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Special Olympics athletes ready to ride
09.25 riders 1
Bonnie Rachael Gentry leads Michael Holton through his training. - photo by Photo by Rick Lott
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If Bonnie Rachael Gentry has her way, two young people from Effingham County will be coming home in November with gold medals for equestrian events at the Special Olympics Georgia.

When she’s not busy with her Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center work, she’s busy helping to prepare 15-year-old Michael Holton and 24-year-old Christie Tilton for competition in Perry for the Special Olympics on Nov. 13-15. They are riding mother and son horses named Misty and Slick, retired from the Chatham County Sheriff’s Department. Gentry said the same desensitizing training horses have to go through for police work is exactly what they need for therapeutic training.

“Slick went to the Special Olympics two years in a row already with Michael. This is Christie Tilton’s first year,” Gentry said.  

In his first year, Holton, competing in the intermediate level, returned with a gold medal, a silver and a fourth-place finish. Last year, he won two silvers and three bronze medals.

This year, Holton will compete in the intermediate 5 level.

“We’re going for the gold,” Gentry said. “All our students – we’re going for the gold.”

This is Tilton’s first year, and she will be going in the beginner-1 adaptive class. She will have a horse leader and two sidewalkers, but they are not allowed to do anything but be a safety net, Gentry said.

“She will be controlling the horse and doing the courses or whatever she’s supposed to do on her own. It’s all her,” Gentry said. “This will be a big change for Christie, who’s been competing in the weight lifting for several years now.”

Tilton’s father Danny Tilton said it tears his heart apart to see the kids in Special Olympics weightlifting competing.

“They don’t let anything bother them whatsoever,” he said. “They don’t care what race, who they are, they just all go and have a good time together, they play together and it just tears your heart up to be with them.”

Said Holton’s father Michael Holton: “But at the same time, though, they love each other but they want to beat the pants off the others. They’re just as competitive as any typical child ever.”

There are different types of events in which to compete. There are trail events, where horse and rider go over an obstacle course, and equitation, which judges how the horse and rider look and move together and how the rider controls the horse.

“There’s Western classes, Western pleasure, there’s futures,” Gentry said. “It’s a huge show.”

About 130 participants took part last year. This year, Holton will be dressed in English attire and Tilton will be riding Western. Gentry said those two may be the only ones competing in Equestrian events from the area.

The Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center is able to help anyone with any kind of disabilities while only those with a developmental disability can participate in the Special Olympics programs. The Center accepts any contributions or donations, either for the general programming or to help get these two athletes to Perry for the Special Olympics in November. 

Anyone interested in contributing or volunteering can call 655-1480. There are no paid employees at the all-volunteer Center and the program is always free to students.