Be All You Can Be: Karen Brain, Judi Island, Lauren Barwick, Part 1
Interviewed by Heather Sansom
At the 2008 Olympics Canada brought home three gold medals. What many people don’t know is that Canada also brought home 19 gold Paralympic medals. Canada is a world leader in para-sport.
As I learn about para-equestrianism and work with people with disabilities in my own fitness training practice, I never cease to be humbled and impressed by the sheer athletic spirit I encounter: discipline, determination, winning attitude, and pure hard work. When I look at athletes for examples we can all learn from, it’s hard to miss noticing the achievements of our Canadian Paralympians. International para-equestrian competition is governed by Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) rules and judged with the same technical rigour as other FEI categories.
For this article I interviewed some of our top Canadian para-equestrians (PE): Lauren Barwick, Karen Brain, and Judi Island. They shared their thoughts on para-equestrianism and what they do to excel as riders and athletes.
Heather: Could you describe for readers what being a graded PE means?
Karen: PE is divided into five Grades (1A through to Grade 4). The Grades classify a rider by disability. Athletes are tested and classified by a trained physiotherapist. Grade 4 is the least disabled, and means that the dressage test used in competition is more difficult technically. That does not mean that a Grade 1A rider is not riding a test as difficult for them as a Grand Prix test is for an able-bodied rider.
I’m technically classified as an incomplete paraplegic (Grade IV) from a spinal cord injury. My limitations are that from my waist down I’m partially paralyzed — approximately 40 percent.
After a motor vehicle accident that left her an incomplete quadriplegic, Judi Island has gone on to compete at an international level in para-dressage. She was a double bronze medalist at the 2003 World Championships in Belgium, and was on the 2004 Paralympic Equestrian Team. Photo: Courtesy of Judi Island
Judi: Grade 1B riders are mainly wheelchair users with poor trunk balance and impairment such as very little or uncoordinated use of some or all limbs.
I sustained a spinal cord injury which greatly affects my sensation, strength, and coordination. In addition I have spasticity or muscle tone affecting one side greater than the other. This causes loss of balance, sensation, and uneven strength in my arms, hands, and legs. I cannot ride by feel so must compensate by watching the horse’s reaction to my aids. The horse is my best teacher.
In Grade 1B, riders do a basic walk/trot dressage test. In the freestyle you can add lateral work but are not allowed to do piaffe or passage.
Lauren: I’m a low level Grade 2 Rider — almost a 1b rider. I have zero mobility from the belly button down. I can move one hip slightly and I have more core strength than a 1b rider. I have no lower abdominal or lower back strength — nothing from vertebrae T11 down.
When I ride, I have an adapted saddle with a handle-bar, two large knee-rolls, an extra cushioned seat, Velcro straps around my thighs to stop my legs from bouncing, leather straps holding the stirrups near the girth, and elastic bands around my feet to keep my feet in the stirrups. I ride with two whips, my hands, weight in my seat, and my voice.
Heather: Are there days when you feel like the obstacles might be too big? What do you tell yourself to keep going forward or before a competition?
Lauren: Yes, I ask myself almost every day what I’m doing. But I focus on what I need to do to keep going forward. Everyone has to go through challenges and obstacles. When I’m out doing things and run into obstacles other people run into, even though it’s more difficult for me, they’re the same obstacles other people have to go through. I plan on living my life to the fullest and try to laugh about everything.
I try and go in [to a competition] totally focused. Before I ride I always visually go over my test and take quiet time by myself where I close my eyes and ride my test in my mind.
Judi: The summer after I was released from hospital after a year of rehab, on the advice of my doctor I enrolled in a therapeutic riding program. After just 15 minutes being led on a horse I was so tired, but I knew it was exercising my body in a way that was not possible for me to do on my own. Soon I began to notice an improvement in my balance, strength and endurance.
It was so much easier to push myself to new strength and endurance limits as I gained confidence. With the help of my coach, I began to learn how to compensate for my limitations and really enjoyed the challenges of dressage. Riding is the highlight of each week for me.
The communication between horse and rider is special. I am amazed at how little strength is needed to communicate subtle signals that are understood by horses. Riding is a therapy both physically and mentally. During my lesson I forget about my pain and disability and focus on reaching new levels of understanding and communication with my horse.
Heather (to Lauren): You won Paralympic gold and silver medals. Can you share what your achievement means to you?
Lauren: It was more than I ever expected. I think the medals reaffirmed everything I’ve been doing for the past eight years. People tell you that if you stick with it you’ll achieve your goals, but eight years is a long time and time enough for you to have a lot of doubts.
I don’t think you can describe the feeling of winning a gold medal, having worked that hard for it and sacrificed so much. It almost doesn’t seem real. It’s now opened up doors to feeling free to do other things. I’m not seeking that gold medal any more, although I’ll still ride competitively.
There are two parts to being a medalist: inspiring people, and being the medalist. I’m comfortable and happy to share my story and inspire people. I didn’t do it for the acknowledgement and awards, so I’m not so comfortable with that kind of attention. I did it to be the best I could be. I want to motivate other people to be the best they can be.
