Be All You Can Be: Karen Brain, Judi Island, Lauren Barwick, Part 2

reaching your horse riding goals, Karen Brain, Judi Island, Lauren Barwick, horse riding spinal cord injury, horse rider psychology

reaching your horse riding goals, Karen Brain, Judi Island, Lauren Barwick, horse riding spinal cord injury, horse rider psychology

This article was published in 2009

Interviewed by Heather Sansom

In "Be All You Can Be: Karen Brain, Judi Island, Lauren Barwick, Part 1," we shared the first half of an interview with para-equestrians Lauren Barwick, Karen Brain, and Judi Island.

The amazing determination and hard work of these riders shone through as they talked about being para-equestrians, riders, and athletes.

Lauren Barwick won gold and silver for Canada at the 2008 Paralympics. Karen Brain also competed at the Beijing Paralympics, and won a bronze medal at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Judi Island has represented Canada many times at international events, and was listed for the Athens Paralympic team.

In this, the second part, they share more about what they do to stay fit to ride and compete, advice for developing riders, athletes, and parents, and how to “be all you can be.” 

reaching your horse riding goals, Karen Brain, Judi Island, Lauren Barwick, horse riding spinal cord injury, horse rider psychology

Lauren Barwick does off-horse training to keep her physically and mentally fit. It paid off in 2008 when she won a gold medal in the Grade 1b Freestyle at the Paralympics. Photo: Courtesy of Heather Sansom

Heather: What kind of mental and physical preparation or fitness training do you incorporate into your personal athletic program?

Lauren: When I’m in training, I work with a fitness trainer two to three times a week, and go to the gym three to four times a week depending on my schedule. A big priority for me is building my core and balancing my muscles because I’m in a wheelchair. There’s a lot of pushing with my upper body for example, so I have to do a lot of pulling at the gym. My pushing muscles get really strong, the pulling ones get strained, and this causes tendon issues and rotator cuff issues unless I train.

My hip flexors get really tight from sitting all the time so I stretch them, and have a therapist help stretch them. I’ve also done Pilates to build up a lot of core strength.

Karen: Physical preparation has changed since my accident. Prior to the accident, I used to run regularly, was riding several horses a day, and was on my feet a lot with training and barn work.

As a para-athlete I’m more diverse in my training. I go to the gym and use the treadmill or elliptical trainer. I do Pilates and yoga. I’m always searching for something that gets my heart rate up, but I can no longer run. I walk. I walk in airports instead of using the conveyer belt. I try to be as active as I can because it isn’t as easy as it used to be to keep my fitness level up between rides.

When I was ten years old my mother introduced me to visualization. I’ve used it ever since. I incorporate it into everything.

Judi: Because of my lack of endurance I do a lot of “off horse” visualization training.

After the accident, I was paralyzed for some time and began meditating and doing “visualization” physical therapy. I was unable to move but would visualize moving my arms and hands. This has been scientifically proven to get the nerves to rejuvenate or reroute nerve paths. The body has an amazing ability to repair and heal itself.

I also like to watch dressage videos and work on ideas for freestyle programs and music.

Heather: What advice would you give riders regarding their fitness training and development as an athlete?

Karen: I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of core stability before my accident. Now I do. I think all riders need to ride through the balance and centeredness of their seat. Their legs are a bonus.

I think that if you can’t put all the hours you need to in the saddle, I would say focus on Pilates type work for core strength. There are also a lot of benefits of yoga.

Lauren: Take it seriously. A lot of people don’t do the off-horse work they could be doing. Fitness is something anyone should take seriously for health factors, whether you’re an athlete or not. Physical fitness leads to mental fitness. It gets you out involved in activities. Even when I’m feeling tired and don’t want to go to the gym, when I do go I feel energized and that puts me in a better state of mind.

I always tell people never to underestimate what you’re capable of doing. You’d be surprised over time. 

Judi: I always do lots of stretching before riding! I start in the car on the way to ride, then about ten minutes of stretching on the ground, and another ten minutes of warm up stretches and exercises when I first get on the horse on a lead line. As I am not riding every day I must do my stretching to prevent pulling a muscle. I particularly like Tai Chi exercises that I have adapted for stretching and balance.

Three times a week I work with a physiotherapist doing stretches and range of motion exercises to maintain range and prevent muscles from tightening.

To compete at the international level athletes must sacrifice, commit to training, and put everything into their performance. Para-equestrians are no exception.

Heather: Are there activities you would caution riders about due to potential conflict between the effect that activity has on their body and their riding requirements?

Karen: As a para-athlete I find myself telling people more and more about the fine line between building your body as an athlete, and breaking it down or doing too much. It’s important to learn your own body. There should be some pain when you’re developing strength, but if it doesn’t go away there may be a problem. There is a danger to doing high risk sports outside your sport. Many riders get back problems, or carpal tunnel syndrome. If a lot of braiding or chores cause problems which negatively affect your riding, then you want to be careful. I would say watch out for activities that are breaking you down rather than building you up.

reaching your horse riding goals, Karen Brain, Judi Island, Lauren Barwick, horse riding spinal cord injury, horse rider psychology

Judi Island, an incomplete quadriplegic as a result of a motor vehicle accident, now competes at international level in para-dressage. Photo: Courtesy of Judi Island

Heather: Your families have obviously been very supportive. If you could give any advice to parents about how to help their child develop as a person and as a rider, what would you say?

