Most riders never reach a level where they earn the right to represent their country, but Sue-Ellen Lovett is not most riders!
The dressage rider from NSW is blind, a hereditary disease called ‘Retinitis Pigmentosa’ having slowly robbed her of her vision since the age of 12. But Sue-Ellen has never considered her condition a barrier to achieving her goals and after representing Australia at two Paralympic Games, she now competes in able-bodied dressage.
While Sue-Ellen’s achievements and her drive are phenomenal, the support she receives from her dedicated team is invaluable. No longer able to actually see the dressage arena, Sue-Ellen relies on a group of ‘living markers’ who each stand at a letter and call it out to her as she’s riding her test.
It’s a concept that has been sanctioned by the FEI and to see it in action is as astounding as it is stirring.
Kelato is a proud sponsor of the inspirational Sue-Ellen Lovett, and became involved with her journey when she sought help with a calming supplement for her horse ‘Desiderata’ whose tendency to spook inside the arena would result in Sue-Ellen losing her bearings.
‘BetaCALM’ has not only worked wonders eliminating the spooky behaviour but Kelato has become part of the team with our own Emma-Louise Baldwin invited to be one of Sue-Ellen’s living markers at the recent Dressage By The Sea CDI event at Willinga Park.
We took the opportunity to get an insight into Sue-Ellen’s world, find out what inspires the dedication of her live markers and see up close just how talented this rider and her remarkable horse are.
Emma-Louise, you’re a dressage rider yourself, how difficult would it be to ride at this level without being able to see?
Well you would think impossible! It’s so hard to get your head around, dressage is challenging enough and it didn’t hit me until I was part of this experience how much you rely on sight for not only riding but horse care in general. Sue-Ellen’s challenges begin at the paddock when she has to try and catch Desi.
Watching her test, what are the biggest challenges she faces inside the arena?
There are just so many. From being able to see the frame the horse is in, if he’s using his back, to your own position to actually getting around the arena. Dressage is so precise, X is hard enough to reach sometimes even when you can see, so not knowing where the letters are, the quarter or centre line. I have no idea how she does it.
Tell me about her ‘living marker’ team and who they are?
There is a main group of people who travel with Sue-Ellen to competitions as her living markers. Some are riders but others are just loyal supporters who are in awe of what she does and want to help her achieve her goals. You can imagine the logistics associated with having to rely on this group to go to competitions with you. They really are a great group of people and there’s a lot of camaraderie amongst them.
So what do they do?
They have the whole procedure down pat and provide you a laminated test with the points at which you have to call the letter clearly marked. As Sue-Ellen is riding towards your letter you’re calling it out so she can work out the direction she’s riding to. She has an amazing knowledge of the dimensions of the arena anyway and knows the numbers of strides for each movement but the callers keep her on track.
I imagine being a live marker was almost as nerve wracking as riding a test yourself, can you describe the experience?
It was SO nerve wracking! No one wants to muck it up and I was terrified at the thought of that. I followed the test so closely and managed to call out at the right time. The team are great though and explained that if anyone did forget, the markers at A or C would point to you to indicate you need to start calling loudly! Before the test all the markers wish each-other good luck, they’re all excited for Sue-Ellen and nervous too
At once it’s over?
So much excitement and relief and it’s also quite emotional. To watch Sue-Ellen and Desi and know that what they’re doing would be impossible for most of us is very humbling.
Can you sum up your ‘living marker’ experience?
It was great, Sue-Ellen is so passionate, dedicated and grateful to those who are supporting her. Everything is done with a smile and she has the kind of connection with Desi that any rider would be envious of. A huge amount of work has obviously gone into his training and that shows in the level of trust between them. He tries his heart out for her and she seems to have that effect on everyone really. She’s an amazing person and you just want her to succeed.