The Story of Paralympian Lauren Barwick
A hay bale that launched a journey…
By Margaret Evans
In May 2014 Canadian para-equestrian dressage rider Lauren Barwick, gold and silver medalist at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, was ranked by the Federation Equestre International (FEI) as the number one para-equestrian rider in the world. She topped the standings at a score of 1264 and remained in that position for eight weeks. The rankings are consistently compiled on a monthly basis and that year included results from January 1, 2014.
“It’s been a productive nine years since leaving British Columbia,” says Barwick modestly. “From when I started to now it’s been a journey of never-ending self-improvement emotionally, mentally as well as physically. It’s been not only about riding a horse but about everything you do in your life and the realization of who you are and where you have been. In helping the circle go round there have been so many people who have helped me [and] I find it so rewarding to help other people find the success that I have.”
Not only has Barwick had enormous success on the para-equestrian dressage circuit but she excels as a horse trainer and is a four-star professional instructor in the Parelli Natural Horsemanship Program.
At the time I first interviewed her in the summer of 2014, she was in the United Kingdom preparing for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy when a record 72 nations came together for the two-week event. Her brilliant performances in para-dressage resulted in a silver medal in the Individual Freestyle Test Grade II and a bronze in the Individual Championship Test Grade II. They were Canada’s only medals at the World Equestrian Games that year.
Lauren Barwick riding Off to Paris in the Individual Freestyle Test Grade II Final at the London 2012 Paralympic Games in Greenwich Park. Photo: Phillip MacCallum/©Canadian Paralympic Committee
Barwick, now 39, is no stranger to challenge. Born in Langley, BC, she was raised in Aldergrove and has been riding horses since she was seven years old. She was a teenager when I was a district commissioner and regional chair in the Canadian Pony Club and I remember watching her move steadily through the levels of competency that were the hallmark of the international organization.
A gifted rider with a passion for three-day eventing, show jumping and fox hunting, she was one of three children in a single-parent family. Yet her siblings had unique and challenging health issues. Her older brother had been born with a severe brain injury and her younger sister has Down syndrome.
As dearly as she embraced her special family with its unique needs, Barwick embraced life. She graduated from school, considered following her love of culinary arts, then pursued a career in the movie production industry not only in acting starting as an extra but also in stunt work with a specialty in horsemanship. It led her to working at a studio ranch in Mission.
But on June 17, 2000, at age 22 and just a month after her brother died, all that changed.
While feeding the horses, a 45-kilogram (100 pound) alfalfa bale fell from a hay stack and landed squarely on her back, breaking two vertebrae and severing her spinal cord. Surgery, rehabilitation and the emotional torment of a profoundly changed life that would be permanently seen from a wheelchair threw goals and priorities into a tailspin. She had no feeling or movement from the waist down. For a while she vowed she would never ride again. She pursued other sports – kayaking, sailing, tennis – but her life’s path led her back to her barn where she began teaching students on her horses. Then one day she was forced to confront a decision about her future.
Watching another riding lesson, she was suddenly overwhelmed and began crying uncontrollably. As she tried to wheel away as much from the arena as a life snatched from her, the coach in the ring insisted that it was time to get back on a horse. Before she could resist, two people picked her up and she found herself looking at her world from a saddle again. But she had no physical sensation of sitting there as she was slowly led in a circle. She wrote later in a blog, “I won’t lie. It was the worst experience I have ever felt.”
But that night she knew she had to toss out the pity party going on in her head. A door had opened. Was she willing to go through?
“Was I going to let the gift that was given to me that day go to waste or was I going to swallow big, dig deep, get over my self-pity and (my) feeling of humiliation?” she wrote. “The next morning I got up early, went to the barn and politely and shyly asked to be put back on a horse. That day was the beginning of my new-found love for riding.”
She didn’t realize it then but it would become a love that would stretch beyond her devotion to horses, her extraordinary gift of bringing out the best in them, and her love of competition which rapidly led her to the international circuit. It would embrace her commitment to learn about life itself, who she really was as a person, and who she wanted to become.
In the next decade she competed in international shows including the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. That same year she received the Canadian Equestrian of the Year Award. In 2007 she moved to Florida and Colorado where she embraced the Parelli Natural Horsemanship approach to horse training, eventually becoming a Parelli 4-Star Senior Instructor. In 2008 she won gold and silver on her Dutch mare Maile at the Beijing Olympics and in 2010 received the inaugural Equine Canada President’s Award.
Above/Below: At the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Lauren Barwick and Off to Paris compete in the Dressage Individual Championship Test Grade II Final. Photos: Phillip MacCallum/©Canadian Paralympic Committee
But while success in the ring is immensely satisfying, the journey getting there is even more so.
“On a personal journey it (riding para-equestrian dressage) has helped me become the person I am and be comfortable with who I am,” she says. “When I first had my injury it was a re-learning of everything about me, who I was, what I was going to do, and how was I going to do it.”