Karen: It’s important for a parent to remain positive about whatever the child is achieving in their riding lessons or competition. The child’s impression of themselves will be a reflection of what the parent focuses on. The most important thing is to praise your kids and encourage them as though they are the next superstar. I know when I was eight and started riding, I was not the most courageous rider and found some things hard to do. There was never pressure on me to have to be the very best, but my parents always treated me like I was the best. Maybe I wasn’t the best in the class, but my parents would watch and acknowledge when I had done something better that week. Don’t let your kids think that winning is everything, and praise them for their effort and positive mindset. That’s what makes a gold medal winner.

I think it’s important to nurture the interest in horses, and help the child relate to the horse. Show interest in what they’re doing. Learn about their sport. Watch their lessons. Learn their horse’s name, pet the horse, and take pictures. My mom is terrified of horses, so when she comes up and reaches out and pets the horse, it’s huge for me. It makes me feel so good to know my parents actually like my horse and are involved on an emotional level.

Lauren: With a brother with a brain injury and sister with Downs Syndrome, I grew up knowing there were no guarantees in life.  There’s no warrantee that says when your kids are broken, bring them back. I saw what was possible because Mom was very active in making sure my brother got to do everything he could do. I knew that even though it would be difficult, keeping good quality of life was possible.

Being active in sport is healthy physically and mentally. If your child is keen on riding, chances are they’ll stick with it or put more effort into it and it’ll keep them active. It’s part of a healthy development of people skills and working in teams. Even though we ride individually, we work as a team. Children need to learn how to be responsible, take care of a horse, and work for what they want. If your child shows an interest or talent, I’d help nurture it because they’re likely to put more effort in.

Heather:  What advice would you give parents of a disabled child who shows interest in riding?

Lauren: Never underestimate what your child is capable of. Even though they have a disability, challenge them to be the best they can be in their situation. Help them understand that it’s okay to be different. That’s a big one for me. I don’t notice people staring any more because I’m comfortable with being different. Being comfortable helps other people be comfortable.

Karen: Be very positive and supportive. Disabled kids don’t get to be among other disabled children very often. Getting them involved in a disabled group sport can be important. Going to the barn, they can bond with the horse. A lot of life skills can be learned through working with horses because the kids learn to put another being first, and take care of someone besides themselves. 

Judi: Always put safety first! They can contact a local therapeutic riding centre. Each province has a provincial therapeutic riding organization. Parents should make sure their child has a coach that is aware of their disability and a horse that is suitable for their level. CanTRA (Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association) offers certification for coaches and instructors of riders with disabilities.

Heather: What advice would you give young riders today to give them the best advantage they can as athletes?

Karen: I came from a very average middle class family. We had some financial hardships in my teens which limited how much support I had for showing and competing, but we always made it work. If it’s absolutely what you want to do, then make it work.  Nothing will be handed to you on a silver platter. Everything your heart desires is out there — you just may have to be prepared to work really hard for it.

Judi: Follow your passion and your dreams. Using a video camera of your dressage test is a wonderful learning tool. It allows you see what your coach sees.

reaching your horse riding goals, Karen Brain, Judi Island, Lauren Barwick, horse riding spinal cord injury, horse rider psychology

Writer Heather Sansom and gold and silver medalist Lauren Barwick. Photo: Courtesy of Heather Sansom

Heather: Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers?

Lauren: The biggest thing I got from Pat and Linda Parelli, who are a major sponsor of mine, is being emotionally fit. Mentally I was fit because I knew what I had to do. I knew how to ride my horse. Physically I’d always been fit, but emotionally I wasn’t confident and strong. Coming to work with the Parellis really helped me put that foundation in myself and my horse.

I believe horses need to be mentally, emotionally, and physically fit as well. A horse that’s not emotionally fit can’t perform as well physically. When they’re emotional they don’t use their body correctly, and they’re using energy emotionally that they need physically. It’s the same with people. If you’re emotionally fit you can stay focused.

Karen: The relationship with the horse is one thing I can’t live without. The horses I’ve had I’ve kept for a long time because I get so involved with them emotionally. I’ve been lucky that my horses have always gone to the highest level I needed them to go to. Outside of that connection, it’s a sport no one will ever perfect. You can’t score a perfect ten like in gymnastics. So we’re all aspiring to perfect a sport that won’t ever be perfected. There’s always a challenge, and you’re always left with the feeling it could be better. When you’re competitive it’s that sense that you could do better that makes you want to go out the very next day.

Interested in finding out more about therapeutic riding, or para-equestrian sport? Visit or

To read more by Heather Sansom on this site, click here.

Main photo: Courtesy of Heather Sansom - Karen Brain competed at both the 2008 and 2004 Paralympics.


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