equipment, many of which can be easily adapted to accommodate my needs. Lockdown has changed this and our front room by day has been transformed into a gym.

We’d love to hear about your horse, Seran

When my horse Seran came to join our family, it gave me a new purpose, a responsibility to care for her health and wellbeing. Seran (Serafina Hit) is a rising 10-year-old, 15.2h, British Warmblood mare. She has a huge over tracking walk which is brilliant and exactly what is desired for a Grade 1 partnership. She’s my best friend and knows when I’m happy or sad, giving me cuddles and making me smile. Seran is a gentle soul, but she is a sensitive mare and can be opinionated, especially if she does not feel she is being listened to. I’m still learning to understand her, and I try hard to listen. She always looks after me when I’m near or on board and she happily lets me lead her from my wheelchair. 

Riding not only gives me an activity I love, but it is also a physical therapy taking place of at least two treatments a week. Before I owned Seran, I had to learn to mount the mechanical horse, Jack, with Peggy Douglas of Erme Valley RDA. What an amazing training aid Jack is! So that I could practice mounting and dismounting, we eventually built one at home nicknamed ‘Peanut’. He is made from a peanut physio ball and a plyometric block, along with a borrowed saddle and roof rack straps. The current lockdown has been hard as I’ve been injured and initially, I had no access to any therapies apart from mum. Peanut has been reinvented during each of the lockdowns to practice exercises and help reduce tone in my legs.

How did you meet Di and the rest of the Para Equestrian Foundation Team?

I had befriended Di Green and followed her DG ParaDressage pages on Facebook prior to the National Championships 2019 for RDA. Di is an inspiring, strong person and her story made a meaningful connection with me. 

The first time I met Di in person was at the National Championships 2019 for RDA. It was the first (and thanks to Covid-19, only) time I’d competed Seran away from our home arena. Di presented our class champion and senior champion awards for Grade 1. Di made me smile and feel proud when she spoke to me about Seran, and it certainly made the day extra memorable.

Following the Nationals, if I had any questions, I started to message Di via Facebook Messenger. We built up a relationship of mentor and pupil. In 2020, during the first lockdown, Di messaged me. She was starting a new foundation and asked if I would like to be one of her chosen athletes to mentor! She asked for my contact details and organised a call to discuss her plan. It sounded amazing to have been recognised and given the opportunity to be mentored by Di!

How is the Para Equestrian Foundation supporting your journey?

In July 2020, Di offered some specialist input for both Seran and I with her coach Holly Norris. Seran could go and stay with Holly and her family at HMN Sporthorses in Berkeley for 2 weeks, which turned into 4 weeks, teaching her the job of a grade 1 horse while building her confidence. Holly and her mother Sally are such lovely people, and their family yard is quiet and friendly. It was incredible that the foundation funded these 4 weeks. Di rode Seran one day each of the first three weeks, meaning that her and Holly could make a plan for schooling the following week. I rode her 3 times during the last week with input from Di and Holly. I am so grateful to the foundation for the experience. It was hugely appreciated and opened my eyes to future possibilities.

Seran and I returned home to Cardinham Dressage, Cornwall and started building on the homework we had been given. Everything was progressing well, and our partnership was improving with every ride. I was in regular contact with Di, so I still benefited from her support.

How does having Seran at Di’s yard help?

In September, we were offered the chance to have full livery and lessons at Holly’s yard until spring 2021. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity. It has been hard with the lockdowns as I have not been able to visit and ride Seran. Thankfully I know Holly and Sally are taking extremely good care of her sending regular photos and updates. Seran and Holly just click. She really responds to her style of riding. This lockdown has been the hardest yet, as I’ve been injured for several weeks. I’m working hard at my rehab training sessions ready for when I can travel to Seran and ride again.

It’s reassuring to know that Di is at the end of the phone. If I have any issues or worries, she is a wealth of knowledge and experience on all things para. She puts my mind at rest, and it feels like we’ve been friends for a long time. Having Seran with Di’s horses at Holly’s is unbelievable and I feel so fortunate. We have the expertise and support of a brilliant team of equine sport science and medicine practitioners. I know Seran receives the best care there, whilst I’m benefitting from Di’s mentoring. 

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

I have applied to be internationally classified with the FEI. Short term, I hope to start competing at Bronze and Silver levels, gathering experience in a variety of arenas. Medium-term, Seran and I are hoping to compete in Gold. Longer term, it would be amazing to gain a place on the GB squad and compete internationally alongside my mentor and friend Di.

I am a member of Erme Valley RDA. Inspired by the amazing work they do and the help and support they have given me; I would love in the future to be able to use my BSc Occupational Therapy and PGC Sensory Integration qualifications to assist riders through equine therapy. I have already started furthering my equine knowledge by studying equine anatomy and physiology and equine health and nutrition.

What’s one thing you wish all riders knew about being a para athlete?

There is so much work that goes on in the background to enable me to ride. My physiotherapist says I function on a knife edge and it doesn’t take much to knock me off. It’s a constant battle between staying fit and healthy and staving off further injury. I have daily input from various therapists, family and friends to maintain my functional ability and a strict exercise regime. Para athletes have a huge team behind them.

No matter what grade a para athlete or RDA rider competes at, we all have our own challenges. There is so much which goes on behind the scenes to enable us to ride and perform. We push our boundaries and work extremely hard to achieve, whilst always striving for more. For me, if I have a break from my daily training program my functional ability declines. It is far greater than what I would have considered normal before injury and takes a lot longer to rebuild. I cannot afford to have training breaks but equally training needs to be suited to my high levels of fatigue. So, it is one big balancing act. This is similar for many RDA and Para athletes.

Thank you to the Para Equestrian Foundation

I am so grateful to have the support of Di and the team at the Para Equestrian Foundation. Seran is so happy and relaxed too. We’re both in the right place for our partnership to flourish and our journey to truly begin.

In order for the Para Equestrian Foundation to support and mentor Para riders like me they need your support. The cost of following the Para dream is immense. It can also be hard work and at times confusing to find the right direction. If more people had the help of the foundation, it would be amazing.

Support the Para Equestrian Foundation

The Para Equestrian Foundation is fundraising to loan or purchase horses for para riders like Flis Marriott to ride. If you would like to support their campaign, click here. You’ll be helping more para riders experience those same benefits as Flis and enjoy the incredible relationship with these special animals.