Lauren Barwick displays the qualities one would expect from an internationally ranked dressage rider: athleticism, finesse, and finely-tuned communication with her horses. So it might come as some surprise that she’s paralyzed from the waist down.
Lauren grew up competing in eventing and show jumping, earning a reputation for her ability to ride demanding horses. Then, in 2000, at 22 years old, she was training to become a stunt rider for movies when a freak accident left her future with horses uncertain. A 100-pound bale of hay fell on her back, leaving her with no feeling from the hips down.
It seemed that riding was no longer meant to be a part of Lauren’s life, so she pursued other interests and hobbies. However, her love of horses drew her back to the barn and she began teaching students. Eventually, Lauren’s coach convinced her to get back on a horse, but the transition from riding challenging horses to being led around proved a frustrating experience.
“I was done riding and I was kind of angry,” Lauren says. “[But] I realized the choice was up to me. So, I went back to the barn and said ‘Alright, put me back on and let’s see what we can do.’”
Back in the Saddle
Lauren’s determination and many hours re-learning how to ride ultimately paid off, and she competed in dressage at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. However, she felt little motivation to continue competing unless she could be more involved in her horses’ training.
“I wasn’t a part of the journey of training my horse,” she says. “I didn’t want to have someone else train my horse and I’d get on and they’d put it back together. But I didn’t know how to train my horse from a wheelchair and how to train my horse being paralyzed.”
Lauren found the answer to her dilemma in 2005, when a friend took her to meet renowned natural horsemanship trainer Pat Parelli. He invited Lauren to Colorado for a two-week audition to determine if she would be a good fit for his program. During those two weeks, Lauren helped herd cattle and rode in the mountains—things she never imagined she would do as a paraplegic. Her audition ended with an invitation from Pat to join his program long-term, which led to a seven-year sponsorship.
Parelli’s natural horsemanship program turned out to be the key Lauren needed to both unlock her own potential and start her on a successful training career path. Using Parelli’s methods, she learned how to train her horses from the ground and form more meaningful partnerships with them.
Lauren is now a 4-star Parelli instructor and trains horses and people for a variety of disciplines. She loves the challenge of identifying the perfect training equation for each individual horse and strives to train horses in a way that creates a partnership and makes them want to be in the arena with her.
“If they’re in there with you, they’re going to give you more effort, more heart, and more try,” she says.
A New Outlook
In 2008, Lauren and her Dutch mare Maile showed the world what a true partnership between horse and rider looks like, winning a gold medal in freestyle dressage at the Beijing Paralympic Games as well as a silver medal in individual dressage.
Lauren has had continued success at the FEI World Equestrian Games, Paralympic Games, and other international shows, and in 2014 was ranked as the top para-equestrian in the world by the Fédération Équestre Internationale.
Lauren’s propensity for facing challenges hasn’t faded over the years—she’s added reining to her equestrian pursuits. In fact, she recently qualified to compete not only in Para-Dressage at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games but also the World Para Reining Championships. Her success is even more impressive in light of the fact that Lauren gave birth to her daughter Viola just six months earlier.
When Lauren decided 18 years ago to give riding another try after her accident, she had no idea just how far it would take her.
“You hear the common answer that ‘[riding] gives me my legs back and it gives me my independence’, but for me, it’s much more than that—it’s a career,” says Lauren. “I teach people and I train my own horses through horsemanship. Riding has done more than give me my legs back, it’s actually helped me discover who I am and who I want to be.”
Lauren has proven time and time again that she will not let her disability keep her from achieving her goals. Her passion for helping people, training horses, and riding have led to an equestrian career that continues to inspire people around the world.