My life with horses: Debbie Smith — ‘I thought it was time things changed on our roads’

The equestrian world is full of unsung equestrian heroes, working with equine charities, teaching, training, breaking and schooling and generally devoting their lives to horses. Sara Walker talks to Cornwall-based Debbie Smith, founder of the Pass Wide and Slow campaign, about what led her to start her road safety petition.

“My mum had horses, so I was brought up with ponies right from the beginning. In the 1970s, I was a member of the local Pony Club and I went to as many shows as I could hack to as we had no transport. When I was 11, I hacked for two hours each way with my pony Beauty to take my Riding and Road Safety Test! When we got her, Beauty had never done anything apart from hack. I did a lot of cross-country and jumping with her, and once won a chase me Charlie competition against a 16hh horse — Beauty was only 13.2hh, and the jump was 4ft!

“When I was 13, we moved from Hampshire to Cornwall and unfortunately had to sell the ponies, so I ended up riding horses for other people. I got a job working in a riding school as a groom, which was hard work but I loved every minute of it.

“Starting the Pass Wide and Slow campaign was a bit of an accident, really. I was out riding one day with my young horse, Nowell, who I’d broken and schooled myself. He was very good in traffic, but that day we had an incident with a Land Rover. The driver came towards us too fast on a narrow lane, tried to stop on the wet road and skidded into a hedge, which caused my previously 100% horse to spin. I didn’t think much of it, as it had never happened before, but next time I rode out I took my daughter for company to be on the safe side.

“To my surprise, the spinning continued. Nowell was fine if cars slowed down sufficiently, but spooked and even reared if they passed me too quickly. I couldn’t seem to make drivers understand that I needed them to slow down. I eventually called in a professional trainer to help, but all my confidence had gone. I ended up giving Nowell to my trainer, and went back to riding my older pony.

“I believe that the problem we have with traffic on the roads is largely one of education. Drivers just don’t realise how important it is to slow down — when you’re riding on the roads, your horse is closer to the car than you are and that can be a very scary position for them. I checked with the police, and was told that the only signals drivers have to legally abide by are those given by police officers. Unless a driver actually causes an accident, they can’t even be prosecuted. I thought it was time that changed.

I started a petition on Change.org and it caught everyone’s attention immediately. I followed up by creating a Facebook group, which now has over 15,000 members, so that people could share their experiences first-hand. I then got my local St Ives MP, Derek Thomas, involved, and he arranged for me to take the petition to the transport minister. By that time I’d met Christine Brindle through the group, and we went to London together to meet my MP who had secured a debate in parliament, which was a real high point for me.

“The Facebook group has gone from strength to strength — about half of the members now use cameras and report regularly to the police as appropriate. John, Chrstine’s husband, helped us make a ‘Pass Wide and Slow’ DVD, showing how to pass horses correctly and safely, and we sent it to transport companies, ambulance services and the Royal Mail to help them educate their drivers. Mike Mills and his daughter Keri joined the group shortly after it started and Keri designed our leaflets and banners as part of a school project.

“We’re also in our third year of running awareness rides — we had 68 last year, all over the country, and we’ve had support from local newspapers and television which is incredible. We’ve already got 65 rides booked to go out in 2020, with more being added all the time.

“Over the years I’ve been riding, I’ve seen larger lorries using our narrow roads as shortcuts and huge tractors that take up the whole road. Sundays always used to be a quiet day for riding out, but now shops are open and people go out a lot more, so the roads are always busy.

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“I’m still riding now, despite a few health issues. Riding with a camera has made a huge difference to the drivers locally, who are now for the most part very courteous when they pass me. My current horse, Templeton Bridge (pictured), is an eight-year-old Thoroughbred, and he’s just the most lovely, laidback boy. I’m going to carry on riding as long as I physically can, as my horses are so important to me.

“I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved so far with the campaign — more riders are now aware of what they can do to help keep themselves safe on the roads. It’s definitely been a team effort though, and we’ve been able to support and motivate each other through the Facebook group.”

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