How riding helped Norfolk para horsewoman Susi Rogers-Hartley to live again
Archant © 2008
People still go up to Susi Rogers-Hartley in the street and ask if she was in that bank commercial - you know, the one where the woman gets out of her wheelchair onto a horse and gallops off through the woods.
The moving cameo is virtually a metaphor for her own life, for once she leaves her wheelchair behind and gets in the saddle, she can compete with anyone.
Serving in the Navy almost 20 years ago, she was taking part in a training exercise on an obstacle course when she fell 12ft and suffered crush fractures from the neck down and spinal cord injury.
She admits things weren’t easy afterwards. A keen rider before her accident, she got back on a horse on an activities course organised by a spinal injury support group.
That and Lex, an assistance dog from the charity Canine Partners, who helped her with everything from dressing to doing her shopping helped transform her life.
Now departed Lex has since been replaced by Major backed up by Bam Bam, a monstrous mastiff rescued from Spain, where a previous owner attempted to drown him in a river.
“He’s called Bam Bam because he doesn’t just play with doggy toys,” said Ms Rogers-Hartley. “He plays with wheelie bins, tree trunks - he makes an awful racket.”
Her riding career saw her compete and win against able-bodied riders in most disciplines and become the only permanent wheelchair user to represent Great Britain in para show jumping.
Much of her success in the ring has been aboard Seamus, her 15-year-old grey stallion.
“After I broke my ankles three years ago I was grounded from show jumping,” she said. “So we took up dressage and I found out we had a bit of a talent for it.”
Seamus had previously been in retirement at Ms Rogers-Hartley’s stables after breaking his pelvis.
“I thought he owes me nothing, we can just grow old together,” she said. “But then he started getting bored and being naughty – barging through gates and things.”
She wondered if riding Seamus again would help stop him going off the rails. Next weekend, the pair are heading off to Buckinghamshire, to compete in the Team Quest National Final.
“I can’t believe I’ve got so far with Seamus,” she said. “He’s having fun and it’s keeping him out of mischief.”
As well as becoming increasingly-known in horsey circles Ms Rogers-Hartley came riding into our living rooms two years ago, when she starred in one of series of commercials when the bank which has a black horse for its logo celebrated its 250th anniversary with a series charting our relationship with horses over two and a half centuries.
It also included a foal in a stable, a horse ploughing a field and horses pulling the last horse-drawn RNLI lifeboat out of the sea on the beach at Holkham.
“I just got this random phone call, saying they wanted a wheelchair person to gallop a horse,” she said. “I said: ‘I’m your girl, I can do that.
“I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks, then I got a call saying can you get to Milton Keynes first thing tomorrow to ride this horse.”
That first ride turned out to be an audition for the real thing, in the shape of 14 hours filming for around a minute’s finished footage.
“I felt like a film star,” she said. “I had my own make-up tent, my own make-up lady, I had a wardrobe lady – I felt so pampered.
“The original was a minute and a half, it took 14 hours to film. Oh, and the food was cracking, cracking food.”
Still in daily pain from her spinal injuries, Mrs Rogers-Hartley, now 50, cares for her horses using her specially-adapted wheelchair, which she also travels around the country demonstrating.
“You’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to be positive,” she said. “I’m in pain all the time and I get grumpy when I go indoors.
“I could so easily have become a hermit and not go out but then you’ve wasted your life.”