The blind rider who's back in the saddle
Blind equestrian Verity Smith's dreams of competing at the London 2012 Paralympics were crushed when her horse was put down. Now back in the saddle, she's set her sights on being part of Team GB's Rio 2016 Paralympics dressage team.
2011 was a year to forget for Smith. Three weeks after her horse Marcus was put down due to cancer, her first guide dog - by then retired - was also put down. She was involved in a car crash soon after, resulting in injuries to her back and neck which kept her out of the saddle for more than a year.
But she did not remain idle. Instead she wrote and starred in a piece of musical theatre, featuring some of her own songs.
Smith has recorded an album, La Verity, due out on iTunes this month - and she'll also publish her first book, The Groper's Guide.
And now she's seeking a place in the Rio 2016 Paralympics with a return to competitive riding. Part of that effort involves acquiring an £80,000 horse called Szekit (Kit for short).
To raise the money, she's devised a unique crowd-funding campaign in which Kit will be bought through charitable donations and placed in a trust. The plan is then that the horse will be sold after Rio 2016, with the final funds going to charities close to Smith's heart.
Ouch spoke to her as she prepared to launch the campaign.
What is it about horse riding that captivates you?
Horses were already running through my soul prior to losing my sight. And as my sight got worse they became a real lifeline. They are freedom. When I'm on a horse I'm not blind.
I used to do show jumping - even when going blind - and my only change was to switch to dressage. That allowed me to compete against sighted people. A lot of the top dressage riders who are sighted will close their eyes when they're riding because it's all about feeling your horse and really engaging. Like dancing a tango with a person, it's about the interaction of energy and harnessing it.
How did you put the disappointment of London 2012 behind you?
I was devastated. But it's one of those things where you just go "Right, OK, what next? How can we fix this?" I was very fortunate that I was in France at the time and met an amazing trainer. He gradually let me ride his horses, got me back into the saddle and took it at my pace. Bit by bit I found my feet again.
The [London] Olympics inspired me not to miss another one.
How did you find Kit, your new horse?
I tried a lot of horses all over Europe. It was a little bit like speed-dating but without the glass of wine. It was very much "Next... next...!" All beautiful horses but I was looking for something very special. This horse has the talent to be the best, and the character to be a best friend - he's just incredible.
Horse-riding is only one aspect of your repertoire. You're also a singer, author, songwriter, stage performer…
I've been a singer-songwriter for most of my adult life. I was very lucky that both my career goals happened not to need eyesight.
When I had the car accident and was out of the saddle, I started to write a theatre show with a French theatre company. We created a show about love from my blind perspective. It was lovely to be creative when I couldn't do much else.
In your book you write about the moment you discovered you were going blind. You says that when you got the news your mum said "Thank God."
She isn't anan evil mother pleased her daughter was going blind. I'd had encephalitis and meningitis when I was four and I'd recovered from that against all odds. Then suddenly I started not being able to see stuff.
Nobody knew what was wrong. We had all sorts of diagnoses from different doctors, including the possibility of a brain tumour. So when they finally said, "She's going blind," we were all like "Phew! I'm not going to die. Fantastic!"
It made going blind fantastic... but I think the professors were slightly startled by our reaction.
How do you picture in your mind people you talk with?
The gift of not being able to see is that you don't judge people by what they look like. It's a strange thing but people do have energies around them. I think there's instinct and we all have it. But sometimes sight can blinker that instinct.
I build my opinions just like everybody else, I just think I get a cleaner start point.
Where does race and colour come in to this?
Racism makes me laugh, it's such a pointless thing for me because I couldn't tell you if somebody was black, white, green, pink or yellow. It just wouldn't occur to me.
Once I was at Charles de Gaulle airport. I got to the desk and the woman said, "I'm sorry, we don't take dogs." I replied, "It's a bit like being in Alabama in the '50s and being put to the back of the bus because you're black." She burst out laughing and said, "You have no idea I'm black, do you?"
You were sighted before going blind. How does that alter your experience from those who have never been sighted?
I'm very grateful that I could see because I have a visual memory of the world. I had already created a relationship with it.
I have friends who've been blind since birth and they're incredible. I think that I am quite capable but I look at them and think "Oh my gosh, how did you do all that?" Their brains and senses are so re-routed and fine-tuned.
The only disadvantage for someone who's been blind since birth, which I see, is socially. Being sighted before, I know how socially people interact in a visual way. When someone talks to you, you look at them. But that's not your natural inclination when you're blind, especially when blind from birth. Your source of input is your ear, that's where your information is coming from, so naturally some blind people turn their head to the person they're talking to. Socially, that kind of thing can make sighted people feel uncomfortable - which is wrong and it shouldn't, but it can.
I'm lucky, I can remember colour. Although I can't see the sky anymore, if it's a grey day I can paint it blue in my head. I treasure those memories and hold on to them.
How do you feel about being introduced as "blind singer-songwriter", "blind horse rider"?
I can understand why it's there but for me blindness is quite inconsequential to what I do in music and horses. They don't say "blind Stevie Wonder", do they?
One day I'd like to be the "bling singer-songwriter", as opposed to "blind singer-songwriter". Change one letter and you've got a whole new meaning.