Monday 22nd of July 2024

Christmas Interview with Willberry Wonder Pony

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We have thought long and hard as to whom we should invite to be our 2015 Christmas interview.


There are so many stand out moments from the year, so many incredible feats of equestrian brilliance and hundreds of people who have inspired us, which is what The Gaitpost is all about.


However, there are two people who stand out and who have touched us, and thousands around the world, with their bravery and determination:

Willberry Wonder Pony and his gorgeous owner, Hannah Francis.

Willberry’s cheeky face has filled our social media feeds with his unwavering support, in good times and bad, as he cares for Hannah through her cruel cancer treatment and on their exciting adventures too. Hannah’s dream of continuing her eventing was shattered when this year, on May 1st, she was diagnosed with an aggressive, rare bone cancer called osteosarcoma in her pelvis, lower spine and right hip joint, as well as having spread to her lungs, just days after being selected for a rider development eventing pathway programme.

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Their journey, which they have bravely shared with the world via Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and their very own website, has touched us all.

We caught up with Willberry to see how his Christmas plans are coming along and to find out how Hannah is doing.

Willberry, you are one busy pony! How have the last few weeks been? We have seen a number of incredible awards.

Willberry: The last few weeks have been a totally amazing whirl wind and I’ve definitely been more of a hankie than wonder pony for the amount of happy tears Hannah has cried – more than she has done in her entire lifetime in the space of 3 weeks I’m sure.
Winning the against all odds award at the Eventers End of Season Ball was totally unexpected for Hannah as she was merrily tucking into her chocolate profiteroles, quite unaware of the fact that all the people around her were being asked to stand for a “very special person” and that special person was her!


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Hannah with Bruce Haskell and Paul Tapner at the Event Riders Ball

She could not believe the applause raised on her behalf and burst into tears almost instantly. I know just how much it meant to her, I could see it on her face and I hope everyone else could too.

The fact that others had actually taken the time to vote for somebody who would, before all of this, be deemed normal for a young aspiring event rider and very much unknown, but thanks to her determination to fight hard against her cancer and defy all odds to ride again she had won an Event Riders Association of GB award.

I was so proud of her that night and have been proud and known just how special she was since the day we met on the 12th May this year thanks to Jayne Smart, her wonderful showjumping coach.

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Hannah and Willberry celebrate at the Event Riders Ball

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Willberry: How proud I am of her only flourished last weekend at my super cool Christmas party where we had a massive surprise in store for Hannah.

She would be receiving a brand new national Pony Club award called the “Hannah Francis Award”, which is for courage, talent and inspiration and this was the very first time it had been awarded, it had been created just for her.

Little did she know this though! Aren’t I a naughty wonder pony! We had snuck the Chairman of the Pony Club, the Area 14 Pony Club Manager and District Commissioner of the Wylye Valley Pony Club into the party to present the award.


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Well, she was crying before an award had even been mentioned as she knew something was up when Mr Toulson Clarke, the DC of the Pony Club was stood on stage with a microphone in his hand – something she hadn’t planned to happen at her party! Even he wouldn’t do karaoke…!

Yet again Hannah was totally overwhelmed and exceedingly grateful to every single person who was involved in creating the award as well as those surrounding her and supporting her.

Without everyone’s support we, as a team, couldn’t have done what we have done in the past 8 months so thank you. Who knows what the next few weeks will bring! Lots of smiles and more happy tears I hope!

And how’s Hannah doing?

Willberry: Well, Hannah’s still fighting as hard as she possibly can and receiving chemotherapy on a regular basis.

Of course we have good days and bad days, but they’re mostly good thanks to the way in which Hannah is such a brave and positive individual.

She “won’t let a day go by without a smile, else you know it really hasn’t been at all worthwhile”.

She has this really stupid thing called a bucket list, which doesn’t seem to ever get any shorter! Each time we tick something off she adds another three!


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Hannah and Willberry with Ed Sheeran

But thanks to this stupid thing I’ve never seen a smile so big, especially when she was riding some of the top horses in the world- some even I can’t mention!

I suppose it’s pretty cool that she’s met Ed Sheeran and JK Rowling but unfortunately she doesn’t seem to think like that and would much rather have horse slobber on her face or be flying down the Rapids at centre parcs with her family.

It’s not that it wasn’t an experience of a lifetime meeting these incredible people but for Hannah family and horses are the most important thing in her life and since discovering that her cancer is terminal, it has become vital that everyday counts.

What have you got planned for Christmas? And more importantly, have you finished your Christmas shopping?

Willberry: Christmas?! CHRISTMAS! I am so very very very excited. This is my very first Christmas and I honestly cannot wait to get to spend it with my best friend.

