OBITUARY : Pat Smythe

Click to follow
Hands. An extraordinary, instinctive feeling for animals and also for people. That's what characterised Pat Smythe and made her unique. Smythe did more to put the sport of show jumping on the map than anyone else in its history.

Middle-aged ladies were misty-eyed over their coffee-cups yesterday as they recalled the idol of their childhood. And the Olympic Gold Medallist Colonel Sir Harry Llewellyn of Foxhunter fame described Smythe as "an all-time great, the best lady rider I have ever seen, amazingly brave; a tremendously good horsewoman with great talent."

Pat Smythe became a household name in the years immediately after the Second World War. The small arena of the show-jumping ring surprisingly lent itself to television. Later we were to see an even smaller arena, the snooker table, achieve popularity, perhaps because it is so much easier to follow than - shall we say - the larger scene of football or racing.

In show jumping it is so easy for the cameras to portray every move. Furthermore, no woman had ever infiltrated this hitherto all-male preserve dominated by the cavalry officers of so many countries. In England there was Weedon, the Army's supreme cavalry school, in France Sumaur, and every other leading nation had their own competitors. Most of the officers who were, let it be said, brilliant at this embryo sport, rode in uniform.

Smythe, who had devoted her life to horses, was lucky enough to find three first-class animals with whom she struck up a wonderful relationship which took her to an irresistible peak.

In the last few weeks we have seen how one woman in show-business, Evelyn Laye, was never created a Dame of the British Empire. "Boo" became only a CBE. The same way in which the honours system can be discredited was the fact that Pat Smythe, who inspired hundreds of thousands, was only appointed OBE.

She won grand prix events on her own horses in more countries than any man or woman has ever done. The United States, Denmark, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Holland and Australia, South Africa and South America saw her victorious.

In 1956 she was the first woman to ride in the Olympics' show-jumping event and the first to win any medal - a bronze. Until then women had been banned by the Olympic authorities, as it was deemed not fair to compete against the men.

Pat Smythe was born in Barnes, west London, but at the age of 10 moved with her family to the Cotswolds. Her father, a civil engineer, was already an invalid before the start of the war and died in 1944 after being nursed through those years by her mother, a former schooler of point-to-point horses.

Pat had already attended six different schools by the age of 15 and it was when she went to Thornton Heath, Bournemouth, that she began to realise her potential as an animal-lover. She had a sick horse, Finality, which needed nursing and she told her headmistress that she must leave school in order to earn enough money to pay for this. After various vicissitudes, working very hard with animals and in vegetable gardens, selling the produce, the Smythes moved to Miserden, where they turned their home into a guest-house for students from the Cirencester Agricultural College and took in foreign children wanting to learn English in the holidays which produced enough money to help Pat's show jumping.

As with all the ventures of her life this was a success, but her mother was killed in a car crash and Pat had to fend for herself.

By the time Pat Smythe was 30 she had already written 11 published books, including the first of her Three Jays children's stories, and her autobiography Jump For Joy and then Jumping Life's Fences were an immediate success. I have two in front of me as I write: Horses and Places and One Jump Ahead.

After Finality, her favourite horse was Prince Hal, whom she described as "my prince", who had finished third when trained by Alec Kilpatrick in the Kim Muir Chase at Cheltenham and whom Pat and her mother had managed to scrape together pounds 150 to buy. At that time he was called Fourtowns but was renamed Prince Hal after his new owner had been inspired by Laurence Olivier's Henry V.

"It took much patience, hard work, and even complete exhaustion on occasions," she said, "to get my Prince Hal ready for his sorties to foreign parts. That first year was spent trying to get control and although he showed great promise at times there were other moments I wondered sadly if we would ever be in complete partnership."

However, in May 1951, a year after he had embarked on his show-jumping career, Prince Hal was selected to go to Madrid for his first international show. And although, owing to a minor injury, he was unable to produce his best, he jumped brilliantly and was the highest-placed British horse in the Grand Prix, winning another competition as well.

He won many big prizes in the next few years in England and all over the Continent. In 1952 Prince Hal won not only the Athlone Cup at the Royal Show, the Midlands Championship, the Cardiff Grand Prix and the Ladies' National championship but in Paris he was leading horse of the show and winner of the Prix du Champion, making his owner-rider who also had her other brilliant horse, Tosca, the leading rider of the show.

Smythe could do no wrong now. With Prince Hal and Tosca she swept the board. After Prince Hal had been turned down by the British team trainer Col Jack Talbot-Ponsonby for the 1960 Rome Olympics Smythe was still picked for the team without him. Talbot- Ponsonby had said he would not have a "thin-skinned broken-down racehorse" on his team. Nevertheless, after the Olympics, riding Prince Hal, Smythe defeated both gold and silver medallists in a major event.

Pat Smythe was every small girl's idol. Her many books were bibles for the children of that period and for many she earned and deserved the adulation nowadays accorded to pop stars.

At the age of 35, in 1963, Smythe married Sam Koechlin, a Swiss lawyer and businessman. So great was her popularity at the time that Sir Malcolm Sargent chose the singers for the ceremony of this wedding for a young lady whose musical ambitions had never exceeded a proficiency at the guitar, and Lord Beaverbrook loaned his London flat for the honeymoon.

For 20 years she accompanied her husband on business trips all over the world and became involved in the preservation of rare animals and conservation of the environment as well as ski-ing with her British friends as the Downhill Only Club.

After her husband's death Pat Koechlin-Smythe returned to the Cotswolds but suffered a succession of illnesses, many of which developed from bad falls in her early show-jumping days. She had a series of leg operations and both hips replaced. Crippling osteoporosis developed as well as a heart fault which subsequently killed her.

Unlike so many people, she constantly gave herself to even the smallest events - such as church fetes - and was a hard worker and benefactor for the World Wildlife Fund.

"She was unbelievably determined and dominant," says Harry Llewellyn. "Perhaps above all, she was a supreme judge of distance - seeing the right stride into a fence. She had colossal guts, was amazingly brave, had sympathy with her horses to an extraordinary degree, wonderful judgement, allowing her mount to find its stride, and was the most exceptional woman rider."

Long after Pat Smythe had been forced to give up show jumping she remained in the sport as an international selector and sometimes chef d'equipe of the British team abroad and for three years, from 1986 to 1989, she was president of the British Show Jumping Association.

Patricia Rosemary Smythe, show jumper and writer: born 22 November 1928; OBE 1956; President, British Show Jumping Association 1983-86, Vice- President 1987-96; married 1963 Samuel Koechlin (died 1985; two daughters); died 27 February 1996.