Verity Smith: blind dressage rider with Paralympic ambition
PUBLISHED: 12:12 30 March 2015 | UPDATED: 12:55 11 June 2015
© Thousand Word Media
The inspirational Verity Smith, who has lost 97 per cent of her sight, tells Katie Jarvis about her Cotswold life as she trains for next year’s Paralympics
Verity Smith is a talented dressage rider, who produces stunning performances with her horse Szekit – Kit for short. But while spectators enjoy rider and steed in perfect harmony, Verity has no perception of the visual beauty of this balletic sport: she started to go blind aged eight, and has now lost 97 per cent of her eyesight. She moved from France to Minchinhampton last summer to work with top trainer Sandy Phillips, and to concentrate on qualifying for the 2016 GB team at the Paralympics in Rio.
Although Verity can’t see the Cotswolds’ rolling hills or golden architecture, she has her own way of appreciating the region. “Sometimes you feel you’re on top of the world because of the wind and fresh air,” she says. “Yet when I’m in Nailsworth, which is like a dingley dell, I could be in a shire from Lord of the Rings. I don’t see the tailored side; I just feel this incredible sense of wilderness.”
Verity recently won Inspirational Guide Dog Owner in the annual Guide Dogs awards.
Q: Where do you live and why?
A: I live in Minchinhampton, which was more a geographical choice than aesthetic. I follow my horse around the world and he moved to Aston Farm [Cherington, where Sandy Phillips is based]. But I landed on my feet. What I’ve found incredibly lovely about Minchinhampton is the kindness, and having Uffa, my guide dog, is a particularly good way of meeting people. Moving somewhere new – even when you can see – is daunting, so one of the first things I did was to go into the village shop and say, ‘Hi, I’m Verity. If I don’t smile at you in the street, I do apologise. Blind as a bat!’ When you travel optimistically, you’ll often be met with goodwill.
Q: How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
A: I’m a newbie - I arrived in July last year. My family has lived near Nîmes for over 20 years, so I share my time between the Cotswolds and France. The qualifiers for the British team take place in the UK but I also think, politically, it’s very relevant to be part of what’s going on here in this country. I’m just thankful that my trainer wasn’t based in Scunthorpe!
Q: What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
A: It would always start with training because every day does. Then it would be a long ramble with the dog on Minchinhampton Common, a pub lunch with friends, a hot bath and a good audio-book. Normally Kit and I train for about an hour each day but, outside of that, I need to keep myself in shape, too: we’re talking about two athletes here. Dressage is one sport where I potentially have an advantage over sighted riders because I feel every movement; I dance with my horse. I’m like a centaur: I feel the ground through him and it’s the one time I can stride out without consequence.
Q: If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
A: Gatcombe! I’ve had my mind’s eye on that house for a long time – such a peaceful and enchanting place.
Q: Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
Q: Where’s the best pub in the area?
A: I do love a good pub and that’s something I find magical about Britain. In France, we have Le Bar, which is just not the same. I love the Royal Oak in Leighterton for Sunday lunch after a training session; or the Ragged Cot in Minchinhampton. Uffa is super well-behaved in pubs, though he has a penchant for chocolate labradors, which are popular in the Cotswolds, by all accounts. He’s a man in uniform so he attracts the girls.
Q: And the best place to eat?
A: This is me bringing in my love of all things Mediterranean but I love William’s Oyster Bar in Nailsworth.
Q: Have you a favourite tearoom?
A: I generally go to the organic dairy café in Minchinhampton for Carole’s carrot cake and Henry’s mum’s cheese. I torture my French friends by taking a selection of local cheeses back and telling them, ‘You haven’t got anything this good!’
Q: What would you do for a special occasion?
A: Winning Inspirational Guide Dog Owner [at the 2014 Guide Dogs annual awards] was a very special occasion. I was thrilled to be nominated in the first place but, when they called out my name, I was mid-sip of a glass of wine with a napkin on my knee. I just wasn’t expecting it at all! Uffa, who was wearing a little bowtie, sat centre-stage as if to say, ‘It might be her award but I should have won it’. He understands 100 per cent that I can’t see, something he uses to his advantage in the house. I’ll think, ‘I’m sure I made a sandwich’ and then there’ll be this little gulping sound from a corner of the kitchen. But he also takes care of me when he’s off-duty. If I’m feeling for the top stair with my foot, he’ll bound up and follow me down, with my hand on his back: he doesn’t have to do that. I think he worries, especially when I’m wearing silly shoes.
Q: What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
A: Sandy Phillips, my trainer. Finding her was a joy because she’s so articulate in relaying how a movement should feel. Sometimes, though, she’ll forget that I can’t see and have to yell, ‘Wall! Turn! Turn!’ It’s a tough job for her but she’s wonderful – she’ll often take the reins and be the horse’s mouth to explain positioning. She’s also quite frightening - she doesn’t suffer fools – so when I get a ‘Good’ out of her, I’m thrilled!
Q: ... and the worst?
A: Cowpats and cattle grids. Uffa was trained in London so he’s not quite sure what to do with a cattle grid. I’ve been wedged in a few since I’ve got here. I’m tempted to carry a plank.
Q: Which shop could you not live without?
