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‘Riding at PSG is my incentive to keep fighting’: meet the inspiring cancer sufferer who refuses to give up on her dream

A rider battling a severe form of cancer has made a brave winning return to the dressage arena

British Horse Society coach Clarissa Dawson was diagnosed with terminal leukemia last summer, and endured many rounds of chemotherapy, keeping her out of the saddle for long periods of time. But she made a triumphant return to the dressage arena against the odds last month, when she won an advanced class with an impressive plus-68% at Onley Grounds, Warks, with her mare Primiende.

“I’ve had the mare since she was a three-year-old and she’s been my saving grace,” says Clarissa who, a few days after her win, received the traumatic news that her cancer had returned. “We call her Girlie at home — she always has to put her mascara on — and she’s given me a lot of pleasure over the years. This class was a small thing in comparison to other things, but to me it was a very precious win, on my very precious mare.”

Clarissa Dawson

Clarissa, an equine tutor at Moreton Morrell College, trains with Dan Greenwood, who she describes as “fantastic”, and also credits Liz Rogers with keeping Girlie ticking over while she undergoes treatment.

“The chemo leaves you very weak, and my white blood cell count is on the floor so I’m open to infections,” says Clarissa, who hopes to be out of hospital in early August.

“But they’re very good here at the hospital and they let me walk around, as lying in bed you lose so much strength and muscle. I also have a pedal machine that I can use lying on the bed; it’s a hoot, and everyone thinks I’m a bit nuts, but it works!

“It’s all about psychology and mindset; it’s very easy to give up,” continues Clarissa. “You have to have a goal; not a ridiculous one — even if it’s just managing to get on your horse and walk for 20 minutes that’s great. Ultimately my goal is to ride at prix st georges [PSG]. I’ve got the tailcoat but it’s still hanging up in the wardrobe — I haven’t worn it. It’s my incentive to keep fighting, and I’m quite boneheaded so I think that will get me through.

“It annoys me that this has taken my life away and stops me doing what I want to do, but competing when I can gives me a sense of normality. I had a lovely day at Onley: putting the horse in the trailer, going out and being totally independent.

“Then six days later I had the ghastly news the cancer had returned and I was whipped back into hospital to be sorted out. You have to live for the moment, appreciate the good times and take life day by day.”

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