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Sonrise Camp pairs horseback riding and biblical teaching
Nonprofit provides therapy as well as lessons
Janice Gardner, director at Sonrise Camp in northwest Hall County, helps Jacob Bowling off a horse. The camp provides therapy for special needs children through horseback riding. - photo by Tom Reed

Sonrise Camp Benefit

What: Ride-a-Thon

When: 9 a.m. today

Where: Ed Dabney Gentle Horsemanship Training Center, 3031 Luther Wages Road, Dacula

How much: $50

More info: Janice, 678-450-6905, or Stephanie, 770-312-6483


Click here to watch Stephanie Hood lead a one-on-one riding lesson.

Just looking at the faces of Jacob Bowling, Finley Barker and Charles Heckert when they ride a therapeutic horse named Pretty, lets you know Sonrise Camp is helping children.

The three special needs children go to Sonrise Camp in northwest Hall County for therapy. The camp, which opened eight years ago, offers nondenominational Christian activities for youth, senior citizens and challenged individuals.

Programs for special needs children include speech therapy and hippotherapy, which is treatment using the movement of the horse. The camp offers horseback riding lessons and a day camp for special needs children and others.

"We call it Christian horsemanship, and we incorporate the spiritual analogies with Scripture," said Janice Gardner, director at Sonrise Camp. "So, for example, during the lesson you might be teaching a child how to lead a horse ... So we teach them to lead the horse, and we say it's like God leading you. And if you lead them in the right direction they'll stay in the right direction.

"We don't Bible beat the child; we just inject God in what we are doing."

Gardner added that sometimes the staff will say prayers with the children before they ride the horses.

"We also are going to begin now doing group riding lessons where we do a little devotional before we get on the horse," she said. "We'll do a Bible verse before we get on the horse and ask the kids to think about it and how they can relate their life to it. And then we'll ride the horse. It gives them something to think about.

"We think that kids need to be reminded of Christianity ... we just feel like if we can keep them thinking about the right things that it would help."

Gardner said she believes that the animals at the camp are also a valuable part of healing, which she said she sees firsthand with the children who attend lessons and day camps at Sonrise.

The parents who bring their children there also say the therapy is helpful, like Tammy Bowling the mother of Jacob Bowling, 16, who has attended day camps at Sonrise for about six years.

"Just being able to do the riding, it has helped his posture and mobility," she said. "He can do a lot of things on a horse that he can't do. He has a lot of freedom. ... It has increased his vocabulary, too. He can talk more."

The Bowlings were attracted to the camp for their special needs child because Sonrise Camp is a faith-based camp.

"You know he's in a safe place with the values, and you know this is a good place for him to come," said Bowling, who attends Blackshear Place Baptist Church in Flowery Branch.

Finley Barker, 13, began day camps over the summer and said she loves the horses and feeding the ducks on the Sonrise property.

"I think it's fun. The most thing I like is when they go fast and I act like I'm shooting a deer," Barker said.

She added that the hardest part of horseback riding is "when you get up and how you get off of it, but the other stuff is mostly easy."

For these special children, Sonrise has received accreditation from the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association as a premier facility, and in March, NARHA Georgia will hold the state conference at Sonrise Camp for the second year. During the conference, Gardner will be announced as the president of NARHA Georgia.

"God has blessed us so much; he has opened doors," Gardner said. "You know running a nonprofit is so hard. We are struggling, and we are looking for an angel - someone that believes in what we are doing and says ‘OK, I'll pay off your facility.' Then we could expand our programs."

But in the meantime Gardner, a member at First Baptist Church of Gainesville, continues helping children from all over North Georgia - and winning awards.

This year she was chosen as one of Nabisco's 100 Extraordinary Women and then was chosen by Ed Dabney in August to train horses in France.

"I got another great honor in August from Ed Dabney. He's an international clinician and he won the East Coast Trainer Challenge back to back," Gardner said. "He selected me to go to France to train horses for a castle over there."

Gardner said she doesn't like to be the center of attention but if winning awards helps children like Heckert, that makes everything worthwhile.

Kurt Heckert, Charles' father, said over the years, Sonrise Camp has done wonders for his fifth-grade son.

"It kind of adds up over time: his independence, his ability to do things," he said. "Charles started Challenged Child when he was 6 weeks old, and we started coming here. He's doing pretty good."