A: Probably somewhere like Stroud Saddlery or Stroud Farm Services. I also enjoy shopping for clothes. I have a very strong visual memory, and I was lucky that my mum was always the most well-dressed mother at the school gate: the only one in a big hat and a fur coat! From that, I love a bit of glamour. I also love colour because I’ve lost all sense of it now.
Q: What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
A: I was guilty of this when I could see more, but there is a temptation to focus on the visual and overlook other senses. We visually browse; take snapshots home with us that are two-dimensional. I love it when the cows come into Minchinhampton, bringing the sound and the smell of the rural into that built environment. I love the hooting of owls and the roar of the Range Rover engine.
Q: What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
A: A good egg.
Q: What would be a three course Cotswold meal?
A: The French laugh and call the English ‘the Roast Beef’, but it’s so true! I love roast pheasant, though it can be tricky for someone who can’t see. I’d start with parsnip soup and, for pudding, I’d have apple tart with Winstones ice cream.
Q: What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
A: When I’m on Minchinhampton Common, I feel like I’m on the edge of the Titanic; no boundaries. There’s a clarity to it when I look with my other senses. I’ve lost 97 per cent of my vision but that three per cent allows me to see light and dark in a little window in my left eye. I can also see little flutters of movement, which doesn’t sound very much but it gives so many clues to things around me.
Q: Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds…
A: The crow; it is such an English sound;
The seasonal cowpat – baked in summer and soggy in autumn;
The welcome of the people.
Q: What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
A: It’s not a building; but when I walk across the common, I let Uffa off the lead and I follow the wall with my hand.
Q: What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
A: Sunbathe topless on Minchinhampton Common. I’d do it in France, though!
Q: Starter homes or executive properties?
A: Starter horses or executive horses is more relevant for me. As my sister says, one end bites, the other end kicks, and the middle bit eats money. Horses like Kit are ridiculously expensive; he’s actually owned through a trust I’ve created. After the 2016 Olympics, the idea is that he will be sold – hopefully to me if I manage to rob a bank (though I wouldn’t make a great getaway driver) - with the money divided between two charities: Guide Dogs, and Riding for the Disabled Association. I also have wonderful sponsors, such as B&W Equine, a local vets group that has been so supportive. They remind me of the old values on All Creatures Great and Small, synonymous with my experience of the kindness of the Cotswolds.
Q: If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
A: I go back to France once a month because I’ve got a retired horse there: I have to keep him in shape. I’d probably take a very old piece of stone, some boot-cleaner, and Carole’s recipe for carrot cake... And maybe a freeze-dried cowpat.
Q: What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
A: Put a cagoule and brolly in your handbag and buy some fabulous wellies. Then, try to look beyond the immediate beauty. Sit on the common; close your eyes; listen.
Q: And which book should they read?
A: Cider with Rosie, which is probably what everyone says. But I’d also be pleased if they read my book – The Groper’s Guide – because I wrote it to try to break down the fear of disability through humour. I want people to see me, the person, not the disability. And I want them to believe that, whatever you want to try, you should give it a go. Which is my philosophy – apart from brain surgery, which probably isn’t a good idea for me.
Q: Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
A: Stiles are quite tough for Uffa, I have to say. If I want to let him off the lead, I take him to Westonbirt Arboretum. I can feel the path under my feet so I can let him be a dog for an hour. It’s like stepping into Narnia; you get through the noise and you’re in a wooded, magical place.
Q: Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
A: Everything equestrian for me - but polo is something I’ve really started to enjoy. I went to Cirencester Polo Club and there was a fabulous gentleman doing the commentary. I said to him, ‘I’ve never been to a match. Could you give me a rundown?’ and he gave the most incredible narrative. I thought, ‘Dressage? Boring! Give me a stick and a polo pony.’ It’s like Formula 1 for horses. Mind you, stomping divots is bad for a blind person. I make more holes than I fill in.
Q: If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
A: It’s the opposite for me: the world is invisible. I’d love to watch dressage – it would fill in so many gaps. And I’d like to take Kit out of the arena, take off the saddle, point him in the direction of a big open field, and gallop without consequence. For me, that would say, ‘Here, kid, you’ve done enough. You just be a horse and I’ll just be a rider.’
Q: To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
A: Throughout time, this has been a very agricultural area in which horses have played an intrinsic part. It would be lovely to honour that contribution.
Q: The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?
A: Technology has given people like me an independence that blind people in the past wouldn’t have had. Without the road network, there would be no public transport and that would leave me isolated. But there has to be a happy medium. What’s wonderful about this area – and this has largely been preserved thanks to the management of big estates – is a beauty that no one would want to tarmac over.
Q: With whom would you most like to have a cider?
A: The Princess Royal. She came to visit my school when I was 12, and I was so excited – she’s such a brilliant horsewoman. But the only time she spoke to me was to tell me to pick up some litter, and I couldn’t even see where it was! She’s got an incredibly dry sense of humour and she’s also incredibly sharp. I’ve so much respect for her. It’s very easy to hide behind something – be that royalty or disability. It takes a lot of courage to go: ‘Actually, defy convention! This is what I do and I do it well because of my own merit, not because of my label.’
For more about Verity, visit www.verity-smith.com
This interview by Katie Jarvis is from the April 2015 issue of Cotswold Life.
For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis