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Hall County resident works with therapy horses and children
Mr. Charlie devotes 6 days a week to Walker Therapy
Charlie Gabriel, aka Mr. Charlie, walks next to occupational therapist Nolina Varley as she helps Elise Unederwood ride Apple, a therapy horses at Walker Therapy in North Forsyth County. Gabriel celebrated his 93rd birthday on Feb. 27 at the therapy center, where he works six days a week, including caring for the horses and preparing therapy pools. - photo by Jim Dean

Most days, Charles Gabriel is the first to arrive at Walker Therapy in North Forsyth.

The center, primarily for children, offers various services including Saddle Buddies Therapy, a nonprofit that allows patients to improve their skills through horseback riding or equine-assisted therapy.

Gabriel, affectionately known as Mr. Charlie, turned 93 on Feb. 27 and said he can feel it.

“Well, of course I’m thankful for everyone,” Gabriel said the day before his birthday. “ ... I know by my feelings that I’ll be 93, but I’m proud and thankful and blessed, so it’ll be great.”

Six days a week, with Sundays off, the Hall County resident spends the morning getting the center ready for patients. That means he brings in the horses, prepares therapy pools and turns on the heat. His duties also can include just about anything to keep the business — and horses — moving.

Nicole Walker, an occupational therapist and president of Walker Therapy, said Gabriel is invaluable when it comes to the work and experience he provides. However, it is his influence on young patients that outshines the rest.

“The kids adore Mr. Charlie,” she said. “They’re always reaching out to him. You’ll walk in and they’ll be sitting on his lap in the waiting room waiting for their therapist, or just reaching out to him wanting to grab his hat or give him a hug or give him a treat or draw him a picture.”

Asked about Gabriel’s influence, Tiffany Underwood, whose daughter participates in the equine program, jokingly asked “Is there anything but Charlie?”

“He’s phenomenal,” she said. “We’ve known him for 10 years and he’s the best guy ever. He’s warm and loving, and the kids all know it.”

Walker said they had quite a party for Gabriel on his birthday, which was attended by many friends and current and former patients.

“It was really great,” she said. “We had a good bunch of folks show up — had a little birthday cake made for him out of cupcakes shaped in a ‘93’ and everybody sang happy birthday and everything and then just brought him cards.

“He loves when the kids bring him cards and he loves pictures with the kids and everybody.”

Gabriel is likely known by many who may have visited his former business of 34 years, Sunny Farm Stables.

“I had an auction sale there for years on Friday night,” he said. “We bought and sold horses and bred horses and gave riding lessons. We did a little bit of everything there. We were real diversified, and that’s how (Walker) found me.”

For all he knows, Gabriel admits he isn’t quite a lifelong cowboy.

“I had a pony when I was a young boy,” Gabriel said. “But I bought a horse for one of my daughters when she was 12 years old. I started with one and at one time I owned 39.”

Walker and Gabriel began working together when she used his barn for treatments. The covered barn was exposed to the elements, but she said patients would show up when it was “30 degrees outside and 15 layers of clothes.”

That arrangement worked for five years, until 2008, when Walker opened the current building, which includes an indoor arena for the horses.

“When we built this facility here, we asked Charlie to come with us and let go of that other place, so that he didn’t have the stress of that and he could just come here and do what he is good at, which is blessing everybody here with his love,” Walker said.

Gabriel said running his farm was purely financial, but that working for Walker pays in love.

“The Lord sent her my way,” he said. “I’ve been so blessed by her love for me and being with her, and then these children bless me and the mothers all love me. And so I’m still here because God has a reason for me being here, and so I’m thankful for that.”