Susi Rogers-Hartley nearly ended it all after a terrible Navy accident left her bitter, lonely and in a wheelchair. But then a cuddly Labrador bounced into her life.
Were it not for a dog called Lex, Susi Rogers-Hartley would not be riding out today across the flat fens of Norfolk on a handsome black gelding. She would not be show-jumping either, nor would she be cherishing Olympic dreams. If it weren't for her dog, in fact, Susi might not even be here.
'Before I had Lex, I wanted to end it all,' she says. 'I felt there was no point in living. I contemplated suicide all the time.'
Inspirational: Susi Rogers-Hartley was given a new lease of life by her dog Lex afer a naval accident left her paralysed but now she's hoping to compete in the Olympics
This is how Susi's life was reduced to such despair. Ten years ago, fit, sporty and an accomplished horsewoman, she joined the Royal Navy. But shortly after she signed up, she sustained a terrible spinal injury on an assault course, which left her paralysed from the waist down.
At once she swapped a vigorous, independent life for one of sedentary dependence. Her world was confined within the four walls of her home, and her only passport to mobility was a cumbersome wheelchair.
'Before the accident, I used to spend up to four hours a day in the gym. I ran marathons. I hoped to represent the Navy in equestrian sports. In fact, I lived for physical activity. Then, suddenly, I was immobile and there seemed to be no reason to be alive at all,' she recalls.
Her social life evaporated; her marriage fractured, then disillusionment and depression set in.
Susi, reliant on a dwindling circle of friends to take her out, became less and less inclined to leave her home.
'I couldn't even manoeuvre my wheelchair in a straight line. I became virtually housebound. I was becoming bitter and twisted,' she recalls.
Then everything changed when an energetic and intelligent yellow Labrador came into her life. The story of how it happened begins with a fortunate coincidence. On one of Susi's increasingly rare trips out in her wheelchair, she had the chance meeting that would change everything.
'The one time I ventured out - I'm sure it was meant to be - I met a chap in a wheelchair with a black Lab. I went over to say hello, as you do, and asked him lots of questions about his dog. He told me the Labrador was a Canine Partner, an assistance dog that had given him back his independence and confidence. It all made such perfect sense. I went straight back home and sent off for an information pack.'
Canine Partners is a small, Sussex-based charity, unsupported by Government funds, which relies on private donations to provide expertly-trained assistance dogs for the disabled.
Within a year, Susi, 41, was on a training course with the charity, and meeting Lex. They had an instant rapport. Lex had attitude, common sense and bags of character.
Off duty, he was playful, boisterous and possessed of a wonderful sense of humour. While working, he combined intuitive intelligence with dexterity and a rare capacity to anticipate both Susi's moods and needs. Instantly she loved him - and the feeling seemed to be reciprocated.
She was delighted when Lex's trainers agreed they were a perfect match. Lex, in due course, was paired with her and, once he became her companion, Susi's motivation and self-esteem burgeoned. In short, she retrieved the will to live.
'I had no confidence, and I was nervous and introverted before Lex came to live with me,' says Susi, who will be speaking at an auction in aid of the charity at the Imperial War Museum in London on Tuesday.
'Yet, within a week of coming home with him, I went sailing round the Isle of Wight with a group of people injured in the Armed Forces. Lex wore a proper doggy life-jacket and quickly cottoned on to how to work the sails. He'd pull one in; I'd let one out. He's a bright dog and he soon got the hang of how to work the lift down to the cabin. He'd press the button to call it and ride down.'
Teamed with Lex, Susi became her old self again: intrepid, active and keen to tackle any new challenges.
One day, out in her new motorised wheelchair, she got stuck on the verge of a muddy dyke. Lex, who'd been trained to summon help, went in search of assistance.
'When he couldn't find anyone, he came trotting back, grabbed the strap on the footplate and just tugged,' recalls Susi. 'I worked the joystick and, between us, we got the wheelchair out of the thick mud. Lex is very good at problem-solving. He had a plan A, and when that didn't work, he tried plan B.'
Lex's repertoire of skills includes unzipping jackets, undoing laces and carefully taking off Susi's stockings without laddering them. Some of his aptitudes are self-taught.
'He's learnt how to wriggle into a seatbelt without any instruction,' laughs Susi. 'He sits on the back seat of the car while I drive, and one day I noticed he'd secured himself into the safety belt. I'm not sure if it was his cheeky way of commenting on my driving!'
Although he relishes his role as a working dog, Lex also enjoys his leisure time.
'When I take his purple working jacket off, he knows he's off duty and he's quite a loon,' she says. 'He's a big, boisterous, bouncing Labrador. He has a great sense of fun. He finds it really difficult to be quiet in a library or theatre. He gets quite giggly and wags his tail. When he's really suppressing the urge to be mischievous he sneezes.'
Lex has, astoundingly, imbued Susi with the confidence to take up riding again. She began show-jumping three years ago and now even competes - with conspicuous success - against able-bodied riders. 'I'm having an absolute ball,' she laughs. 'I'm going over metre-high jumps and in my last competition I came fourth. I was the only disabled competitor.'
She is also a member of the British Para Show Jumping Association and hopes the discipline will be recognised as an Olympic sport.
'My goal is to compete in the next Para-Olympics,' she says. It is hard to over-estimate how radically Lex has transformed her life. 'He is the reason I have the courage to ride out alone now,' says Susi. 'If something unnerves the horse, Lex will trot on ahead and we'll follow. I'm not nervous. We're a good team. Besides, I don't care if I fall: I'm already broken.'
Susi, who lives with her partner, Simon, a research scientist, in Norfolk, depends as much on Lex as she would on a trusted friend. When a spasm threw her from her wheelchair in the bathroom, her faithful Labrador came to her rescue.
It was as if he said, "I know what to do here",' she recalls. 'He got behind my back and wedged me into a sitting position so I could pull myself back into my wheelchair.'
Through Lex she has renewed confidence, a fresh sense of purpose and a rekindled capacity for joy. 'He's a dog in a million. He gives me so much without being asked,' she says.
My dog gave me back the will to live after I was left paralysed and now I'm hoping to compete in the Olympics | Mail Online