Holly Smith is heralded as one of the most talented and consistent British riders on the circuit. Last year she enjoyed one of her best seasons so far, to make her mark on the world stage. Riding the outrageously talented Hearts Destiny, Holly helped Team GB win the Nations Cup in Dublin as well as a bronze medal at the European Championships. This helped the team secure the all-important Olympic qualification. She finished the year with a spectacular performance on a number of horses at Olympia. This resulted in her being awarded the leading rider award. On top of her busy international showjumping career, Holly juggles running a busy yard with being a mother to her daughter, Rosie.
If all goes to plan, Holly is a likely contender for the Tokyo Olympics. This would make her the first British female show-jumper to make an Olympic team since 1976.
We caught up with the 31 year old at the Longines FEI Nations Cup Final in Barcelona to hear where it all began. If you thought show-jumping was an elitist sport for the very rich, Holly’s story might make you think otherwise.
“I grew up riding ponies that cost £300. I started out doing everything including Pony Club, eventing and hunting. My mother taught me from a young age and taught me correctly. Although I also had the freedom to work things out for myself which has helped me close the gap with those who come from a very moneyed background. Money cannot buy experience
We lived in Coleville, Leicestershire. Mum and Dad were young parents, they were 21 when they had me and they both had to work full time throughout my childhood. Mum is a midwife and Dad works in IT, so I had a very normal upbringing. We were lucky enough to live next to my grandparents who were great supporters. They didn’t have lots of money but they bought me a pony and a horsebox and used to drive me to shows and pay all the entries. There is no way I could have got here without my family.
It might surprise some people, I was actually quite good at school. I was academic, sporty and musical. I was awarded a scholarship to a private school because I was good at music. In fact, I have Grade 8 in flute and singing. If I got three As I would have ended up doing medicine so it is probably as well that I didn’t get top marks. I had a year out and bought horses to produce myself, with the intention to study hard at uni. I did go to Nottingham university but left to do horses full time.
I was not very interested in the academic work by that stage but did think I could make a living out of the horses and I was enjoying it so much. I always wanted to get to the top as a rider but I was always told it wasn’t possible because I couldn’t compete with the very wealthy. I just kept working away but I basically believed them so it is a bit of a surprise that it actually happened.
Holly Smith with Hearts Destiny, collects the Leading Rider award at Olympia
My first serious jumper was Dougie Douglas and you could say he was the horse who made me. My husband is a farrier and he would see local horses around. So we would have them in, scrub them up and sell them. We sold one quite well so we decided to go to Goresbridge Horse Sales in Ireland with the money. We bought five horses and one was a four year old called Dougie Douglas. Together we went all the way through to 5* level. I’d never jumped more than 1m20 before that.
My husband knew he was very good at the time but he still only cost 5800 euros. It would have been easy for Graham to say “this horse is a showjumper so we need a top showjumper to ride him and sell him”. Instead he had the faith in me to keep the horse and the rest is history.
After Dougie got me on the British team, we were offered lots of money for him. It wasn’t actually heartbreaking selling him because I knew we needed the money. It was harder to keep him because there was always so much pressure. Every time I did well on him, the phone was ringing with people wanting to buy him and if I did badly, I thought I had ruined it.
I didn’t actually enjoy it as much as I do now. Now I have a reason behind everything I do. I do it because I enjoy it and because I can make a living out of it. I do it to try and give my family, my horses and my staff, the best life possible. One bad round doesn’t ruin that for me now.”