Like many rural Australians Sue-Ellen Lovett grew up in the saddle. "I was virtually born on a horse," she says.
"I lived on a 21,000 acre property outside Mudgee in NSW and before I could even sit up properly I would go mustering with my dad while propped up on a little orange cushion. Then, when I was old enough, I had my own pony and I'd go out mustering on the lead. I couldn't imagine my life without horses."
The fact that Sue-Ellen was diagnosed with the hereditary condition Retinitis Pigmentosa at the age of 12 makes her subsequent list of achievements on horseback all the more remarkable.
Today, Sue-Ellen is ranked in the top 10 per cent of able-bodied equestrians in Australia. After taking up dressage in 1994, she's represented Australia three times, including twice at the Paralympics – in Atlanta and Sydney – but since 2000 she's competed solely in able-bodied equestrian events.
Today, with her warmblood gelding Desiderata – Latin for Desire – Sue-Ellen regularly competes in top-level dressage competitions around the country.
"I wanted to be the best I can be and to ride with my peers," she says.
"When I was growing up my parents never said I couldn't do something just because of my lack of sight. They always encouraged me to have a go. That's why I'm still competing. I want do everything I'm capable of; not be limited by what I can't do."
The condition, shared by her mother, Mary – who Sue-Ellen says still lives on the family property in Mudgee and wears stilettos every day – causes sight to progressively deteriorate. Sue-Ellen's used a guide dog since 1981 and her current dog, a black labrador called Armani, is her sixth.
"In the beginning it's like looking down the barrel of a pen. Your peripheral sight goes in stages," explains Sue-Ellen. "The worst thing is that you learn to cope with each deterioration before it worsens. You go through stages of grieving at each step. It's been a huge challenge over the years." Just over four years ago Sue-Ellen became completely blind. It was a blow and she thought her competing days were over. "But my husband, Matthew, had other ideas," says Sue-Ellen.
Agricultural teacher Matthew and Sue-Ellen wed in 2000 and the pair live on his family's property outside Dubbo. "He's pretty straight down the line," she says. "When I couldn't even see the LED lights around a course that had helped me compete up until that point he said 'well, find a way to do it. It's up to you to find another way to keep competing.'"
Now Sue-Ellen competes in dressage comps assisted by six to eight "living markers:" friends and volunteers who call out letters of the alphabet, directing her and Desiderata around the course.
"I'm like a moth to a flame. I count my strides and listen for the marker's calls and ride towards them. They're my eyes in the arena. My markers all understand dressage and know when to call and when to stop. There's a lot to think about but I couldn't compete without them."
She was the first rider to use living markers in able-bodied competition. "Before I first competeted using the living markers I contacted the event organiser to check if it would be okay.
Then one of my rides went viral on Facebook. Everyone within the equestrian community and beyond has been so supportive," she says.
For the past two years, that support has included financial sponsorship from a Canberra-based businessman, keen equestrian and philanthropist Terry Snow. "I couldn't compete without him," says Sue-Ellen. From paying for fuel and lessons to acting as an impromptu cheer squad when competing, Terry, his wife Ginette and the couple's four children are invested in helping Sue-Ellen keep riding. "She's an absolute inspiration," says Terry. "It takes guts, tenacity and talent to ride at her level. Watching her ride brings a tear to my eye so it's a pleasure to be able to help her out. I get more out of our relationship than she does, I'm sure."
In February, Sue-Ellen competed in Dressage By The Sea at Terry's Willinga Park equestrian complex on the NSW south coast, both in the dressage competition and performing a freestyle ride to music. She was led out to that exhibition by Armani.
"It was magic," says Sue-Ellen. "Armani's my beautiful eyes and he loves working with me and Desi."
Preparation for an event is no small task. She trains at home six days a week, and even getting out to Desi in the arena is a challenge.
"When it's hot, I only leave the farmhouse early in the morning because of snakes," she says. "I've been struck on my boots and on the back of my jodphurs four times by brown snakes so I ride before 9.30am and only use my cane around the farm then too because I can't risk Armani either."
When she makes her way out to the arena, Desi – all 700kg of him – comes to Sue-Ellen when called. "Although having a carrot to hand usually helps too," chuckles Sue-Ellen. "Then Desi will lead me up to the shed, I'll saddle him up and then he'll lead me out to the paddock He's really just a very special horse."
Sue-Ellen says that, for all her experience, sometimes riding blind can be frightening. "In the beginning I used to get lost in the arena a lot with Desi and he used to shy a bit," she says. "I think he was testing me out – 'if I do this again she'll give up on me' – and that was scary. But I just had to tell myself to put my big girl pants on and be brave."
After a competition or exhibition Sue-Ellen loves to celebrate – with champagne. "I'm so lucky to have the most amazing family and friends supporting me so we enjoy a glass of bubbles together after an event."
Sue-Ellen's currently busy preparing for her 10th fundraising ride – her first outside the arena in more than 10 years. "I'll be riding Australian stock horses 800km over 21 days around NSW Central West to raise money for the oncology unit at the Dubbo Base Hospital," she says. Over the course of her previous rides – including a 2400km trek from Cairns to the Gold Coast and 1200km from Mudgee to Melbourne, Sue-Ellen has raised $3.1million for Guide Dogs NSW/ACT and other charities.
"I got my first guide dog in 1981 and they've given me independence and mobility," says Sue-Ellen. "I did my first ride – on my old stock horse Mudgee, who lived until she was 35 – to raise money for Guide Dogs because even back then it cost $6000 to train a dog. They're very valuable." She is busy on the motivational speaking circuit too. "I really enjoy sharing my story," she says.
Sue-Ellen has come a long way since those early days mustering on the farm with her late dad John.
"All through my life, my guide dogs and horses have allowed me to be just like everyone else," she explains. "I'll keep riding and competing for as long as I can. I hope I'm proof that you can do whatever you want to do – you just have to find a way."
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