Twenty-five years after a devastating riding accident that left her paralysed, Sarah is thriving – thanks to her two life-changing support dogs.

Sarah Henson was 47 when her world was turned upside down.

The busy, active mother of three was thrown from a horse and paralysed from the chest down. After being taken to hospital by air ambulance, Sarah underwent several operations to insert metal rods into her spine to support the broken vertebrae.

After five months in hospital Sarah came home determined not to feel sorry for herself, but she found her physical restrictions frustrating. The smallest of tasks took twice as long, and she was constantly dropping things just out of reach, unable to pick them up.

Eventual salvation came in the shape of a young Hungarian Viszla puppy called China, initially a pet, but later trained by Support Dogs as her disability assistance dog. China transformed Sarah’s life – as well as picking up items Sarah dropped, she also fetched remote controls and telephones, was trained to use a special rope system to lift Sarah’s legs on her bed and pull her into a sitting position in the mornings, to fetch help when she fell out of her chair,

China was also a much-loved companion, giving Sarah much-needed confidence, and when she died at the age of nine Sarah was heartbroken.

“It was absolutely ghastly, and I felt as if my right hand had been cut off,” says Sarah. “It wasn’t just the inconvenience of not having someone to help me in so many ways but not having a companion to face the world with – it sounds silly, but one can feel quite isolated and freakish in a wheelchair but having a dog to talk to as you go round is such a stress reliever.”

“Support Dogs did their absolute best to match a trained dog for me, but my son could see how distraught I was and a week after China died, he gave me a surprise new puppy, a little black Labradoodle called Towcester. As she grew it turned out she was suitable to be trained as an assistance dog,” says Sarah, now 72.

“She had always been naturally well-behaved. Support Dogs worked hard with her and now she’s pretty rock solid; I have every confidence in her.”

Despite being so close to China Sarah didn’t find it hard to bond with Towcester. “I felt very lucky to have another dog, although no-one will ever take China’s place. But I love dogs and for some reason Towcester decided I was her human. The first time we met when she was 11 weeks old, she just came and sat by my wheelchair and has never really left.”

Towcester now provides much of the practical help that her predecessor did, and the pair qualified as an assistance dog partnership earlier this year.

“I am always dropping things in odd places and she is amazing at understanding which of many things is the actual thing I want and quickly picks it up for me,” adds Sarah.  “China being a bit of a prima donna could never pick up secateurs etc for me and although Towcesty is much smaller she doesn’t hesitate and is straight in there.  She always picks up her metal feed bowl after her meals and trots off with it to the washing up sink.  She is very proud of my car keys and I have to watch that she doesn’t pick them up without being asked and as soon as she can, rush around the garden triumphantly parading with them. She soon brings them back though. She barks on command to alert people if I need help. And when I fell out of my wheelchair, she got me my telephone that had fallen clear and I was able to phone for help.”

Sarah has been impressed by Support Dogs’ training team. “Having spent all my life with dogs and horses and seriously training horses for most of that time it has been great to take an increased interest in training dogs instead and if I'd had more energy, I would have loved to have done more of it.

 “So, it was wonderful to be taught by Support Dogs - people say to me ‘ah, aren’t the dogs brilliant’. Yes, indeed the dogs are brilliant but it’s only because of the Support Dogs’ trainers. They are honestly the brilliant ones!

Sarah and her husband live on the edge of farmland in rural Lincolnshire, and Sarah, in her Tramper trike, exercises Towcester along farm lanes.

As well as the practical help that Towcester provides, she is also a loyal and much-loved companion, always ready to help when needed.

Sarah says: “It’s lovely to have a jolly little mate who’s always up for a game and a joke. And she’s good company and always happy – a gift.

“Support Dogs have been a breath of fresh air and I was lucky to be taken under their wing – the period when I was between/without a dog I was absolutely miserable and just wanted to stay moping at home. I owe them so much, and these two dogs have restored so much contentment to my life."