BUFORD -- It's an unofficial race to see who can make it to the barn -- and to breakfast -- first.
On this particular morning, a striking palomino named Yellow Rose takes the lead as one of the first horses coming out of the pasture gate and galloping down along the red dirt path leading to the barn.
About halfway there, the Belgian/thoroughbred cross is overtaken by a smaller quarter horse named Buck running near the trees alongside her.
Buck makes the barn first, followed by Yellow Rose and 13 of the 14 horses and ponies that call the equestrian center at Lake Lanier Islands Resort home.
The center is located at the southern-most tip of Lake Sidney Lanier. Situated on about six acres, the equestrian center boasts several miles of trails where guests can ride horseback along the lakeshore and through the forest. The center also offers private and group riding lessons and summer camps.
Under the direction of Beth Pedaggi, who has managed the center for the past six years, a team of eight to nine staff members who care for the horses, guide trail rides and serve as counselors for summer camps.
A medium-sized pony named Fred is the most well-known animal at the equestrian center and has been instrumental in teaching hundreds of children how to ride.
"Everybody asks about Fred because he's kind of like the icon, the legend of the barn, he's been around for so long," Pedaggi said.
The pony moonlights during the Christmas season as a carousel horse during the islands' Magical Nights of Lights. His breed -- Pony of the Americas -- is especially suited for younger riders.
"They've got a good temperament, they're very hardy, they're very sure-footed, they make a great kids' show pony as well," Pedaggi said.
At 26, Fred is the oldest in the barn, followed by the easy riding Ethel, a 22-year-old Suffolk Punch Draft mare, and Blackjack, a 22-year-old miniature pony and Shetland cross who barn staff said thinks he is Black Beauty.
Still spry, visitors to the barn might not see Blackjack's age in his demeanor, just in the slant of his teeth.
"Horses' teeth, they keep erupting, they call it, they keep getting longer and the older the horse gets, the more slanted the teeth get," Pedaggi said. "You can tell the age of a horse, pretty close, within a couple of years, by their teeth if you don't have papers on them."
Each of the horses and ponies at the center, no matter what the age, has its own personality and quirks.
Harley is known as the juvenile delinquent of the barn. The quarter horse cross uses his mouth to slide the bolt on his stall door just enough to the right to be able to push the door open. Once out, Pedaggi said, Harley likes to open other horses' stalls, particular Rosie, Buck and a Paso Fino cross named Cinnamon.
Princess and Yellow Rose have been together for 10 years, since they were 3 and 4, and their previous owner insisted they remain that way.
"They still have that love/hate relationship," Pedaggi said with a laugh.
Indeed, few broken boards between the two horses' stalls stand proof of their tumultuous friendship.
While some horses in the barn have bonded with other horses, Godiva, a 15-year-old Percheron and Paint cross who the staff likens to a big puppy dog at more than 17 hands high, seems to be more fond of the human species.
As 13-year-old Taylor Lanfear, one of the regular riders at the equestrian center, schools Yellow Rose over a jump in the arena, the friendly Godiva roams around the barn area, stopping to eat hay she has pulled out of the back of a John Deere Gator before moving up behind staff member Adara Brinkmann resting on the ring's gate to watch Lanfear. Godiva nuzzles the side of Brinkmann's face before moseying off to chew more hay.
"She's a people horse," Pedaggi laughs.
Indeed, if ignored for too long while standing in her stall, Godiva will nudge her door, causing it to bang to capture the attention of any humans milling around. On the other side of the barn, Fred bangs on his stall door whenever his internal clock tells him it's time to eat.
Hay is for horses
To feed the 16 horses at the islands' equestrian center, Pedaggi orders about 240 bales of hay from a farm in northeast Georgia. Along with hay and water, the animals are fed grain. Pedaggi orders about 20 bags of grain feed -- sweet feed pellets, alfalfa pellets and food for senior horses -- a month, with each bag weighing in at 50 pounds. Staff members feed the horses grain twice a day in addition to the hay they eat.
"We feed a combination based on where they're at in their life and how much we use them," Pedaggi said. "The ponies obviously don't get as much as Godiva, but Godiva, believe it or not, doesn't eat any more than these regular size horses because draft horses tend to have a slower metabolism, they're more laid back."
Work for most of the horses simply means leisurely strolls along the lakeshore on trails that snake through the wooded area near the barn. Some of the horses are used in lessons in which students learn to jump.
From late May through July, the horses are the main attraction for the annual summer camp, now gearing up for its sixth year. Campers participate in clinics on horse grooming, riding techniques and handling. While much of the camp is based around instruction, silliness is in the mix. Each year Casper, an 8-year-old miniature horse/pony cross, becomes a living canvas -- campers use washable paints to decorate the small white pony, who calmly basks in the attention.
A quick dip in the lake and the fluorescent-colored paints wash right off. All in a day's work for this pony.