What it’s like taking a dressage clinic from Gold-Medal Paralympian, Lauren Barwick

This past May, I had the incredible experience of taking Lauren Barwick’s Bridging the Gap Dressage clinic. Lauren is an extremely accomplished equestrian and getting the opportunity to learn from her was exactly the boost I needed to get back into the swing of things. For those of you that may not be familiar with her, here is a small sample of her many accomplishments:

  • Gold and Silver medals at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Hong Kong

  • Silver at the 2012 London Games

  • Silver and Bronze Medals at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy

  • 2004 and 2014 Canadian Equestrian of the Year

  • 2015 WPR AQHA World Show: Para-Reining Champion

  • 2015 inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame

Lauren Barwick

My riding ability (or lack thereof)

Now, having had less than a handful (i.e. 5) rides under my belt in the past 15 years prior to taking the clinic, you would think I would not want to embarrass myself by signing up for a clinic with someone of Lauren’s caliber. I was sorely lacking in basically every capacity possible (physical, mental, knowledge...you name it) but I could not resist the temptation of meeting and learning from this equestrian legend...even if it did mean making a fool of myself in the process.

Prepping

After promising my coach I would not fan-girl too hard upon meeting Lauren, I arrived early to the barn the first day of the clinic so that I could ensure the grey school horse I was using for the clinic was appropriately “turned out”. I tried to do “fancy dressage braids” on this little quarter horse mare’s itsy-bitsy mane, and did what I could to scrub her clean. It quickly became clear that Lauren didn’t care what you or your horse looked like - she was there for one reason and one reason alone - to help you and your horse grow and develop together.

My pitiful attempt at braiding.

My pitiful attempt at braiding.

First impressions

For someone so accomplished, there was not even an air of self-importance or ego about her. She’s matter-of-fact and has the ability to adjust her teaching style to the level of the rider. I was the most amateur rider there (by far!) but she didn’t make me feel out of place or like I didn’t belong. Out of the five other riders, three were instructors, one had Grand-Prix aspirations and the other clearly had been riding for some time. Just to be abundantly clear, at this phase in my ‘learning-to-ride-again-as-an-adult’ journey, I could barely sit a canter properly.

The structure

We started each day with theory and technique and then did a group lesson followed by private and semi-private lessons to apply what we had learned in the morning. I felt like she met each rider where they were in their development and gave them the knowledge and feedback necessary to take them to their own individual best in the four days we had together.

The right nudges, at the right moment.

Lauren was able to see minuscule weight shifts in my seat and tell me how I should be adjusting myself (down to the ounce of weight and pressure) based on the movement I was asking of the horse. We worked on getting my little school horses back lifted to create a round, up-hill horse and, most importantly, she helped me get my confidence back after having not ridden for so long.

(Yes, I know I have a chair seat and floppy reins but would you look at that little mare trying her heart out to be bigger than she is!?)

(Yes, I know I have a chair seat and floppy reins but would you look at that little mare trying her heart out to be bigger than she is!?)

Even though I was the weakest rider there, Lauren didn’t coddle me and she gave me the right nudges at the exact right moments to push me to where I needed to be to improve. As a result, I finally found the beginning of the contact I needed to create a solid connection with the horses frame.

Lauren had a knack for knowing just how long I could go and how much information I could take in at one time. She was really in tune with each riders needs as well as the needs of the horses. She could instantly size up both horse and rider, identify their challenges and provide insightful recommendations and instruction.

Constantly learning

Watching the other riders in their lessons throughout the clinic was just as enthralling. Listening to the feedback and instruction Lauren gave the other riders, gave me better insight into my own riding. It allowed me to see how the minor tweaks she made with them, made a huge difference to their position, the horses frame and the movements overall.

By the last day of the clinic, the warm-ups in the arena had a different feel to them. Everyone was laser focused, poised and knew what they had to work on. We all had come a long way in just a few days and both horses and riders looked and felt transformed.

Would I do it again?

I thoroughly enjoyed this clinic and felt I got a tremendous amount of value out of it. I cannot wait to take another clinic or lesson with Lauren. She is inspiring to be around and everyone (at any level) has something they can learn from this equestrian phenom.