When Verity Smith, 43, rides a horse she feels as if she is flying. Yet, for all the freedom this implies, she is an international dressage rider, having mastered a sport considered to be the highest expression of horse training.
She also happens to be blind.
Verity was registered blind at the age of 15, having first begun to lose her sight aged eight following a bout of meningoencephalitis three years’ previously. She now has under 10% vision.
She views the seven-year period of deterioration as “nature’s kindness,” because it allowed her time to adapt to her disability.
“I used to turn off all the lights and get my sister to move the furniture around,” she recalls. “I took the attitude that being blind was something I should learn to be good at.”
Verity took up horse-riding because, “at the age of three, I was the spud at the back of the ballet class. In desperation, my mum stuck me on a horse.”
Despite growing up in Gloucestershire, her family were not “horsey people”, but, undeterred, she developed a talent for show-jumping.
She continued to pursue her passion for some years after her sight began to fade, right up until she realised that it was becoming treacherous.
Having previously thought of it as a sport for old ladies, when Verity turned to dressage in desperation, aged 15, it was a “revelation”.
“I quickly realised that the 60m by 20m arena was unchanging,” she says, “so if I counted my strides and concentrated hard, I could perform just as well as a sighted person.”
Put like that it sounds very straightforward, which of course it isn’t.
At the beginning, Verity was trained by renowned Swedish trainer, Ann Carlsen, and only then did she realise how little she had previously known about riding a horse.
“I had been a passenger, but dressage is like doing advanced gymnastics.”
Training involved removing all tack and learning to control the horse with feet alone; learning how to sit on bales of hay, and carrying cups of water without spilling them whilst riding.
Ann Carlsen was creative when it came to demonstrating dressage to an unsighted rider who had never paid the slightest attention to the niceties of the sport even when she could see.
Such was Verity’s mastery of dressage that she became a member of the GB Paralympic team at the age of 18.
Her Paralympic career has not been without its frustrations, however. Her hopes of competing in London 2012 were dashed when her horse had to be put down and she was involved in a car crash.
Two thirds of the way through her training for the 2016 Rio Games a rule change was introduced stipulating that all blind dressage riders should wear a blindfold to “level the playing field.”
Immediately Verity began campaigning against a change she felt was not safe.
Only 3% of blind people are completely “black” blind. The remainder can see varying degrees of light and shade.
Verity’s 10% vision allows her to see the difference between light and shade and this is her ‘axis’ and she relies on it for her balance and confidence.
“Blindfolding me is to disable me further,” she says. “Nobody would give someone with partial mobility problems an immobilising drug. The blindfold is dangerous.”
Verity’s ‘beat the blindfold’ campaign did not come in time to prevent the rule change for Rio, but it has ensured that blindfolds will not be required for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
She says: “I may not have a medal but I have helped facilitate the participation of blind riders in future, and that is better than a medal.”
The Rio setback also pushed her to begin competing – and winning – against able-bodied riders, a step she would not have taken otherwise.
Although a member of Team GB, Verity has lived near Nîmes in Gard for the past 27 years, following her parent’s move to France when she was a teenager. She loves it here.
“For a blind person, the sounds in France are amazing,” she says. “Each season has its own acoustic. And the climate means that I can be in contact with nature by walking barefoot for six months of the year.”
She believes that being blind helped her to learn French, because she learned it “like a child”, following the rhythms and sounds rather than learning grammar.
Verity’s animals are also happily settled in France. Uffa, her nine-year-old labradoodle guide-dog, is welcomed with open arms wherever he goes instead of being occasionally refused entry, as he is in the UK.
He has learned that traffic comes from different directions in the two countries “and even that at pedestrian crossings in the UK the cars stop, but that in France they accelerate,” Verity laughs.
Her 12-year-old German horse, Szekit (Kit for short), is also extremely happy “gazing at the beautiful blondes in the south of France.”
Riding clubs make it simple to give riding a go
FRANCE has more than two million horse riders and an astonishing 14m more say they want to have a go ... which the Fédération Française d’Equitation makes simple with annual open days across the country.The Tous à Cheval event each September sees riding clubs offering starter rides for all ages and they make a point of emphasising how learning to ride helps youngsters.
FEE president Serge Lecomte said: “Riding clubs are a new universe for children. On climbing on a pony they sharpen their curiosity, improve balance and suppleness, and develop their physical fitness.”
You can find a club near you on the dedicated FFE website at journeeducheval.ffe.com
Riding is the third most popular sport in France after football and tennis and is also France’s major sports employer with 58,000 jobs in 8,600 stables and 6,000 riding centres.
For anyone who cannot wait until September, the Cheval Passion horse show takes place from January 18-22 in Avignon Parc des Expositions.