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Campbell riding natural ability to Athens
Gainesville High School senior Honey Beth Campbell has signed an equestrian letter of intent at the University of Georgia. - photo by Tom Reed

A natural gift is undeniable and unavoidable.

Whether it’s playing the piano or playing quarterback, some people have a natural propensity for certain things. They are drawn to those things at an early age and, at times, make a life doing those things.

Gainesville High senior Honey Beth Campbell has a natural gift, one which she attempted to avoid, but couldn’t deny: riding horses.

“(Being on a horse) feels like it’s where I’m supposed to be,” Campbell said.

Campbell got her first pony when she was three years old; it’s name was PeeWee.

At age seven on the back of a 26-year-old horse named Godfather II, she qualified to ride in the Georgia Federated Horse Show Championships.

The next year, on a horse named Hunker, she won the Georgia Federated Horse Show Championships, becoming the youngest to ever do so.

Wednesday, the 18-year-old Campbell signed a national letter of intent to ride for the four-time national champion University of Georgia equestrian team.

“She has a presence in the ring,” Campbell’s mother Jordan Frobos said, “even for someone like me who isn’t a keen observer of what the equestrian sport entails.

“She just melts onto the horse and they seem to become one.”

It’s what happened between the first state title and the signing, however, that’s the real story.

Campbell comes from a family that, according to her, grew up around horses.

Her maternal grandmother Dodie Ellison was an award-winning horseback rider, and it was under her watchful eye that Campbell cultivated her gift.

It was also under her watchful eye that the unthinkable happened.

According to Campbell, it was thundering and lightening on Dec. 23, 2001, the day she was thrown from a spooked Hunker.

Former Times sports writer Dan Washburn wrote about the mishap in a story published on March 21, 2002: “The 81-pound fourth-grader dangled upside-down, her foot stuck in its stirrup. With each step (Hunker) took, he whacked (Campbell) in the head with his hind leg.”

Campbell was alert enough after the incident to ask Ellison how the horse was doing, and after a CT scan came back negative, it was determined that she had a serious concussion, a deep tissue twist in her arm and a cut-up mouth.

But something was amiss.

“You know something is wrong with your child when they don’t ask if Santa is coming and it’s Christmas,” Frobos said.

After nine days in the hospital and a visit from a pediatric neurologist, it was discovered that Campbell had a cranial bleed. It was also discovered that they’d caught it in time and no irreperable damage was done.

She was forced to stay away from riding for a period of time, but she couldn’t deny her gift for long.

“I don’t know why I remember the date, but I got back on Hunker on March 5, 2002,” Campbell said. “He loved me and it wasn’t his fault that he got scared,” she added of the horse that, in her absence, refused to eat.

Campbell’s return to riding, however, wasn’t necessarily welcomed her mother.

“I was very frightened,” Frobos said. “I thought and said that there were other things, less dangerous things, she could be doing.

“But when it came down to it, it would have been an injustice to her. When you love animals and horses as much as she does ... it’s intrinsic to her. I would have been taking something away from her and that wouldn’t be fair.”

So on Campbell rode, doing Western competitions — which include showmanship, horsemanship, pleasure and trail maneuvers each designed to exhibit particular skills of both rider and horse.

“Every weekend I was somewhere doing a competition,” Campbell said.

And by the time she was a sophomore in high school, being somewhere every weekend was beginning to take its toll.

So Campbell, who had once been forced to avoid her gift, made the decision to take a break.

“She’d been showing since she was four,” Frobos said. “She made a lot of sacrifices and was missing sleepovers with her friends and Friday night football games.

“That doesn’t sound like a big deal to you and me, but at that age, it’s important.”

“I wanted to experience other things,” said Campbell, who in her time off made the cheerleading squad, the volleyball team and the soccer team. “It felt weird without it because it’d been my life.”

As is the case with most natural gifts, however, Campbell couldn’t deny it or avoid it forever. During her junior year, she literally got back in the saddle, this time with a renewed vigor.

“It felt so natural when I got back on,” Campbell said. “I realized at that moment that I loved it.”

And she realized she’d do anything to continue riding, even after high school.

“My grandmother and mother didn’t really believe me when I said that I was ready to get back to it,” Campbell said. “But we sent (the University of Georgia) a video of me riding and then just waited to hear if they were interested.”

The wait was worth it, at the end of January, the Bulldogs offered Campbell a scholarship.

“I’ve always been so proud of Honey Beth,” said Frobos, “It’s been a long process, but I’m elated for her and so looking forward to watching her compete.”

“It’s completely different than anything I’ve done,” Campbell said. “I love the idea of team sports, and in college, that’s what it is.

“Ever since I’ve been a horseback rider, it’s been me and the horse on a team. The competitions were more every girl for themselves than anything else. But in college I’ll be doing what I’ve always done, but it will be for a team.”

Campbell no longer has her own personal competition horse — the last one she had was sold when she decided she didn’t want to compete — and instead she rides a bevy of horses. It’s good preparation for what she’ll face at the next level.

“I’ll be riding different horses in college,” she said, “I’m preparing myself for that variety.”

And during her hiatus from the sport, from her natural gift, she also prepared herself for the long haul.

“What I’m doing now is helping me in the long run because I won’t have my own personal horse in college,” she said, “taking a break helped me love riding again and helped me realize that while I don’t ever want it to be my business. I don’t ever want to stop riding.”

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