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28 October, 2016

Dressage in the Dark

Sue-Ellen walking on a dirt path with a white horse on the left and her former Guide Dog, Prada, on her right.

Paralympian follows the sound of voices at Australian championships

A year ago, dressage champion Sue-Ellen Lovett, who is vision impaired, was riding towards people with spotlights which they would shine towards her to give her direction, but due to her eyesight deteriorating dramatically over the past year, when she appeared at the Australian Dressage Championships last weekend, she used living markers.

These living markers called out their position as she rode towards them, an amazing feat of precision and practice, which the former Paralympian prides herself on.

Sue-Ellen’s fine skills at the Dressage in the Dark event were illustrated when two sighted dressage riders   - Olympian Heath Ryan and World Championship representative Brett Parbery - put on glasses that only allowed them to see a dark fog and ride movements on command, relying on calls of the living markers, during a special challenge.

“One of my girlfriends, Cathie Drury-Klein, who is an organiser of the Australian Dressage Championships, was inspired by the Paralympics and wanted to highlight the achievements and difficulties of such athletes. She contacted me and it just grew from there,” Sue-Ellen explained.

Initially, the crowd watched Sue-Ellen, who was born with the eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa, ride a mini small tour to music, before she demonstrated her skills riding to living markers. Finally, the two dressage champions put on the glasses to try the exercise themselves in front of the live audience. 

“My main worry trying to ride with limited vision will be that I won’t be able to judge distance and balance in the arena, these are two of the most important elements when riding a dressage test,” Heath said in the lead-up to the event.  

Heath said the challenge would be very hard, and saluted Sue-Ellen for her amazing dressage career.

The reality of losing sight over time  

For Sue-Ellen the reality of losing her vision slowly is one that she has had to live with, but she admits it is not always easy. 

“Each time my sight worsens, I’m losing a part of me so it hurts, it’s like a kick in the guts. I just have to go through the grieving process each time and start fighting again. Not every day is easy and I’d be lying if I said it was,” she said.

Sue-Ellen with her former Guide Dog, Prada.

When she is not on her horse Sue-Ellen has her Guide Dog, Armani, by her side. The Dubbo local contacted, Guide Dogs, the leading provider of Guide Dogs and other services that enable people with impaired vision to get around their communities safely and independently, more than three decades ago for orientation and mobility training.

Armani is Sue-Ellen’s fifth Guide Dog. “My Guide Dogs have given me my life and it’s an amazing life. Having a Guide Dog has given me my independence and mobility, and the ability to go anywhere and do anything,” she said.

Sue-Ellen has competed at two Paralympic games, a world championship, was on the Sydney Paralympics organising committee and has won numerous national community and sport awards for her achievements.

She travelled to Sydney with Armani by her side as she prepared for the national championships. 

Every day 28 Australians are diagnosed with uncorrectable vision loss, including nine who become blind.

What is Retinitis Pigmentosa?

Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) is the name historically given to a group of many forms of inherited retinal dystrophy, or degeneration.

It is thought that one child is born with RP in about every 3,000 births in Australia.

Typical symptoms of RP are what are commonly referred to as night blindness and tunnel vision.

With RP there is no uniform age of onset of symptoms and no uniform rate and extent of vision loss. These can vary markedly from individual to individual and are not usually able to be predicted.

* Source: retinaaustralia.com.au