Verity Smith is one of Haygain’s stable of supported riders from across the spectrum of equestrian disciplines, and her story is certainly an exceptional one. For this Haygain rider update, we take a look at where Verity’s love of riding came from and how she copes with day-to-day life and competing as a registered blind equestrian.
Born with perfect eyesight, Verity’s riding career began at the age of three and a half when her mother took her to a local stable, desperately seeking a sport to replace unsuccessful attempts at ballet and gymnastics. Verity’s love of horses was already firmly cemented by the age of 8, when viral meningitis caused her sight to deteriorate.
“Like most little girls I loved to jump and was determined to become the world’s best show jumper. It was only when, at the age of 8, I started to go blind and realized that this dream was never to become a reality. I continued show jumping until the age of 15 but as the courses got higher and my vision got lower, I decided that I needed to find an equestrian sport that I could compete in on equal terms without my blindness disabling me.
This is how and why I became a 'dressage diva'. Here was a discipline that, if I counted my strides and rode every moment, I could compete to the best of my ability. As the world faded from my eyes, my love of horses solidified in my heart. They became my freedom, my liberty, the moment in my day when I forgot the encroaching darkness and my disability fell away.”
Dressage may not have been Verity’s first choice of equestrian sport, but it quickly became an addiction, with something new to learn every day and the constant quest for perfection. Based in the south of France, where her family have lived for 30 years, and with dual French/British nationality, Verity is a proud member of the French Para team and competes against able-bodied riders at Elite level. I joined the GB Para team at the age of 18 and was so proud to compete at the World Championships, but my real passion lay with competing in able-bodied competitions, so for many years that is what I focused on.
My horse Kit and I competed and won in the UK and France at PSG and Inter 1. We were ranked 12th in France at Elite able-bodied level in 2017. We were set to progress to Grand Prix in 2018 but, heartbreakingly, my darling Kit fell critically ill and our career together was abruptly halted. I now have a gorgeous Hanoverian mare Daisy who I will begin competing in October this year. We are just getting to know each other in and out of the arena as we have only been together for 5 months.
Naturally, the limitations of her disability mean that Verity has a dedicated support network including a full-time groom and her PA Maura and operates a very organized yard. A stubborn streak, however, means that she attempts to manage as much as she can herself, albeit with the help of her blonde and somewhat dizzy guide dog Luna.
“I make sure that everything has its place and stays in that place. I’m not OCD but, if things are moved even a short distance, it is hard for me to locate them. We always keep the aisles clear to avoid any bumps or knocks but aside from that we haven’t made any adaptations in the structure. It is very helpful that everything is close by - the shower area, tie ups, tack etc - as the less distance I have to travel the less chance there is of me ending up in the wrong place!
My dream is to one day build an installation that I could design myself with discreet adaptations in place. Curved edges on all walls would be amazing as I am forever grazing myself on some sharp corner. I would also focus on using different floor surfaces in order to signal different areas in the yard. I would love to design an arena with light sensitive windows - my eyes react painfully to light, and it would be a joy to have windows in the arena that reacted like sunglasses, darkening slightly when the sun hits hard.”
There are several elements to Verity’s day-to-day routine which help her train and compete as effectively as possible. Her team of up to 9 callers (she calls them ‘Scoobies’!) who she has the right to have under the rules of the international federation, act as an audible reference to the letters of the dressage arena during her tests and training.
Verity has also learnt to count the strides of a dressage test, as well as the number of steps between different areas of her yard. Getting the horses ready to be exercised is a key part of Verity’s preparation, as it gives her one-to-one time with her horse and enables her to gauge their mood and cement that all-important bond before she climbs into the saddle. So how does she go about finding the other half of her special partnership?
"There are two things that I look for in a horse - ability and character. Every horse is individual, but they need to have the talent to be the best and the personality to be your best friend. Like with people, sometimes you click and sometimes you don’t. Currently I have 3 horses but only Daisy is in work - both Szekit and Gatzby are no longer competing. I have created an equi-therapy charity to support disabled children and young adults, so their job now is to simply be loved and brushed within an inch of their lives. I find horses incredibly peaceful to be around and they seem to have the ability to unjumble my mind of its clutter."
Having nurtured such an extraordinarily close relationship with her horses, it comes as no surprise that Verity takes great care to ensure their every want and need is closely catered for.
Back in 2014, my veterinarian in England was very excited by the prospect that steamed hay could enhance the performance of a high-level sports horse – even horses who show no outward sign of respiratory problems.
I was fascinated to see for myself the improvement that the hay steamer made to my horse’s warm up and recovery times. As my veterinarian explained to me, we generally keep our horses in unnaturally dusty environments no matter how vigilant we are. He said it is rather like asking a marathon runner to run 26 miles after being in a smoke-filled bar. Straight away it simply made sense to me. Our horses are athletes and everything we can do to help with their fitness, we should do. Since then I have been back in the dusty south of France with the horses and the Haygain steamer has been working its magic around the clock.
As many riders will happily testify, the Haygain hay steamer has become a permanent and important fixture in Verity’s yard. As well as the enormous benefit to the equine inhabitants, the staff enjoy the comforting smell of gently steaming hay that appears like clockwork every morning, and both the resident cats and humans find it a warm spot to dwell near in the winter. Verity uses the Haygain HG 600 for her permanent yard and the Haygain HG One when she’s on the road for competitions or training. Verity has her sights firmly set on both the Olympic and Paralympic dressage teams for Paris 2024, an incredible goal and one that she is already attacking with gusto.
It is another level, but my attitude has always been that if you don’t reach for the stars you will never get your feet off the ground. My plans for Tokyo were completely derailed by my darling Kit’s illness in 2018. Daisy and I are a very new partnership who still have a lot to learn about each other. We are on the French team, but we have to prove ourselves to be a winning combination and we won’t be out competing till the Autumn - so watch this space.
Clearly Verity has learned an awful lot on her journey to date, while facing up to exceptional adversity along the way. So, what is her advice to up and coming dressage riders, sighted or otherwise, to ensure they give themselves the best possible chance of success?
Make sure to count your strides in each movement - feel and ride every stride. Perhaps close your eyes for a few strides to make sure that you are present and connected and not simply travelling between two points. It may sound complicated, but it truly helps you to memorize the design of your test.
My top tip for those beginners in dressage who may arrive at a competition and be panicked because they suddenly feel that the arena is the wrong way round. Please don’t panic as it is always the right way round - it is just your brain having a flip! You always enter at A and from then on the stage is set and nothing changes. Do not be disorientated about what is going on outside the arena/boards - just concentrate on what is going on in your test.