Life

The Inspiring Journey of Ottawa Para Equestrian Pioneer Jack Goldberg

Photography by Nicolai Gregory

At a glance, Jack Goldberg’s sparkling resume seems like it might belong to a young man who’s had every advantage in life.

At Ashbury College, Goldberg was a leader, a tutor, and a straight-A student. He’s just finished his first year at Cornell University, an Ivy League School, and he’s passionate about riding horses. Goldberg has competed internationally and trained under Canadian equestrian legends Ian and Amy Millar.

But in reality, none of this came easily for the 19-year-old Ottawa native. Goldberg’s life and path to these accomplishments have been filled with far more obstacles and hurdles than you’d find at any equestrian park.

Goldberg has cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and scoliosis and is considered to be hemiplegic. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at ten months old, the result of having a stroke while still in the womb. His focal epilepsy has led to 47 grand mal seizures. Goldberg’s scoliosis somewhat affects his ability to walk and causes discomfort in his lower back. And he can’t feel things on the right side of his body.

Despite all that, Goldberg faces every day with cheerful optimism, excels at so many things, and inspires everyone around him. But Goldberg also sees the need for change in the world. He’s a staunch advocate for people with disabilities, which extends into the sport he loves.

For several years, Goldberg has helped lead the charge to have para showjumping recognized as an official sport and an event at the Paralympics. Para equestrian already exists at the Paralympics in dressage, but not para showjumping. So Goldberg has passionately been working to change that, petitioning governing organizations, writing articles, making speeches, and participating in events emphasizing para athletes’ capabilities.

“It’s enabled me to not only learn about different facets of activism and how the process of advocacy works, but with the help of my coaches, teammates, and fellow para equestrians, it’s also allowed me to try and foster a more inclusive environment for everyone,” Goldberg said.

FACES: How did your passion for riding horses begin?

Goldberg: Riding horses has been a part of my family since my mother was a child. She and her sister rode horses throughout their adolescence. When my sisters were little, they began to ride, and by the age of six, I did too.

As time went on, the sense of community fostered by my first coach, Taylor Brooks, played an integral role in my beginning to love the sport. Taylor was the first person to genuinely believe in me outside my family. This further deepened my desire to keep riding because, as a young child with a disability, it was the first time I felt accepted, heard, and understood. Taylor truly demonstrated that kind-hearted, good-spirited people exist, which completely changed how I view my situation. And for that, I owe her everything.

How do your health circumstances affect your ability to ride?

Since my motor skills are not of perfect use and my grip strength is not adequate, we decided to sew a piece of velcro onto my glove and my rein so that my right hand could securely stay attached to my horse’s tack. Another piece of safety equipment that I use is a safety vest. In the event of a fall, seizure, or accident while on my horse, I try to prevent any life-altering or threatening injuries by wearing a jacket that inflates, acting as an “airbag” to help lessen and prevent injuries.

Lastly, because I do have grand mal seizures, I have to take time off of riding each time I suffer from one. Depending on the severity of the seizure, I might have to take anywhere from a week to a month off.

How difficult, maybe scary, was para showjumping when you first tried it?

The fear of riding itself was not what I was scared of. It was the fear of being different than everybody else that petrified me. However, from the moment I began riding with Taylor Brooks, the sense of fear ended up dissolving. She did an impeccable job of ensuring that her facility always prioritized a positive environment over everything else.

What’s it like working with the Millars, who are showjumping royalty in Canada?

Working and riding with the Millars has been one of the most unforgettable experiences in my riding journey. At first, I thought they might not be thrilled to work with me, having to adapt to my assistive equipment and how I ride. However, I have never been more wrong in my life. Amy, Ian, Sophie, Jon, and Kelly have been nothing but supportive and helpful in lobbying for the progress of the movement, and interested in learning more about not only me and my adaptations but other people with disabilities as well.

Do you have a favourite moment or achievement in para equestrian?

I have several favorite moments in my para equestrian career. Three that come to mind are participating in the first two Para Showjumping Demonstration Classes in North America, creating the petition, and every single time another athlete has approached me at a competition to learn more about the para equestrian world or the Disabled Community in general.

Would you like to compete at the Paralympics one day?

Yes, absolutely. If my health allows me to keep participating, I would love to compete at the Paralympic Games one day. However, the activism facet of the cause would continue to be extremely important to me.

What is the most significant change you would like to see in how society sees people with physical hindrances?

I’d like to see people outside of the Disabled Community educate themselves more on the idea that individuals with disabilities should be treated the same as others, regardless of their physical capabilities. I’d also like to see an understanding that we are not all alike regarding the severity of our conditions and the assistance we need. I think this will ensure that people with hindrances feel more respected and heard.

How are you enjoying Cornell?

I absolutely love it. It’s been fun, stimulating, and engaging. Whether it is watching a movie with my friends, staying up late in a library to study, or going for a swim or a hike, there is always something to do and someone to do it with. It’s a combination of a thought-provoking education with people who are genuinely wonderful to be around.

What are you studying? And what do you see yourself doing in the future?

I am studying Industrial Labor Relations because this field is similar to the advocacy I have been doing in the equestrian world. Whether it be helping people through disability law or becoming a journalist or author, I know that I will continue my advocacy through one avenue or another.

What are some of your favourite things to do when you’re not studying or on a horse?

When I am not studying or on a horse, I like to swim, bike, go to the gym, watch TV (especially Modern Family), walk my dogs, and spend time with my friends and family.

Who are your biggest cheerleaders?

None of what I do would be possible without the encouragement and help of my two sisters, Grace and Claire, my parents, and other friends and family members, such as Rose Maala, Mackenzey Nadeau, Alexus Nuttall, Ashley McLean, Georgia Rollings, Marcus Davis, Kaylah Carruthers, Sasha Maniaci, and Charlotte McLaughlin. Whenever I feel down or face a predicament regarding my health, these people are always there to provide me with insight and support to keep going. They have each influenced me positively, shaping me into the athlete, advocate, and person I am today.

We’re betting the feeling is mutual. It’s easy to believe that Jack Goldberg has profoundly influenced the people around him as well.

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