04 December 2018

Riding to Recovery

At the age of 16, Marnie suffered a debilitating stroke that took away her ability to walk and talk. Today, she is training for the Paralympics as a para-equestrian athlete.

Five days a week Marnie can be found riding her horse Bella. They have a close bond, moving in perfect harmony despite the mare’s often unruly nature.

Watching them canter and trot like a dancer, you would never guess that Marnie is still in recovery from a severe brain bleed four years ago.

Many things have changed for Marnie since then, but the one thing that hasn’t budged is her fiercely competitive spirit. Once a talented athletics champion tipped to be the next school captain, Marnie was always hungry for success.

“Yes, you might call me competitive,” Marnie laughed. “My goal right now is to compete in
the Paralympics for para-equestrian.”

It’s an ambition she’s been slowly chipping away at since 2016, when she first joined the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA), a couple of years after her stroke.

Getting back on a horse was a milestone moment for Marnie; riding reignited her competitive spirit and gave her something important to work towards.

Her mother Donna is also an avid horse rider. Seeing her daughter ride Bella feels like a miracle.

“It’s a real blessing to see Marnie riding again. She’s working very hard to get to a future Paralympics and I fully support her dream. I am in awe of her ability to take everything in her stride. She could be very angry – but she’s not,” Donna said.

Four years ago, Donna was driving home from work when she received a phone call from her youngest daughter, Brittany; Marnie was ill and had collapsed upon arriving home from school. Donna rushed home and rang an ambulance.

“Marnie was taken straight into the emergency theatre. She was placed in an induced coma and we were told she had suff ered an intense brain haemorrhage. She only had a one per cent chance of survival, it was completely terrifying,” Donna recounted.

Marnie fought her way through surgery, but spent the next 15-months in the hospital’s brain
and injury unit, having lost her ability to walk and talk.

Four years later and Marnie has progressed in leaps and bounds. Within a year she was speaking again and showing off her old wit and charm.

Now that Marnie is physically mobile with the aid of a walker and wheelchair, her focus is
back squarely on horse riding.

Marnie’s stroke occurred in a section of the brain responsible for balance and coordination. Her rapid physical recovery has been attributed, in part, to the core strength she gained from her regular horse riding sessions.

“The benefits of horse riding are endless. Not only has it been great for Marnie socially, but it has been a really integral part of her physical improvement,” Donna said. “It’s incredible. Looking at her riding her horse, you wouldn’t know what she has gone through. It’s like her body instinctively knows what to do.”

A few months after getting reacquainted with riding, Marnie decided she wanted to start competing in para-equestrian competitions.

The only catch, she needed her own horse.

“Marnie’s horse Bella had quite the personality. She was a well-loved horse, but could be challenging at times,” Donna laughed. “But the first time Marnie rode Bella, she just listened. They were so connected; it was incredible.”

Bella’s owners had been watching Marnie’s journey since joining RDA, and were equally touched by the relationship between them.

Wanting to help in some way, they offered to sell Bella so Marnie could begin training for para-equestrian events.

It’s been a difficult few years for the Clapham family, but the support provided by friends, neighbours and strangers has been a constant source of motivation and comfort to keep going.

“It was tough. When Marnie had her stroke I was still working full-time and her siblings were both
still studying. I think we visited the hospital about 600 times over that 15-month period, it was crazy,” Donna remembered.

“The Hawkesbury community was just incredible. They really banded together and did
everything they could do to help us during such a scary period of our lives. We are so lucky to be part of this community, their support was a big part of Marnie’s journey.”

When she’s not horse riding, Just Better Care Hawkesbury Nepean assists Marnie to remain active and busy each day when Donna leaves for work.

“Every morning I walk out the door knowing the girls will take care of Marnie just as I would. I know she is in good hands, and that gives me peace of mind,” Donna said.

More often than not, her Community Support Professionals Kylie, Jess and Jodie fi nd themselves walking one, or more, of Marnie’s dogs.

“One of my favourite things to do is spend time with my pets. We have four dogs and two cats, and I’m pretty sure I’m their favourite!” Marnie laughed cheekily.

With big goals for the future, Marnie is hoping to go back to school to continue studying, not to mention pursuing her Paralympics dreams.

For now, she just takes each day as it comes with an unbridled positive spirit and appreciation for all the little things in life. It’s been a long road to recovery but the Clapham family is full of hope; in part due to the perspective imparted by Marnie, who is wise beyond her years.

“All we can do is look forward, so it’s important to focus on what is in front of us and just enjoy the moment,” Marnie concluded.

“I have so many goals for the future, and I can’t wait to achieve them.”

To find out more about how to support a family member with disability, go to

This is a story from our latest issue of Possible, read more here.