From the horse's mouth: Johno's journey with blind rider Sue-Ellen Lovett

'Johno' tells the tale of his journey with Paralympian rider Sue-Ellen Lovett

Book Reviews
TAKING THE REINS: Blind equestrian rider Sue-Ellen Lovett with her horse - and co-author - Johno. 'It was meant to be' she said of the moment they met.

TAKING THE REINS: Blind equestrian rider Sue-Ellen Lovett with her horse - and co-author - Johno. 'It was meant to be' she said of the moment they met.

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Dual Paralympian and equestrian rider Sue-Ellen Lovett changes tack in her new book Johno and the Blind Chick.

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Equestrian rider Sue-Ellen Lovett has owned and ridden more horses than she can remember.

The dual Paralympian and Grand Prix-level dressage rider from Dubbo competed at World Championships in Denmark in 1999 where she was ranked fourth in the world and a member of the Bronze Medal Team. She's also completed 10 long distance rides over 16,000km raising millions for charities.

But Sue-Ellen, who was born with a degenerative eye disease (retinitis pigmentosa or 'tunnel vision') that left her legally blind from birth and without sight for the last decade, will never forget the day she met her "soul mate" - a horse called Johno - over a year ago.

"I've got goosebumps just thinking about it. Something magical happened when I got on him," said Sue-Ellen. As a blind rider, the 60-year-old needed a dependable horse, following the retirement of her last horse Desiderata.

"I played a video of Johno and listened to him. I listened to his breathing, and to his rhythm. He had amazing regularity which is really important for dressage."

Despite being way out of her budget, Sue-Ellen headed to Penrith to check out this gentle giant.

"Johno looked after me, just as if he did it every day," she recalls of that first ride. "I've never felt like that with any other horse. It was like it was meant to be."

The inseparable pair has been non-stop since that first meeting. "It it has been the coolest ride, literally." Fast forward and Johno is a social media star with hundreds of Facebook followers and Sue Ellen has published her first book, Johno and The Blind Chick.

Told through the eyes of Johno, the book tells the heart-warming story of how they met and their journey together. "Yes, it's written by Johno - he is extraordinary, you have no idea. I haven't taught him to wash and wipe up yet though," Sue-Ellen jokes.

She said it all started when she set up a Facebook page for Johno. "It was hilarious. Don't ask me why but I started this page up - Johno and the Blind Chick - and it just grew and now he has over 2000 followers."

"He's a fan of the inspirational quote, and writes about what we've been up to. My trainer said I should probably get better core muscles, so Johno took the Mickey out of me for that - telling me I need to go to the gym!"

And it is with the same wit and irreverence that Johno tells the story of their unique friendship in the book.

"I think he realised very early there was something different about me and Johno addresses this in the book. He says 'everyone's always telling her what to do, like 'step here' or 'duck'. There's something really unusual but I can't put my finger on in.' By the third chapter he realises, oh, she can't see, I've got a very big responsibility to look after this blind chick."

And it's a responsibility he takes very seriously. After retiring her sixth Guide Dog, Sue-Ellen took three months to train Johno to lead her through her sprawling property up to the tack shed from his paddock.

"Then he will stand at the tack shed while I get him ready then will guide me a couple of hundred metres through the garden and yard - no easy task - to line up with the mounting block before going into the arena."

It's been the coolest ride with Johno, quite literally. - Sue-Ellen Lovett

Sue-Ellen trains using the sun as a compass to give her her bearings around the arena. When competing she uses living markers - eight people standing at designated spots around the area, each assigned a letter, who call out and act as her eyes.

But crucial to all of this is the trust between the horse and rider, as Sue-Ellen realised early in her riding career.

Growing up on 21,000 acres in Mudgee, surrounded by horses, Sue-Ellen describes her childhood as idylic, despite her deteriorating eyesight.

"I've never been able to see anything in total. With RP it's like looking down the barrel of a .22 - you have no peripheral sight.

"As a kid they put it down to being clumsy. I went everywhere flat out and of course, on the ground I ran into things all the time.

"But when I was on a horse it was different. For a start, they don't have a death wish do they? So I always had these two beautiful brown eyes looking after me. I was safe. Horses, like dogs are very good at letting you know when things aren't right."

As a motivational speaker, Sue-Ellen has shared her inspirational story with many, but says the book has allowed her to show her vulnerability.

"Ask anyone I was probably the least likely child to achieve anything in school. I think this changed when I got my first Guide Dog and decided to ride from Mudgee to Melbourne to raise money for Guide Dogs.

"The best thing about being Johno's alterego is I can show my shortfalls. It's allowed me through Johno to say: I have fears. More people need just to feel that that that they can do something, and not be constrained by what other people think."

"That first ride was the changing point for me. It made me realise the world is your oyster. I don't intend to go slowely to my grave, I'm going to ride there, with a glass of Champagne!"

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