The Only Flower Tough Enough: Pat Smythe
Pat Smythe was touring internationally with the British jumping team by 1948, but it would be almost a decade before she was allowed to compete in the Olympics.
Hardship and suffering were always a part of Pat Smythe’s life. She nearly died of diphtheria when she was 5. Her father and mother both died before she was 22. During World War II, she was separated from her brother and sent to live in a new town with only her pony, Pixie, by her side. Horses became the only unwavering constant.
Smythe’s first taste of victory came with a leased horse named Finality, the orphaned filly of a cart horse, at local gymkhanas and pony club shows. In one interview Smythe tells of the informality of the events. “I lost the open jumping class but won musical chairs,” she laughed. Still, it was enough to get her noticed by the British Show Jumping Team. Finality and Smythe claimed victories all over England riding with the team, before the mare was sold by her original owner.
For less than $500 each, Smythe then invested in two horses: a grey mare named Tosca and Prince Hal, a failed steeplechase horse. A third, Leona, was added to the string within a year. Prince Hal became a puissance champion, setting the Ladies’ High Jump record for Europe at 7’4 1/2″. Soon thereafter, Smythe was selected for the British Olympic Team.
Unfortunately, in 1952, women were not allowed to compete in Grand Prix show jumping per FEI rules. Prince Hal was recruited for the team instead. Smythe described Hal as, “the best athlete I ever owned,” but she then laments, “He would frighten himself.” Hal simply would not jump for other riders. After his brief stint with the team, the horse came home thin and shaken. It would be months before Smythe had him jumping again.
By 1956, the FEI rules regarding women riders had finally changed for the better and Smythe was again selected for the Olympics. The British coach, however, still held a grudge against Prince Hal and would not allow the difficult horse on the team. Instead, Smythe rode Flanagan, an Irish horse with only one year’s international experience.
Smythe said in Equal to the Challenge, “Flanagan had all sorts of character, and he tried his heart out, but the Olympic course was too much for him. The jumps were so big and the distances between fences so long that the course suited the big, powerful German horses. Prince Hal could have bounded over the course. I think he could have won the gold medal, given a chance.” Still, Smythe and Flanagan won the Bronze medal in Team Jumping and Smythe received the Order of the British Empire, awarded by the Queen, for her efforts.
All in all, Smythe won four European Ladies’ Championships, eight British National Championships, competed on thirteen Nation’s Cup teams, and finished eleventh, again riding Flanagan, in the individual ranking at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Health problems, including several heart attacks and two hip replacements, would end Smythe’s riding career. She wrote two autobiographies as well as many more equestrian related titles and children’s books. Smythe died at the age of 68, just after Horse and Hound magazine honored Prince Hal in their “Horses of a Lifetime” series.
Shortly before her death in 1996, Smythe said,
I liked to wear flowers in my hair, so it seemed like a good idea to wear one when I jumped. The carnation was the only flower tough enough.
Photos courtesy of ShowJumpingNostalgia and BBC.
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