Being raised in a special family with siblings who had profound challenges of their own, she had a better insight than most during her recovery. She saw how others treated people with disabilities. She quickly drew on a wellspring of inner resources as she dug in, adapted, learned to cope and benefitted from the enormous support from her parents.
“My mom was very unorthodox but she had to be to cope with what she coped with,” she says. “She really helped me think outside the box. But when I looked at my mom I think I saw that there was no box. Why does there have to be a box? I lived with my father for five years and he’s been very supportive. He was integral in giving me my personality, my people skills and consistency while my mom gave me a lot of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach. The two of them did shape me to be who I am.”
Her ability to see the unique differences in her parents and in people she meets crosses over into understanding the differences in the horses she rides. Both Off to Paris and Ferdonia 2 have been spectacular horses but in very different ways. And just like horses everywhere, they came into Barwick’s life with their own personalities, unique genetics and individual collection of experiences that gave them the abilities Barwick could work on and expand.
Lauren with Paris (Off to Paris) and Fergi (Ferdonia 2). Photo courtesy of Lauren Barwick
On July 25, Equestrian Canada and the Canadian Paralympic Committee announced the four athletes nominated to represent Team Canada in para-dressage at the Paralympic Games in Rio in September 2016. Barwick has been nominated to the team with Onyx, a new horse she acquired in September, 2015 and which is owned by Equestrian Canada. Her teammates are Robyn Andrews from St. John’s, Newfoundland, riding Fancianna; Ashley Gowanlock from Surrey, BC, riding Di Scansano; and Roberta Sheffield from Lincolnshire, UK on Double Agent.
“I will have about 11 months on Onyx when we compete in Rio,” she says. “He’s a black, 17.2 hh, 13-year-old Hanoverian. He came from Germany and was being ridden by a young rider there. Here, he’s had to learn to go with sticks and voice cues. When I tried him I couldn’t get him to canter. He had no idea what I was talking about. He would do extended trots, medium trots, but now he can easily do a Grade II level. We’ve been training a lot and he’s good most of the time but I need to keep him connected. He tries hard in the arena and he’s a quick learner in that he’s learned to adapt to me. Paris would over-try. Onyx does not over-try. I have to work for everything I get out of him. But I don’t have to worry about him over-anticipating. It’s tweaking little things we need to improve on. He has gotten some phenomenal scores nationally and he’s getting scores in the 80s. He’s trying hard and I hope we will have developed a partnership to achieve a top-three finish.”
Barwick did not go to Europe to compete this year but she knows Onyx would benefit from more international exposure and she knows, to her advantage, that the judges like him.
“It’s nice to have that confirmation,” she says.
Yet there still lingers something of the unknown with Onyx, something she knows will dissipate as time and experience allows them both to better know each other.
“It’s when, for instance, he looks at something or you feel a horse hesitate. With some, you know that if you push them they blow up. So you wait. I haven’t had enough situations with him yet to know if I’m grabbing my handlebar or if we’re okay! It’s those little things that a seasoned partnership has an advantage over. I have an advantage with over 30 international shows under my belt as well as three Paralympic Games and four world games. I’ve a lot of major experience. I know I’m a strong competitor in the ring.”
While Barwick qualified to ride three of her horses – Ferdonia, Off to Paris, and Onyx – she can only take one to Rio. But the financial, logistical and physical demands related to getting ready for Olympic competition can create a whole new level of stress. There are controlling factors as well as many people invested in the competition, all with varying opinions who can add to the layers of pressure.
“Life at this level is not all strawberries and champagne,” she says candidly. “But we still keep doing it. I am all right. I’m feeling good [although] not as good as I’ve been in the past. My shoulder is still weak. I’ve had some hip problems but I’m seeing someone for the next seven weeks who specializes more in strength training while moving. So I’m trucking along. You start to get older. The top six riders in my grade are all under 28. I’m more of a senior rider in my class. Thinking about Olympic level takes young guns. How do I keep up to them?”
At the time I talked to Barwick in early July, she was feeling a bit overwhelmed with the typical pressures of training that required setting aside work opportunities and focusing on being ready for Rio.
“I work a whole bunch and I stop and train,” she says. “It can be really hard and we started to have a raffle where people can win a course at the Parelli Natural Horsemanship Campus as well as a great fishing trip on Vancouver Island. A sort of “GoFundMe” raffle. A lot of things are paid for by Canada, which is phenomenal, but it is the [problem of] working and needing to focus on training where you actually suffer a little bit financially.”
The relationship Barwick has had with her horses has brought stunning success as well as new personal benchmarks.
“I’m not in this just to win medals,” she explains. “It’s a journey of horsemanship for me to become a better horsewoman. It’s about the things you overcome, the people you meet. I may win a medal but it’s only a moment in time. Next year someone else will win it.”
