So Far and So Close!
An Equestrian Dressage Athlete's First Paralympics
By Garry Angus
She had come so far, and in just three and a
half years, made it to the 2004 Paralympics as Canada's Grade II rider.
Were it not for difficulty executing a perfect 'halt' during competition
(bringing the horse to a complete stop on command), she would be on the
podium wearing precious metal. An Athens medal was that close for Lauren Barwick, 27, of Aldergrove,
B.C., and her mount "Dior".
Barwick left Athens
maintaining her rank as one of the world's top ten athletes in her
Barwick's road to the Greek games began shortly after the June 17th 2000
work-related accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Prior
to that date, she had been a professional rider; a competition jumper; a
horse wrangler for the movie industry. She had a high skill level on a
wide variety of horses. Even though therapeutic riding was available for
people with spinal cord injuries, the last thing Lauren wanted was to do
was be led around on the back of a horse after the level of mastery she
had attained prior to her injury.
"When did I decide to go riding again?" She remarks, "I had wanted never
to ride again. I had ridden at such a high level previously, and
After adjusting to life with a wheelchair, Barwick, took up sailing and
boat racing at Jericho Beach with the
Disabled Sailing Association of B.C.. The solitary control of the
vessel reminded her of what it was like to ride. She tried other
activities, such as kayaking and mountain biking, but "nothing really
filled that void." Her passion was for all things equestrian.
Confidence gained from disabled sailing and her innate athlete's
competitive drive set the stage for her comeback to the saddle.
After some initial steps at the stables, she visualized competing again,
this time in equestrian dressage as an athlete who just happens to have
a disability. While searching for the right equipment to accommodate her
in the saddle, she met Sandra Verda, the riding coach with expertise in
able-bodied and disabled riders. Verda specializes in coaching those
riders who seek independence and competition, because it is her love and
passion, and as she puts it, "there really isn't that opportunity." She
would shape Barwick's riding, inspire her and support her mentally, and
take her to the Athens Paralympic games as a world-class athlete.
Barwick's saddle was adapted by Verda with Velcro thigh straps, padded
knee rolls and elastic bootstraps to keep her legs in place as she rides
- all devices designed for a quick breakaway if she needs to fall. With
inflatable gel pads strategically placed on her saddle to protect her
tailbone and the seat of her spine from pressure and percussive sores,
she was ready to train hard.
Being paralyzed and having no sensation from the waist down, she
balances on her mount through the use of her abdominal muscles, and
where an able-bodied rider would apply leg pressure to guide the horse
in controlled movements, she would shift her core weight and use special
adapted riding whips.
Barwick was classified by the International Paralympic Equestrian
- the regulating body for the sport for riders with disabilities - as a
Grade II.3 rider out of four competition grades (Grade I riders being
those with the most severe disability). She would ride against athletes
in her grade with various disabilities, including amputees and those
with cerebral palsy, and thus far, has only competed against three other
riders with paraplegia.
Barwick had come so far, so fast, and achieved international standing in
her sport. She qualified early on for consideration for the 2004 Athens
Paralympics, but, with only three spots available to Canadian riders,
there was contention between the Canadian Paralympic Equestrian Team
selection committee and the athletes as to who would get to go. By IPEC
rules, the Canadian team had to consist of at least one Grade I, and one
Grade II rider. It came down to what permutation of grades and number of
riders per grade the committee would select for the three spots for
Greece. Near the end, almost all riders had lawyers for their seven-hour
conference calls with the team selection committee. There were three
court case appeals. The team changed three times. But Barwick got the
spot as Canada's Grade II rider for Athens.
At the games, she competed in her grade against the world's 20 elite
Paralympic dressage riders, the top 10 each having over 15 years
experience in top-level competition, and her with but two years'
experience. A Paralympic medal was so close, were it not for the elusive
"halt" in competition tests.
Perhaps it was the excitement of competition, perhaps nerves and the
expanded sensitivity brought out in Dior, but Barwick had difficulty.
When she went to stop him in her routines, he wanted to "Piaffe" - dance
on the spot. Without the physical use of her legs to push him into
compliance, she couldn't get him to halt. The problem struck twice.
"I had amazing artistic marks and some of the judges gave me second
place marks," Barwick sighs, "but I could not get Dior to halt. And the
judges' comments were 'such a spectacular ride! Your horse and you go so
well together, a pity about the halt.' That can make you cry. But we
needed to do that. We went from mellow and safe to 'here we are in
Athens and we need to take that chance and hit it'. So that's what
In her Championship test, Barwick got a total score of 68 (out of a
potential 100) and placed seventh. Bronze went to 68.7%. She had
individual scores of seven, eights' and nines (out of 10) in everything
but the halt where she got fives. Had she gotten a score of six in the
halt, she would be wearing Athens silver. It was that close.
"The thought that I qualified for Athens in two years was remarkable to
me," says Lauren, "because I had such a short time to train, and the
thing with dressage is its preciseness. I only had a short time to put
together a whole test, and couldn't go back and make every part perfect.
I had to keep moving on. I had to keep learning new stuff so I could at
least come to the arena with something."
Lauren, Dior and Sandra returned to Canada, regrouped, relaxed, and
started preparations for the road to the
2008 Beijing Paralympics. Barwick will be at her prime then, and fully prepared to stand with the
best in her sport.
"The European championships are this year and the worlds are next year,"
she says, "and then Beijing."