We get to meet some rather incredible people at The Bit UK, and this one was certainly no different. Danielle Davy-Moore headed off to the heart of the Cotswolds to meet Caroline Smail. For those of you who have not come across Caroline, she is essentially an inspirational super woman! We first came across Caroline’s artwork as she paints horses and dogs and is a very talented artist it wasn’t until later that we realised that she also rides her two coloured dressage stars and is aiming to be the first para dressage rider to compete at Grand Prix level in able-bodied dressage.
At age 11 Caroline was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma which resulted in her knee and shin bone being removed and replaced with metal plates. During her treatment she ended up having a higher dosage of chemo than she should have for her age, which left her body weak and susceptible to infection. 8 years ago her leg became septic and was amputated. Since then her leg has been re-amputated a further 4 times due to complications which has just made her more determined. She now lives on painkillers and some days finds it difficult to get out of the house, but usually manages to ride Ernie and Dingle, thanks to an innovative saddle that has been designed for her by the fabulous team at Childeric Saddles.
We arrived at Caroline’s yard as she had just finished a schooling session on Ernie, her 5 year old KWPN gelding by Special D. Greeted by kisses from Ernie whilst Caroline untacked and hosed him off, Ernie is one of two horses Caroline is currently riding and competing. The other is Dingle a 14.2hh cob - but Dingle is not just any cob, he’s a super cob! The boys get hacked and lead out together and are also turned out together so are great friends, so much so that it seems they have been having quiet words with each other on how to be cheeky ‘Ern watches Dingle when I am riding and has now started bucking in exactly the same place in the school’ says Caroline. Caroline is hoping to get to Ernie to Grand Prix level whilst Dingle is aiming for Advanced - like we said, not just any cob!
Caroline’s stables are immaculate - a certain level of OCD is needed for a bed that clean! ‘I like a clean yard, I spend ten minutes mucking out and an hour getting the front of the bed straight, it’s ridiculous!’ The boys are certainly looking well for the routine and top class care that Caroline gives them. We headed to Caroline’s kitchen to sit with Choccy and Crunch- the Jack Russells who run the farm. Caroline’s art was all over the walls and quite frankly we were a little star struck. We have admired Caroline’s artwork for a while, her love of the military shines through with some stunning paintings of the household cavalry. Caroline explains that her grandfather and brother were both in the army therefore it is quite special to her ‘The cavalry horses and the whole parade of the house guards is so special, it really hits me - I just love it’.
We chatted to Caroline about her career which has been varied; she used to live in London and was a reporter for the Daily Mail. Not being a city girl, she decided to move back to the Cotswolds and got a job as a property buyer before moving into a PR role and finally taking the plunge into making art her full time job. She started painting around age 14 for pocket money. We found it hard to understand how she can capture the poise and beauty of the horse so beautifully ‘I think about the horses underneath. First I sketch the skeleton and then build it up in layers, painting the muscles and tendons layering the anatomy as I go. I often shut my eyes and feel the horse as I paint, it sounds silly I know but it really helps’. Each of Caroline’s pieces takes up to a week and she often has 2 or 3 on the go at once and switches between them. Sometimes she is painting through the night as her pain can stop her from sleeping.
We spoke to Caroline about riding as an amputee and what the hardest part is. She explains it is the tiredness, that the chemo she had and the morphine she takes means she is always fighting her body. Her prosthesis is heavy and normal activities such as taking a bath or tacking up can take 20 times more energy for her. Pain management is undoubtedly part of Caroline’s every day routine and after competitions she is sometimes unable to drive home due to the pain or the effects of pain relief, although she doesn’t let it stop her. ‘Pain doesn’t need to be an issue, it doesn’t stop me I just get on with it and keep going’. Her supporters Childeric have helped somewhat with Caroline’s pain by designing her a tailor made saddle. The saddle has a block which secures Caroline’s leg, as previously it moved a lot when she was in the saddle and could affect her balance if the horse tripped for example. ‘The saddle from Childeric is awesome! Previously I was thinking of my leg all the time and what it was doing that I couldn’t concentrate on what I was doing and what the horse was doing. The saddle supports my leg so I can concentrate on riding’. Tricia Bracegirdle from Childeric has helped Caroline to get the saddle perfect for her and for the horses - ‘I must have been back to France 5000 times and Tricia is here as soon as I pick up the phone to help, their support (Childeric) has been brilliant’.
Caroline’s journey to Grand Prix with Ernie and Advanced with Dingle may not always be plain sailing, and as most of us with horses know - there is always a support team behind every rider. We asked Caroline who is there to support her along her journey: ‘My parents help a lot, they drive me around and groom for me at competitions. There is always something to help with. Justine Sole is my trainer who is based at AM Dressage in Newnham on Severn - she is helping us reach our goals. My farrier, Dave Hall is a friend first and farrier second, he has also trained his son so hopefully I will not be without a farrier anytime soon! As well as doing the horses feet he fixes my leg for me when it needs. We have used the same vet for as long as I can remember, John Codner from Dragon Vets whom I trust 100% - whenever he comes out to see one of them he checks them all and sees that they are okay. My friend Rob Lumb is also a great supporter, he found Ernie for me and helped me with him in the early days as he needed a bit of direction at first’.
So if it seems like Caroline has a lot on her hands running her yard, painting, taking care of 2 dressage horses and her 2 rescue horses whilst aiming high towards Grand Prix then you would be right. However, it doesn’t stop there. Caroline has previously and continues to be involved with the fabulous charity Help for Heroes. Her friend introduced her to some veteran soldiers who were injured in Afghanistan after her amputation. She later got involved in fundraising for the charity - the highlight of which was raising a whopping £1.6million for the charity! The main lot in the charity auction was a seat in a flight with the Red Arrows! No doubt this money has made a huge difference to those who have risked their lives, lost limbs or come back physically and mentally wounded fighting for our country. Caroline continues to provide support and mentoring to soldiers who have lost limbs in combat when called upon.
It was time for us to leave Caroline to her paintbrushes and easel. We certainly had a very warm welcome at Caroline’s and are right behind her in her journey towards her goals. Not only is she a strong equestrian woman, with great horsemanship, exceptional care and attention and passion for what she does she is also one of the best artists we are yet to encounter who has the ability to capture that magic in the horses that we all love. We will be following Caroline closely on her journey and wish her, Dingle and Ernie all the success in the world - lets hope we can be there to watch her first Grand Prix.