And she knows that the years are rolling on.
“Quite often you get to that point where that’s enough but then you go, hmmm…. And you keep going. I don’t know if I will ever fully retire.”
Through the excellence of her horsemanship she expresses the beauty that she is as a person. She’s the first to say that it can be a struggle and a challenge but she draws on her belief in herself, in her horse, and her spiritual faith. Sometimes she gets pangs of guilt feeling that she should be doing more. But at the same time she knows that her body has been conditioned to the limitations and confinement of a wheelchair for 16 years. Yet dreams and goals still sparkle on her horizon.
“I still believe that things happen for a reason. I believe that there is more that I am meant to accomplish and I’m still trying to figure out what that is.”
While she is not quite ready to stop competing - one of her goals is to ride grand prix but she needs a horse on which she can do it – having a baby with her partner is in her cards.
“I am planning on getting pregnant in the fall,” she says, her voice brightening. “We know we will do this through in vitro. We’ll see how it goes but my level is low enough that I can have a natural birth. I can conceive naturally too but there are complications.”
True to her competitive spirit, she said that September would be the time to become pregnant so that she can have her baby then have the right amount of time to be ready to compete at the FEI World Equestrian Games in 2018. But, with a pregnancy on the horizon, she worries about these long, demanding international trips.
“There’s always something,” she says. “I am worried about the Zika virus [in Rio]. You just have to trust things will be safe but I have already bought stuff to treat my clothing. I’ll be prepared but not worried. I’m scheduled to have a blood test when I get back.”
In the past few years, she has taken up Para Reining and in 2015 she won a world championship as well as AQHA division year end high point.
“Lisa Coulter, our top Canadian Reiner, started up the World Para Reining Association and is very passionate about this sport taking off worldwide. It’s now in many countries [and] our hope is it will one day be a Paralympic sport. The reining horses are easier to ride for a broader group of people and the movement is not as big. As well, there are more retired reining horses available at a cost that people with disabilities can afford. It is really incredible how supportive the reining community is and how exciting it is to compete in. I’m looking forward to doing much more of it. It has been broken down into four grades similar to para dressage. So much fun!”
Above/Below: Barwick has taken up Para Reining and plans to do more reining in the future. She won a world championship in Para Reining in 2015, as well as AQHA division year-end high point. Photos courtesy of Lauren Barwick
In addition to her dream of being a mom, she is considering taking courses to become a life skills coach working in human resources. She is gifted at motivational public speaking. In 2013, she bought a farm in Ocala, Florida where she keeps her horses, teaches Parelli horsemanship, and has students from around the world. Training and travelling to compete internationally means many months away from home which, she acknowledges, can be a lonely journey. But she is grateful for the support from Equine Canada, Sport Canada, and Own the Podium. And she is deeply grateful for the support and sponsorship from the Parelli family.
Travelling to compete internationally means many months away from home each year. Barwick is grateful for the support of teammates and very appreciative of the support and sponsorship of the Parelli family. Photos courtesy of Lauren Barwick
For those who want to follow in her footsteps, she offers sage advice.
“Experiment and try and push yourself outside your comfort zone,” Barwick says. “There was a time when I couldn’t trot down a slope. I was unbalanced. Then I went to Parelli and the arena was on a hill. Soon I was trotting down and then cantering down. Twelve years ago I would have said no I can’t do it. Invite people to join your journey. I have found so many people around the world who have helped me emotionally. They offer their thoughts and prayers. Ride as many horses as you can. That is what makes you a good rider. You become adaptable. What works for one horse doesn’t for another. Be willing to adjust to different situations.”
Lauren Barwick keeps her horses at her farm in Ocala, Florida, where she teaches Parelli horsemanship to students from all over the world. Photos courtesy of Lauren Barwick
To that she would add not to be afraid of failure. “To try is to risk failure. To not try at all you guarantee it.”
When I asked her if she ever resented the hay bale, she thought for a moment.
“I’m not glad about the hay bale but I don’t resent it either,” she says quietly. “I don’t have feelings either way. (Before the accident) I was happy with where I was in life. I had the job I wanted, the boyfriend I wanted, but I didn’t know who I was as a person. I was accomplishing things in the physical sense but I didn’t know who I was emotionally. Absolutely the hay bale has opened up opportunities. I think there are always doors opening but it’s whether people choose to go through them.”
That day when she sat by the arena and sobbed for a life robbed from her, she was staring at a closed door. It was the coach in the ring who nudged the door open and pointed her toward it. She chose to go through. Beyond, she discovered a world with horses that would challenge and push her to new realms of self-discovery. With horses by her side, she enjoys an enriched life in which she can give back and help others challenged with disabilities find their pathway to success.
To learn more about Lauren Barwick, or to contribute to her hopes for Rio, visit her website.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Barwick
Main photo: Phillip MacCallum/©Canadian Paralympic Committee