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Verity Smith: Blind dressage rider's Olympic ambition

By James Masters and Olivia Yasukawa, CNN
updated 8:11 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
Verity Smith: Back in the swing
  • Verity Smith is a blind dressage rider
  • She lost her sight by the age of 16 and registered blind
  • Missed out on London 2012 following nightmare year
  • Briton is aiming to compete at Rio 2016 Paralympic Games

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for videos and features.

(CNN) -- "When I'm riding, it is like flying. My feet do not touch the ground -- and the world and all the stresses that can come with being blind just disappear."

Verity Smith has known her share of hurt, heartache and adversity, but it has not stopped her pursuing her dreams.

A singer/songwriter, she has starred in her own stage musical, written a book and campaigned for guide dog awareness -- but she's most at home on a horse.

"It's like floating. It's magical," the 40-year-old tells CNN's Human to Hero series.

Smith gradually lost her vision from the age of eight due to a rare genetic disorder, becoming registered as officially blind by 16.

"It's kind of like a big snowstorm in my eyes," she explains. "I see light and dark in my left eye and within that sometimes I see shadowy movement, but apart from that, not a lot."

While she is a published author and has her own record deal, there is one aim she has not fulfilled -- her goal of competing as a dressage rider at the highest level.

"My dream was the London 2012 Olympics -- to compete at home, in my own country, for my country. It would've been my absolute dream but unfortunately we didn't go."

Rewind to 2011. Life was going smoothly -- she was riding well, singing beautifully and heading for a place in Britain's Paralympics team.

But then Smith's dreams began to unravel at an alarming rate.

In June that year, her competition horse Marcus died of cancer before his replacement was diagnosed with "kissing spine," which meant it was unable to take part in elite competition.

Worse was to come when her first guide dog was put to sleep.

Smith's nightmare 12 months continued when a car she was traveling in -- on the way to pick up her new dog from the vet -- was hit by a truck whose driver fell asleep at the wheel.

Smith suffered impact injuries to her chest and her spine was put out of place.

She escaped without any broken bones but the accident ended her hopes of taking part at London 2012.

"I decided after that year of just horror, it was just an unlucky year," Smith says philosophically.

"Lots of people have them but it seemed like everything came at the same time.

"I was very, very disappointed, very, very sad. It was the one time in my lifetime, the Olympics was going to be in London and it looked like being such a beautiful, beautiful event."

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With her dreams crushed, Smith may have been forgiven for wanting a period of moping and introspection.

Instead, she did what she does best -- she got back on the horse.

Aided by a new guide dog, Uffa, a Labradoodle who she describes as the "number one man in her life," she began to regain her confidence.

Slowly but surely after a year out of the saddle, she began to get her balance back, taking short rides every day.

Once the confidence had returned, it was time to find a partner -- a new horse.

Smith, who is now in France training with experienced coach Max Vendrell, describes the process as "like speed dating but without the bell."

"It was quite an experience," she says. "It's like meeting your future husband.

"I was sitting on new horses in new environments, it's quite difficult."

It was through a recommendation by a former trainer that Smith traveled to Sweden to meet the horse she would eventually fall in love with.

"This horse is really, really special," was the thought racing through her mind as she sat on Szekit for the first time.

"He's an absolute gentleman. If he were a man, I would marry him."

While both took their time to get used to each other, with Szekit (or "Kit" as she calls him) slowly realizing his rider could not see, their progress has been immeasurable.

"He's a really good guy and even the short time we've been together, I've really begun to trust him," Smith says.

"I think he's getting the sense that there is something wrong with that person -- she can't see, she does bump into me sometimes -- but he's very accepting of that.

"I really believe that horses understand I cannot see. They are very sensitive creatures. They're just magic."

The two are now working together in a bid to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.

Such an achievement would be astonishing given her accident -- but her determination to succeed in dressage is obvious to all who have met her.

Having started riding at the age of three, Smith competed in show jumping until her mid-teens.

"When my eyesight got to the point that show jumping and eventing were becoming a dangerous sport, I decided to look for a really good dressage trainer that could take me on and start me from scratch," she recalls.

"I've never actually seen dressage being performed. When I could see, I was obviously very interested in all the things that involved speed and obstacles."

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Dressage, which Smith describes as "ballet with horses," was originally used to train the animals during the Renaissance period.

The "piaffe" is a signature move where the horse jogs on the spot, while there are also the "flying changes" -- where it skips on alternate legs.

"It is all about harnessing the horse's energy and channeling it in different ways, and the control comes from your seat," Smith explains.

"The horse has to be incredibly supple and incredibly strong. It's all gentle movements -- you're never going to get half a tonne of horse to do something by being strong. You have to ask them nicely."

At the Olympics and Paralympics, there are two controlled rounds, where competitors are marked out of 10 and awarded a percentage score, before showcasing their freestyle routine.

Smith's favorite music is swing, with the big band sound of Glenn Miller enough to get her "In the Mood."

But while the swing will hopefully turn to samba in time for Rio, Smith says she still faces a real challenge to qualify for the British team.

"We are working as hard as we can," she says.

"There's a lot of good people out there wanting to be in the British team so our goal is to work as hard as I can and train as hard as I can.

"Although we didn't do London, hopefully with a bit of luck, we'll earn our place on the team and we'll fly to Rio."

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