Hannah Francis and Willberry Wonder Pony
Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said that some people come into our life as blessings and others come into our life as lessons. Hannah Francis is surely both. Diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer called Osteosarcoma in 2015 at just seventeen years of age, Hannah decided to make a bucket list and live life to the maximum. She could never possibly have imagined how many lives she would profoundly change for the better in the last twelve months as she bravely battled her illness.
Osteosarcoma most usually occurs in either the arms or the legs, giving some varied treatment options. In the most cruel and unusual twist, Hannah’s cancer is in her right hip,spine and lungs. It is terminal. To date she has undergone eight gruelling cycles of chemotherapy, which has often left her too ill and weak to indulge her number one passion – eventing. Hannah is a talented and accomplished rider and shortly before her cancer diagnosis she had been accepted onto Rider Development Eventing Pathway training camp with her fabulous mare ,Mavis. The aim for 2015 had been to upgrade Mavis to Intermediate level. Now however, the game had changed completely.
A short while after diagnosis, Hannah met another very special ‘horse’. Willberry Wonder Pony was purchased at Badminton Horse Trials and given to Hannah by a close friend, as a mascot for her during her cancer treatment. Hannah documented her story on social media, and word quickly spread. A friend close to her suggested selling Willberry wrist bands to raise funds to support Hannah during her treatment, and also for donations to charities of Hannah’s choosing. The venture was a great success, and it didn’t stop there.
Suddenly, Willberry Wonder Pony and the slogan #kickingcancersbutt were everywhere. Hannah got through her grueling chemotherapy sessions by focussing on two things-getting back into the saddle, and raising as much money for charity as she possibly could. She organised the Willberry Wonder Ball with accompanying auction and raffle, which raised £25,000 and inspired many others to follow suit-people were organising sponsored walks, jumble sales, raffles-anything they could do to help. Willberry’s family members are also helping to spread the story and raise money for charity worldwide, with ‘Raceberry’ bringing the message to the racing world,’Paraberry’ putting his best hoof forward for paradressage, ‘Cooleyberry’ flying the Irish flag, amongst many others. Their pictures and updates can be seen regularly on the Willberry Wonder Pony Facebook page.
In 2015, event rider Ben Hobday was also diagnosed with cancer. His was Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and, like Hannah, he underwent chemotherapy. Hannah and Ben became great friends,and have supported eachother throughout their respective journeys with cancer. Ben is currently in remission and showed incredible strength and determination in getting to Badminton Horse Trials in May with his part Clydesdale, Mulry’s Error. Ben completed his superb clear Cross country round at the world’s most prestigious 4* with Willberry stitched into his number bib ,in turn making Hannah’s eighteenth birthday weekend a very special occasion indeed.
Hannah has continued to ride whenever possible, with successes in showjumping and combined training competitions this season. She completed her first British Eventing event of 2016 on 14th May, aboard Mavis. Hannah and Willberry have also been on a campaign to meet as many of their horsey heroes as possible-anyone from AP McCoy to Zara Phillips, Clare Balding to Valegro and everyone in between have had the great privilege of meeting this special pair. Hannah recently travelled to the Tattersalls International Horse Trials with Mavis, where they performed ‘Guinea-pig’ dressage tests at both 1* and 2* level.
Almost exactly a year after Hannah met Willberry, they launched a registered charity called ‘Hannah’s Willberry Wonder Pony’. The charity funds will go towards research into bone cancer treatment and will also be used to grant ‘horsey’ wishes to seriously ill people-along similar lines to the Make A Wish Foundation. Uptown Eventing began selling Willberry merchandise on their on line store this spring and Hiho Silver Jewellers are selling beautiful Willberry charm bracelets. Many other people are contributing daily, between donations and charity events. To date, Hannah has raised £110,000.
Hannah has faced her illness with immense courage and determination. Despite coping with horrific pain on a daily basis, Hannah is always smiling and she is always saying ‘THANKYOU’. Her selflessness in turning her terminal illness into an opportunity to raise funds and improve the lives of many others is just a small insight into what a remarkable human being Hannah Francis is. Hannah has made so many people truly appreciate the life that they are living. She has shown that in the face of extreme adversity, it is still possible to be gracious, generous and kind, and to think of others before yourself. She has touched so very many lives, and we will all live in awe of her forevermore.
For more information about Hannah, Wilberry Wonder Pony and how you can help to make a difference, see www.willberrywonderpony.com
Article by Christa Dillon.
Images with thanks to Louise O’Brien Photography.