Hunter Sorenson rides Molly with volunteers Candy Houston (front) and Katie Bergs (back).
SNELLVILLE -- Lilly Kabel trained several times a week for the last month to prepare for the Special Olympics of Georgia StateHorse Show at the State Fairgrounds and Agricenter in Perry last weekend.
The 9-year-old rookie rider representing Snellville's Parkwood Farms Therapy Center competed in three categories with her equine partner Sundance and galloped away with two bronze medals and a fifth-place ribbon.
"She's autistic, so she doesn't verbally express herself, but you could see the happiness on her face," said Theresa Waldrop, Kabel's mom. "Medals are always nice, but what really mattered was having fun."
Under the guidance of Coach Dr. Marilyn Peterson of Parkwood Farms, Kabel along with Braxton Breda, Lena Busbee, Brandon Carmack, Christopher McClintic-Doyle,Hunter Sorenson, Julian Stankee-Peterson and Linda Valdez joined others from around the state to battle in 27 individual events, including English equitation, trail ride competition, dressage and showmanship.
In total, the team brought home nine gold medals, seven silver medals, six bronze medals, three fourth-place ribbons and one fifth-place ribbon.
"The team did excellent. They were very well prepared," said Peterson, Julian's mother. "They were quite competitive, which is one aspect (of the event), but the most important part of the trip was that they had the time of their lives, including the families. We went as a team, would eat as a team, sit in the bleachers together ... everything as a team."
Valdez, who competed for the third year in a row, won two gold medals and a bronze while riding her four-legged companion Lucy.
"She loves to win, she just loves the horses and the whole experience," said Rebecca Valdez, Linda's mom. "It's a fun weekend down there. She has friends that she gets to see and has a good time."
According to the parents, the horse show is more than just a competition for their children -- it's a chance to talk with other parents who go through the same day-to-day challenges and lifestyle changes as they do.
"It's an opportunity to socialize with other parents with who have children with disabilities," Rebecca Valdez said. "It's a nice time for a little support. For the volunteers, the best thing is bringing people who may not have an opportunity to know people with disabilities because they learn that they're just like everybody else. Linda has made some good friends who people who are not disabilities."
Waldrop couldn't agree more.
"The event has such a great atmosphere, plus there is bonding with the other families who participate," she said. "We'll definitely be back next year if 'Doc' (Peterson) puts (Lilly) on the team."
Parkwood Farms Therapy is a facility "dedicated to enriching the lives of physically, emotionally and mentally challenged children and adults" through therapeutic horse riding.
For more information about Parkwood Farms and its programs, visit parkwoodfarms.org.