Nine volunteers stood around a riding ring in Lloyd Harbor Thursday afternoon and shouted at Suzanne Ament as she sat atop her horse.
It was exactly what Ament needed.
The 60-year-old Virginian is a legally blind rider in the equine sport of dressage, which requires equestrians to show their mounts' obedience by executing intricate movements at letters posted around a ring.
And that’s where all the shouting comes in.
Because Ament cannot see much beyond light and darkness, she uses the volunteers’ voices as directional guides. In place of the letters, she follows a voice — or, a "living letter," as it’s known. By gauging the distance of a person’s voice, she can ride to that area without being able to see it.
"The hard thing for dressage is getting enough volunteers to be letters," said Ament, who teaches Russian history at Radford University in Virginia. "So I have to learn sometimes to work with just a few letters and then it's not quite as precise, and dressage is a very precise thing."
Ament arrived on Long Island Wednesday to participate in a "schooling show" — that is, a nonrated competition that gives aspiring equestrians a chance to compete — on Saturday at the Lloyd Harbor Equestrian Center in Caumsett State Historic Park.
The trip was worth it in more ways than one. On top of being able to spread awareness of the cause of blind riding, Ament scored the highest in the show with a 77.50 and won the grand prize and a photo shoot by Shelby Phillips Photography, which specializes in equine photography, according to its Facebook page.
Ament was invited by Ana O’Brien, a trainer at the center who has worked with Ament since 2016. The two met at a Para-Equestrian Dressage (dressage for the disabled) symposium in Maine when both were new to the discipline.
"She was at a symposium to learn about Para and I was there to learn about coaching Para," said O’Brien, 53, of Huntington. "They paired us up because I had had some work in the past with vision impairment. I was really interested in the whole concept and how it needs a little bit more exposure."
O’Brien organized local volunteers to act as Ament’s living letters. At a practice Thursday afternoon, Ament took her horse, Dante's Perfect Storm owned by Jane Panagi, and the people acting as letters, through the routine for the first time.
"It was nerve-wracking," said one letter, Holly Gibbs, 41, of Melville. "I felt a little bit like I was competing, too. I wanted to do a good job; I don’t want to mess her up. I want to make sure I call out my letter well enough. I’m just really happy to be able to assist her."
Ament and O’Brien also hope to show that blind riders should have access to rated shows — official competitions typically run by the United States Equestrian Foundation that count toward national and regional standings.
Because Ament’s disability is not considered physical, she has a high classification for rated Para shows and would have to ride tests beyond her skill level with a more advanced horse. O’Brien believes blind riders should be given other options.
"Just because she does not have loss of a limb, or an arm, or two limbs, it shouldn't disqualify her from going into a recognized show," O’Brien said. "Because she does not have access to the caliber of horse that she would need for a higher level, she is, in essence, discriminated against."
Ament said that a major stumbling block for blind riders is the fear that others have when around them, including stables that won't accommodate them.
"A lot of it is the fear factor that keeps blind people from being allowed to ride," Ament said. "I've been told ‘well, our insurance won't cover it.’ I have no difference physically than anybody else. I don't have a disability that would make me vulnerable to falling off or anything like that. All I can't do is see. So insurance shouldn't have anything to do with it."
Ament has ridden on and off most of her life. Simply put, she loves barn life.
"I like the smell of horses," she said. "I like barns. I like to be in the barn when it's raining; it's the most soothing sound. I love to hear the horses eat. … I don't know, just the whole thing I've always liked. Dressage is just a way that I can actually challenge myself to learn more and to get better, and maybe even to win a ribbon, who knows?"
Although she trains weekly, Ament doesn’t do more than a few schooling shows per year. Saturday was her first show since before the pandemic and she hopes to send a message to the visually impaired that they can take up the sport and even compete.
"If I get one blind person from this area to come and take a lesson, I will feel like we have succeeded," Ament said. "Maybe they'll even do better than me. It's not how good you do, it's that you do it."