Hannah has a huge Christmas planned because she is desperate for this one to be extra special for family, friends and herself and one that’ll never be forgotten.

It basically spans over 7 days and we started on Monday 21st when the first presents were exchanged at Secret Santa with old school friends.


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“I have never met a woman with such fight and determination as Caroline Smail – to defy all odds and when she gets the bit between her teeth, there is no stopping her. She has a dream and she’s going to achieve it, no matter what, and I strive for that attitude. I love her to pieces.”

This was a great evening and closely followed by Tuesday when her and her 3 close friends went for a Christmas meal out and exchanged special presents together.

On Wednesday we organised some pony club festivities with more giving and receiving of wonderful presents. Christmas Eve is the day for all last minute visits and deliveries (plus Santa will be busy too apparently!) and lunch with a very special friend of Hannah’s called Caroline.

She too had osteosarcoma but in her leg and also has a huge passion for horses, they literally never shut up…!

Then Friday, Christmas Day (!!) I’m told there’s lots of present opening bright and early from our stockings (mines hung with Sam and Hannah’s by the fireplace) and then we do the horses (they get their presents now too) and all the other animals on the farm before we have breakfast.

Once we’ve opened our big proper special presents (now Hannah yours better be good) everyone will help get our massive roast dinner ready as all Hannah’s mums side of the family are coming over for lunch. We will stuff our tummies nice and full (mine even fuller) with lots of yummy goodies before yet more present giving and loving and receiving in the afternoon. Sounds pretty tiring to me but definitely the best day so far! Saturday is Boxing Day and we won’t have quite such an early start as the day before.


We’re having lunch with Hannah’s dads side of the family this time so even more incredible food to stuff ourselves silly with – I’m really going to feel sorry for the horses Hannah rides after this week has passed! Again Hannah’s got lots of special presents to give and I know it’ll put a smile on her face to see everyone opening and enjoying theirs.

Sunday there’s a change of plan this year as we are heading to Grandma’s because (apparently) Santa is heading there too! So yet more presents and more food, hopefully another wonderful day.

Then finally, on Monday, the last day of Hannah’s “Christmas week”, she has planned a Christmas hack for her minis that she taught at Pony Club Mini Camp last year (as she really enjoys teaching others about something she loves too) and afterwards an evening with family friends to open their presents.


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Hannah with one of her mini riders

Phew. I’m exhausted just telling you about it all! And yes, with all this coming up and knowing just how busy Hannah is (and considering I go EVERYWHERE with her) I thought I’d better be organised so I have finished my Christmas shopping!

What or who inspires you ?

Hannah: There are so many people and things that inspire me; my horses, my heroes, my parents, even Willberry!…

The list could go on forever. But the fact that I wrote horses first does say something to me though. That horses are my true inspiration. I couldn’t have fought this disease so hard without them in my life. I can put my hand on my heart and promise the Queen that one.

My goodness the number of days when I was stuck in those four white walls when I could have so easily just given up. Said I couldn’t do it anymore. Stopped trying, been selfish, forgot about all the people that I loved and those who loved me. 

Hannah and Mavis

Hannah and Chesney


Hannah and Mavis

Yet because of my special three, Mavis, Chesney and Tommy, I got up every morning, I made it through each day and night, I completed all those horrific 6 days cycles of chemotherapy and battled weeks of infections.

They were the one thing that got me through it all and I love them to pieces. the one thing that gets me up in the morning when quite simply some days this cancer would like to drag you deep, down under into the depths of depression and never let you go. My horses are my saviours.

Willberry: Hannah inspires me. She never ever gives up in fighting for what she truly wishes for or dreams of. I think that’s why this bucket list scares me so damn much!


Is there an all time favourite yard/stables that you’ve been too? And why?

Hannah: Every single yard I have been to has been a favourite in some way or another for different reasons. More importantly they’ve all been incredible because they’re the base to some of my greatest eventing and dressage idols and I was totally overwhelmed and grateful to have been given the chance to visit them in the first place.

I think Ben Hobday’s will always be special as he was the very first to invite me and I was so overwhelmed as it meant I could finally start to tick off things on my rather large bucket list (and yes there is still plenty to do!).


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The fact that sadly myself and Ben shared the connection of cancer too did make meeting him, his horses and having a tour of his absolutely stunning yard even more memorable and a day I will most certainly never ever forget so thank you Ben.

Willberry: My favourite yard was Carl and Charlotte’s because I, yes I, got to ride the greatest horse of all time… Valegro!

