Para-equestrian Lauren Barwick has become the latest in a wave of resignations from Equestrian Canada boards in recent weeks. The 39-year-old BC native, who now resides in Reddick, FL, is a gold and silver Paralympic medallist (2008) and silver and bronze WEG medallist (2014) who was inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame in 2015. She had been on the Equestrian Canada Para-Equestrian board since 2003, but had become increasingly dissatisfied following a series of unfortunate events and frustration with the general direction the leadership of EC seems to be headed. “There were some poor decisions made this year and I had just come to the point where if you don’t feel good about it, you’ve got to stand up for it,” she stated.
Her resignation letter, dated January 28, 2017, read:
After much consideration, I have chosen to resign from the Para Equestrian Canada Board. This decision does not come lightly, as I have enjoyed being part of the Para Equestrian program from a developing, strategic planning and supporting role.
I thought I would be able to put emotions aside after recently being insulted to a level that I did not think possible. However, each time I participate in a conference, or reviewing policies/documents meeting, I find my self-unable to separate my personal experience from that of acting board member.
I make decisions from a logical founded position. When decisions are made based on information that is unfounded and biased, and then that untrue information is shared and documented, there is no longer trust, or transparency. I understand there is a job to be done and appreciate that people have to make difficult decisions, and do respect those who have.
It is obvious that the direction Equine Canada is taking is out with the old and in with the new. I have been with the board since 2003. With that experience I bring history and accountability, which can be a thorn in the side of people who want to make decisions without understanding our past.
I have enjoyed working with many of you, your commitment and dedication to the success of our athletes is appreciated immensely. I personally know my success over the years was attainable because of your efforts. I truly hope for success for the future of Para Equestrian Canada.
The Parelli Roadblock
Barwick’s decision was based in large part on the training situation affecting Onyx, the 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding leased by Barwick and owned by EC (with a substantional portion of the purchase price donated by one of Barwick’s supporters). The pair had the best results for Canada in the 2016 Rio Paralympics, finishing 6th in the Grade II Freestyle and leading the team to a 13th-place finish overall. A 4-star Parelli professional trainer, Barwick remarked in a blog, “I owe much of my success to the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program, which has supported me for the past 11 years. I truly believe this program has helped me achieve success by creating, with my horses, a partnership in which the horse is in the arena with me, not because of me.”
Barwick was limited to the amount of Parelli horsemanship she was allowed to do with Onyx, a system she considers critically important since she is without the use of her legs. She explained, “At the end of the 2016 Paralympic Games I decided I wanted to continue my journey with Onyx towards the 2018 World Games, but this time I would not waiver on training in accordance to my principles in horsemanship. In response, without consulting the elected Equine Canada Paralympic Committee … our High Performance director [Jon Garner] informed me: ‘After consulting numerous dressage professionals, the implementation of a horsemanship program at Onyx’s age would not leave him a top dressage horse’; therefore, my lease of him was now terminated.”
In response to the unusual “age” concern, Barwick countered that EC had leased her own Parelli-trained horse, Fergi, from the ages of 12-16 for use in international competitions; Maile was introduced to Parelli horsemanship at the age of 14 and won a Paralympic gold medal; and Off To Paris (which Barwick now owns) at the age of 10 demonstrated her horsemanship methods in a viral YouTube video and won two WEG medals. “It seems that at Onyx’s age of 13 it was completely reasonable for him to learn how to be ridden by a paralyzed person,” she noted.
She suspects that not understanding ‒ or simply disagreeing with ‒ the Parelli system is at the root of the issue. “They hire dressage coaches, but they don’t understand the horsemanship. There are people that don’t like Parelli. There’s the good, the bad, and the ugly in every discipline. They see certain things in Parelli or horsemanship that they don’t like. I say ‘you know what, I’m doing dressage; that doesn’t mean I do rollkur.’ They assume I’m doing everything, rather than tailoring it to the training of my dressage horses.”
Nobody provided Barwick with specifics, but they did tell her that if she wanted to teach something, she had to first ask in writing. Said a frustrated Barwick, “How am I supposed to put everything I do in a day in horsemanship in writing? I would like to teach him to bridle from my lap. I would like to teach him to lead on the end of the rope as opposed to on the chain. I would like to teach him to be comfortable in the trailer…
“I’m so tired of people saying ‘this is right and this is wrong.’ It’s about what is good for your horse. For people to put a blanket statement on any discipline or any [system] is very close-minded.” Ironically, Barwick has just recently been contacted by a researcher on behalf of the FEI, who are looking into better implementing horsemanship programs within the FEI disciplines.
Insult to injury
An extremely embarrassing situation arose when Barwick went to ride Onyx and coach Traudel Bongers ‒ who had been notified before Barwick that the lease had been terminated ‒ had to deliver the bad news when she showed up at Bongers’ farm for a training session. Barwick recalls the uncomfortable exchange. “She said, ‘Have you spoken to EC? I think you’d better call them before you ride that horse.'”
Barwick cited some other reasons for her decision. “Part of the insult is that they were considering giving the horse to another rider. They’ve recently chosen to go the route of selling him. The other insulting thing is that when they reported the reason for the lease being terminated to the Canadian Olympic board, they indicated that it does not reflect my performance, it reflects that Equestrian Canada is reviewing whether they should be owning horses or not. They didn’t even honour me with the fact that they were pulling the horse because I insisted on doing horsemanship with it.
“[Garner] sent me a letter stating that the lease had been terminated ‒ but nowhere in that letter did it describe why. That’s not acceptable. You don’t get to make a decision and not document it correctly.” Emails sent to both high performance manager Anna Johnson and Garner requesting the actual reason be addressed resulted in a promise to discuss it at an upcoming meeting, but nothing materialized. This left Barwick having to explain to her numerous sponsors and thousands of fans why she didn’t have the horse anymore.
Looking forward to 2017 and beyond, Barwick is busy building her business Bridging the Gap and is also competing very successfully in para-reining, winning the World Para-Reining Championships in 2015 and coming second in 2016. “I want to do dressage, I just don’t have a horse,” she explains. “But if a horse and the opportunity fell on my lap, I would jump on it.”
Elizabeth Quigg, chair of the Para-Equestrian Committee for over 12 years, is saddened by the loss of such an experienced member of the para community who has invaluable input from being ‘in the trenches.’
“She’s left a big hole. For someone of her calibre ‒ she was a mentor, she was an example to every upcoming rider, she was a donor of horses to upcoming riders ‒ it means a lot,” lamented Quigg. “Lauren has very valid reasons for resigning; it’s unfortunate that she has to resign from the committee itself. It just added to the general dismay of what’s going on.”
Currently, the fate of Onyx is unclear as to whether he will be sold or assigned to a new rider, as is the rumoured appointment of a new team techical advisor for para. Quigg said, “I’m so, so sad that para could go from a sport that really was successful and we thought we had a really good template to something that I don’t know how it is going to come up from the ground now.”