Ocala’s horse community rallies behind Paralympians
Two Marion County based para-equestrian competitors, both among the world’s best, hope to participate in this year’s Summer Paralympic Games in Tokyo, which kicks off on Aug. 24.
Lauren Barwick is looking forward to her fifth Summer Paralympic Games, while Cayla van der Walt makes her first Paralympic appearance.
While neither woman will compete for the United States, some in the local horse community are helping them raise money to make the expensive journey.
A highly accomplished equestrian, Barwick won gold and silver at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing and silver and bronze at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Normandy. She also won several medals at the World Equestrian Games. Barwick competes regularly in upper-level dressage as well as upper-level para-dressage, along with para-reining, a discipline in which she is a two-time world champion.
But in 2000, Barwick didn’t know if she would ever ride again after suffering a devastating injury. A 100-pound bale of hay fell from a hay loft hitting her. The impact broke her back and severed her spinal cord, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. Through encouragement and perseverance, Barwick found herself back on the horse. In 2005, Barwick moved to Ocala to train with well-known horseman Pat Parelli, learning natural horsemanship. Today, she owns and operates Bridging the Gap Horsemanship in Reddick alongside her husband, Fabian Brandt.
Barwick is currently ranked as the top para-dressage rider in Canada and will ride for that country at the Tokyo games.
“This will be my fifth Paralympic Games,” said Barwick. “This time has been particularly tough with COVID pushing the Games back a year. My horse, Sandrino, and I were in peak condition to go last year, so it has been difficult maintaining both of our fitness levels for this amount of time. I am looking forward to it, but it has been a long year.”
Meanwhile, van der Walt, who is also ranked among the top para-dressage riders, will ride for South Africa.
In 2016, van der Walt was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a type of cancer that occurs in bone or soft tissue. After undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, the 20-year-old was left with just one-third use of her left arm. Despite the challenges, she has remained strong and courageous, and cites horses as one of the best therapies.
Both women, however, need help with travel expenses. Barwick can only take her trainer, Shannon Dueck, or her groom, Lillie Durben. She would like to raise enough to take both and help with the costs of equipment, veterinary care and training.
“Ocala has a great horse community. I greatly value the time I spent with the Parellis and have felt at home here. The Ocala area is great when it comes to showing and qualifying. I can choose from a wide variety of horse shows within driving distance, which is a huge advantage as a rider. I have always been thankful for the support I have received from the Ocala community and hope to raise enough money to go to Tokyo.”
For van der Walt, travel expenses for her horse and trainer, Trisha Bell, are covered from Germany to Tokyo. However, she has to raise enough to get them to Germany and then back again.
“This will be my first time competing at the Paralympic Games,” said van der Walt. “I will be taking my horse, Daturo II. We qualified to go to Tokyo last year, but COVID pushed us back. We were just notified a few weeks ago that we can head to Tokyo in August, so we have not had a lot of time to raise the money to go. We have just been trying to get my name out there and build support.”
Van der Walt has received help from the Florida Horse Park and from one of her sponsors, but she is still short.
“I am grateful for the support within the Ocala community. The Florida Horse Park has been very generous in helping us raise money through events and raffles and my sponsor, Spectra Equine, has helped keep Daturo II in top performance condition, but we still need to raise more money in order to go to Tokyo,” she said.
Ellie Truman, President of the Ocala Horse Alliance (OHA) hopes to help.
Truman first met Barwick in 2021 during the initial stages of OHA’s The Black Stallion Reading Project, a partnership between the group and Marion County Public Schools.
“When I heard that Lauren and Cayla needed funding to go to the Paralympic Games, I immediately wanted to help. Ocala has such a strong horse community and I wanted to bring that community together to help get both of them to Tokyo. The Ocala Horse Alliance has organized a fundraiser to help defray some of the costs. We invite everyone in the Ocala horse community, and anyone who wants to support Lauren and Cayla’s journey, to the event,” said Truman.
Scheduled for July 26, the event is at Tamarian Farms and will include a mounted demonstration by Barwick, a silent auction, a live auction and refreshments. To purchase tickets, visit https://ocalahorsealliance.com/connections-event/ or to donate visit https://gofund.me/81821147 and https://gofund.me/4e222414.