Not many stuffed toys can say that now can they! Hey! I must admit though that every yard has been fabulous, although I do seem to sit on a lot of horses heads though rather than in the right place on their backs…

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What is the quality that you most like in a horse?

Hannah: The quality I most like in a horse, is that they must be honest.

They must genuinely want to love and be loved, be helped and help you out and always try their best.

What is the most valuable piece of advice you have been given? Who gave it to you?

Hannah: I have been given so many pieces of valuable advice throughout my life and have been very lucky to have received this.

I’ve always had so many knowledgable people surrounding me and giving me guidance making me so very fortunate. Before all of this, when I was the overwhelmingly driven Hannah (scarily so to some!), desperate to succeed and move forward and make plans, who dreamt of Badminton and Burghley success, no matter what it took, the most valuable piece of advice I was given was to “be patient”.


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Credit: Jon Stroud

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Many people gave this to me, especially trainers, idols and my parents, not because they wanted to dampen my drive or ruin my passion, but because they cared for my future and knew that with time my dreams could and would happen.

All I needed to do was my very best and what was meant to be would happen and to be honest I truly believed that too.

However, when the time you have to achieve your dreams is cruelly ripped away from you, cut short and put into countdown, you have to stop and think, no I can’t be patient anymore. Instead you need to “Dream big, never give up and fight hard for whatever you wish for”. Ben Hobday told me to “dream big” and once you’ve dreamt theses dreams Pippa Funnell told me to “never give up” and then every single person I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter has always said to “fight hard” and that’s what I want me to do every single day, as a promise to you, no matter what.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Hannah: Cool, good mare, good lad, I’m fat
Willberry: shut up, you’re not fat

Which talent would you most like to have?

Hannah: The ability to stop all suffering in the world.
Willberry: For me, I’d like to be able to grant every single person in the world just one wish/dream that makes them feel special, worthwhile or that they’ve achieved something magical.


Credit: Maria Wynne

How do you unwind/relax?

Hacking out is the best way for me to unwind and relax because you can either think about ,everything and anything or not think at all.

What would be your perfect weekend?

Hannah: An entire weekend of horses where I am completely pain free.
Willberry: A weekend with Wilbellina! Wink wink.

What are you reading at the moment?

Valegro’s autobiography

Who are your heroes in real life?

Hannah: Mum because she remains so unbelievably strong no matter what is thrown in her direction.

There is no way on this earth that I could have ever possibly gotten through this without her.
Dad because he is my absolute anchor. He never falters and is always the one to put a smile on your face. If he could, he would ensure that no tears were ever rolling down anyone’s cheeks.


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Hannah: Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin because I’ve never felt the way I did when they walked round the corner that day.

Watching them ride on the television is one thing, first hand is another and giving them a hug? That’s mind blowing!

Ben Hobday because he really did teach me to dream big and I’m so overwhelmingly happy that he beat this awful disease as he truly deserved to.

Pippa Funnell because she always has been. Ever since the first day I sat on a horse she has been the event rider I am in my dreams, my absolute hero.

Willberry: Hannah is my hero and always will be because I’ve never ever met someone so inspirational or determined to put others before herself as that’s what makes her happiest.


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Hannah and Willberry with Billy Stud mascot Billyberry and Pippa Funnell

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Hannah with her brother, Sam

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This is really tricky, but have you got a stand-out moment from 2015? Or two or three?!

Yes, we have one… But it’s the biggest secret of our lives and we cannot share it!

How do you unwind/relax?

Hacking out is the best way for me to unwind and relax because you can either think about ,everything and anything or not think at all.

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Meeting Lee Pearson

What is your Christmas message?

Our Christmas message is the most humongous of thank you’s to every single person that has been there to support us this year, whether we know you or not, we honestly couldn’t have done it without you.

We have raised an incredible amount of money for amazing charities that have not only helped me but so many other people too. Thank you.

Love Hannah & Willberry xx

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Credit: Jon Stroud


We wish Hannah, Willberry and all their family and friends a very special Merry Christmas.

In early 2016, Willberry will become his own charity. Please follow Hannah & Willberry on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to find out how you will be able to make donations to the Willberry Wonder Pony Charity, which supports Hannah’s chosen cancer charities:

Cancer Research UK

Teenage Cancer Trust

Clic Sargent

Little Princess Trust

Josie’s Dragonfly Trust

Dorothy House


In the meantime, you can support Hannah and Willberry by visiting the shop on their website. Click here. So far, Willberry merchandise, events and donations have raised a whopping £70,000 for cancer charities.

Follow Hannah & Willberry’s blog at

Thank you and we wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Sarah Heseltine

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