Heather: How would you suggest a competitive rider stay mentally focused? How do you stay focused at a high level competition?
Lauren: Depending on what level you’re riding at, you may want to see a sports psychologist. Sharing your goal with someone you trust, whether it’s a local show or a big one, is helpful. Keep it fun. If you’re not having fun, your horse isn’t having fun, and the judges see it.
Karen: Everyone has a system that helps them function best. I know I function at my best when I’m in an environment where there are people better than myself. If I want to stay competitively mentally focused I need to submerge myself in an environment that encourages that: a barn with a good coach and competitive riders. Because I’m so competitive it makes me put out more effort and try harder. I would suggest people figure out whether that’s what they need, or whether what they need is the complete opposite. Some people function best keeping other competitors out of sight and out of mind because that reduces stress for them.
Judi: Always make sure you arrive early so that you avoid unnecessary show stress and to allow time for yourself to visualize riding though a perfect test before getting on your horse. I prefer to do this right at the competition ring. This will help familiarize yourself with the new surroundings and give you time to problem solve ahead of time for anything that might be a bit different than in your home ring.
Before her accident, Karen Brain represented Canada at the 2003 World Equestrian Games in eventing. A fluke riding accident in 2001 left her an incomplete paraplegic. Since then, she has won double bronze medals in para-dressage at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, and has competed at the 2008 Games in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Karen Brain
Heather: What are some benefits of riding for a person with a disability?
Karen: There is a lot of benefit physically. Emotionally there is just as much benefit if not more. Everybody wants to feel they belong and are accepted. If a person has any type of disability they may feel they are the only one quite like themselves. When they connect with a horse, they know the horse is not judging them, and only sees their heart. A horse doesn’t care what shape your body is in. A horse doesn’t connect to your physical attributes. Many people with disabilities find that connection very therapeutic.
Judi: Therapeutic riding benefits individuals with many different disabilities. It increases muscle strength and co-ordination. Spasticity and muscle tightness are reduced by the rhythmic motion of the horse. As spasticity is reduced, range of motion increases. It improves balance. As the horse moves, the rider is constantly thrown off-balance, requiring that the rider’s muscles contract and relax in an attempt to rebalance. This exercise reaches deep muscles not accessible in physical therapy.
The movement while on horseback at a walk exactly mimics a person’s hip movement when walking, strengthening and teaching rhythmical patterns to the muscles of the legs and trunk.
Even though riding is exercise, it is enjoyable. The rider has increased tolerance and motivation to lengthen the time of exercise.
Heather: How can the riding community ensure accessibility and quality of riding opportunities for people with a disability?
Lauren: People make far too many assumptions about riders with disabilities, so better education and understanding would help. The same goes for selling a horse to a disabled rider. When I’m looking at buying a horse, I almost have to hide my disability until I get to the farm to see it because people don’t understand. They’re scared and pre-judge that the horse won’t be suitable. When I tried Maile out, the owner had no idea I was fully paralyzed until I finished riding.
Thinking outside the box, thinking “how to” instead of “how it’s not” is important.
With North America leading the way in accessibility, there is no reason why Canada could not be at the forefront in Paralympic riding. When I travel people comment on how lucky I am to be from Canada because of how accessible everything is.
Karen: Therapeutic programs are a safe, educated environment with safe school horses. The first place to go would be to support your local therapeutic riding centre. If there isn’t one in your area, you may want to consider getting involved in starting therapeutic riding in your area.
PE athletes can be supported in many ways. Offer PE tests at a local competition. There should be more opportunity for PEs to compete at CDI level shows to qualify for international competition.
Judi: PEs have difficulty finding suitable horses to compete on. It takes a special horse.
Most people are very willing to help when asked. Volunteers are always needed. They make it possible for therapeutic riding centres and organizations to offer programs and competitions for PEs. I am grateful to the many volunteers who have made it possible for me to follow my dream.
Heather: What lessons from your experience do you wish everyone knew?
Lauren: The thing that I’ve learned on a personal level is that during your journey, there are people who come into your life you may not have invited in. You may not have the choice of being around them, but you have the choice of how they affect you. Often things can feel out of control. What you can control is how it affects you. I choose to not let negative things or people’s negative energy affect me. I’ve been saying for about a year that you shouldn’t let things bother you for more than five minutes. Once in a while I tell someone I may need seven minutes!
Judi: Believe, focus on your abilities, and follow your passion and you will be amazed where it will lead and what you can accomplish.
I would like to share the benefits I have achieved and the enjoyment I have experienced from riding. I began riding as a therapy and continue to do so for its therapeutic benefits.
A unique connection develops between horse and rider which is psychologically and physically powerful. When horse and rider train together, the horse can become the rider’s legs. I am not able to move very quickly on the ground, but on a horse I am able to run and dance again.
Read Be All You Can Be: Karen Brain, Judi Island, Lauren Barwick, Part 2
For more information on therapeutic riding or PE, visit www.cantra.ca.
Main article photo: Courtesy of Lauren Barwick - Lauren Barwick had successfully competed in eventing and was training to be a stunt rider before her accident. She now has no use of her body from the waist down. She represented Canada at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, and won gold and silver medals at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.