Meet the winning endurance rider who can tack up her horse with her toes

H&H spends a morning with Philippa Verry at her yard situated between Dartmoor and Exmoor

  • Philippa Verry is an extraordinary horsewoman, not that she’d like you to think of her as exceptional. She’s ridden at Olympia, hunted throughout her life with various packs, and – in her late 50s – turned her hand to endurance riding, and winning. All this without the use of her arms, since she was born without them as a side-effect of thalidomide. But Philippa has never let this apparent disadvantage deter her from achieving anything she wants in the equestrian world.

    “I am not disabled,” she says, when H&H visits her Devon yard. “I can do whatever anyone else does. I have never had any problem doing anything; some jobs just take me longer. There’s always a way if you want to do something badly enough.”

    Philippa credits her paternal grandmother, who brought her up, for giving her the self-belief and attitude that “anything is possible”. She arranged riding lessons for the young Philippa with the inspirational Anne Gascoigne, who imbued her not only with a passion for horses but her optimistic outlook.

    Philippa has no groom at home, so does all the stable chores herself. The place is immaculate. Here’s a snapshot of a day on Philippa Verry’s yard, as she demonstrates how she grooms, tacks up and prepares her horses for riding.

    Pippa Verry leads her horse Stilton out of the stable

    Philippa leads the well-mannered Stilton out of his stable. The Irish-bred with Clover Hill jumping lines is her top endurance ride

    Philippa, aged 60, is more flexible than most people half her age. She explains that she does most jobs with her feet and toes that would typically be done with hands and fingers. With a horse that’s new to the yard, she goes about the jobs slowly for a day or so while they get used to her way of doing things.

    Philippa brushes her horse Melitta using her feet

    Philippa demonstrates her agility as she grooms Stilton

    “If it’s a two-handed job, I need to sit so I can use two feet,” Philippa explains. “I have chairs all round the yard – I buy them at the tip for a pound.”

    And when it comes to tacking up, she uses a specially constructed platform so that she can sit at a convenient height to put the bridle on.

    Putting the bridle on from a platform, Philippa slips the bridle over the ears with her feet and does up the buckles with her dextrous toes

    Doing up the girth

    When it comes to riding, nothing holds Philippa back. In her 20s, she won a dressage scholarship at Windsor Park Equestrian Club, which she took up to train with John Lassetter. And although she’s had opportunities to pursue a para dressage career, on reflection she decided “it wasn’t for me”.

    “I have the utmost admiration and respect for para riders, she says. “What they’ve achieved is incredible; that extra bit of grit and determination to do what they’ve done. People say I’d be such an inspiration, but as I’ve always competed on level terms, for me that is the achievement. I just consider myself as someone who rides in a unique way.”

    Her tack is adapted so that the reins attach to the stirrups, and she finesses the contact with her toes.

    Reins attach to the stirrups

    Philippa likens her specialised reins to using side-reins for lungeing.

    “You wouldn’t think twice about doing that,”she says. “But what I do has more give because I can soften with my feet whereas side-reins attached to the tack cannot.”

    Philippa Verry gets on board Stilton

    Stilton stands politely by the mounting block as Philippa gets on board

    Philippa is a relatively new convert to endurance riding. After her first novice ride, she came back buzzing: “I knew there and then endurance was going to be my new passion. I found it the most friendly sport I’ve ever been involved in, made lovely friends along the way, and I absolutely love it. That wonderful bond that you build with your horse after spending so many hours in the saddle together over every sort of terrain imaginable. Totally trusting and respecting each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

    “It is a wonderful sport, it’s not ‘win at all costs’, horse welfare is paramount and everyone helps each other, even though it’s competitive. I’ve never known anything like it.”

    Philippa Verry training Stilton at home

    Philippa training Stilton in her arena at home

    Leading two horses out to the field

    Leading Stilton and Melitta out to the field

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