While living in France the past three years, I’ve been to some pretty amazing places and met some pretty remarkable people. It would be hard to compare them. The story and life of Verity Smith, however, has touched me more than others. Her example encourages me when I want to say “I can’t.”
Verity and I met last summer at an apero party at a friend’s home. It was a casual afternoon gathering with people standing around the cocktail area in small conversation groups. When the party was pretty much in full swing, a most attractive and “proper” young English lady with a large, black labradoodle joined a group of people she apparently knew. Because I owned a black labradoodle at one time, my attention went to the dog. I glided over meet him — Uffa. I noticed he was wearing a harness, not just a leash. He was a service dog. The beautiful blonde at his side was his “Missy” — Verity Smith.
Meeting Verity has been hard to forget. Aside from her beauty, she is an Olympic-rated equestrian.
Riding since she was three, and competing since she was five, Verity began her journey into blindness at the age of eight. Never thinking that riding a horse would be too dangerous for a blind person, Verity continued riding. She convinced herself and others the horse could see for her. Her victories in equestrian competitions for the sighted and the blind proved her right. At seventeen she won every able-bodied event she entered. Her only concession had been to switch from show jumping and cross-country to dressage. She was more than 90% blind.
“Dressage is dance set on a stage with a horse,” she said.
In 1992, Verity represented Great Britain as part of the British Team at the World Championship at Arhuss in Denmark. She ranked top in her category. After winning more impressive titles, Verity was onboard in 2016 to compete in the Brazil Paralympics. Until the blindfold controversy, that is.
While Verity has lost more than 90% of her vision, like most blind people, she has a residue of light sensitivity. The feeling of light she has creates her days and nights — the axis on which her other senses calibrate. It is very rare to be “black” blind.
Midway through training for the Brazil games, Verity and other blind riders were told they were required to wear blindfolds. The rule that a rider could compete in a lower disability category without a blindfold had changed. Verity was devastated.
“Horses have always been my sanctuary from my disability, allowing me to quite literally ride the storm of my blindness. When I ride I am free and afraid of nothing. In the blindfold I am a prisoner, frightened of the dark.”
The new rule by the International Federation Equestrian (FEI) left only months for Verity to change her training. She decided to challenge the rule.
Verity became the voice for blind equestrians around the world.
“It’s a dangerous sport anyway, but to disable somebody further is very, very treacherous. We rely on every inch that we have to keep us and the horse safe,” she stated. “It is the difference between having no day and no night.”
“The whole ethic of the Paralympics is about breaking down stereotypes which is something I have tried very hard to do my whole life,” Verity explained. “They are about using what you have got, no matter how small it is and it is very sad that this rule is taking it away.”
Verity failed to compete in the Paralymics, but she won her case against blindfolds. As an advocate for the Blind, Verity had been successful in “ helping sighted people understand what being blind means,” she stated proudly.
The Paralympics ruling was not the first time Verity had spoken out for the blind. She represented blind charities at the House of Lord. She successfully campaigned to allow Guide Dogs to travel on planes and Eurostar. She worked for Braille to be displayed on vending machines — that is, after having bought a novelty condom instead of a tampax in a public restroom.
How does she do it? How does a blind equestrian compete?
Verity trains every day. Her horse, “Kit”, knows her every move.
“He sensed early on that ‘there is something wrong with this person — she can’t see, she bumps into me sometimes’ — but he’s very accepting of that.”
In addition to a well-trained rider and horse, Verity’s team includes helpers she affectionately calls the “Scoobies.” Named for the cartoon character “Scooby Doo” who, according to Verity, “He eats everything in sight,” the Scoobies guide Verity through her dressage course with auditory signals. The Scoobies arrange themselves along nine markers within the dressage arena. Each Scoobie holds a letter which he/she calls out during the routine. Nine Scoobies out of a pool of twenty participate in each event .
Can we help?
Verity isn’t one to ask for help. She’s quite independent living on her own — with Uffa, of course — in her apartment in Nimes. Her mother lives in a nearby town. In addition to riding, Verity is an accomplished writer, singer and composer. Admittedly, she knows no limits. She is confident her spirit and determination will influence the public’s perception of blindness and help others who have disabilities cope with their challenges through her example.
This year I’m making a pledge to help promote Verity’s work through the non-profit “Equipe Verity.” Contributions to the association pay for costs associated with running the project — petrol, overnights, horse transport, competition fees and the like. Members of the association receive a membership card, quarterly email newsletter, a schedule of events that they can attend and, most importantly, members become part of Verity’s team — a team that strives to change perceptions and raise awareness for disabilities through positivity and example. For information about Equipe Verity, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Horses have always been my sanctuary. Riding is the one thing that takes me out of being blind.”