Ministry uses horses to help women

Vonda Garrison prays as she stands ankle-deep in hay. She hardly notices the smell or the neighs of horses chiming in at Bible study.

Her barn is her sanctuary. It's the place where she and her granddaughter, Emily Lauber, find healing.

They hope others will, too, now that the barn is home to Angel Wing Equine Ministry, a free Christian horse camp.

The ministry is dedicated to the memory of April Jean Hamilton, Mrs. Garrison's daughter.

Ms. Hamilton was 31 when she died in 2005. Emily, her daughter, was 13. They had moved to Georgia two years earlier, leaving Iowa for a fresh start and a chance at owning their dream.

"Our three generations were built on horses. We were going to come and finally have that horse ranch we had always been talking about," Mrs. Garrison said.

Ms. Hamilton's death gave them the means. The family used its life insurance settlement to buy a horse ranch in Blythe. They started inviting other women to the barn in December and now hold sessions each first Saturday.

They say it's what Ms. Hamilton would have wanted: her mother and her daughter, now 17, managing the ranch she never had, bringing hope to women and healing the void left by her death.

In February, 15 women showed up to sing, pray and tend to horses. There are six horses, mostly rescued animals that were once unsocial, overworked or lame.

"It was laid on Vonda's heart to bring hurting women and hurting horses together, and here they administer therapy to one another," said Belinda McElroy, who leads Bible studies in the barn.

"It is our motto," Mrs. Garrison explained, "to use rescued horses to rescue women."

Horses helped Emily, a senior at Burke County High School.

"The horses, they comforted her. She'd go out and crawl up on their back and lay there. The horses could just be so gentle with her," Mrs. Garrison said.

Mrs. Garrison told the women how her family recently took in a homeless woman who frequents the outreach programs of her church, the Building Worship Center.

"This woman, she had a bit of a temper, and every time she came in the barn, the horses reacted. We kept telling her the horses will mirror your feelings. They'll pick up on it," Ms. Garrison said. "You've got to be calm for the horses to be calm."

Specialists are booked each month, so a variety of lessons about horses are offered.

In February, a veterinarian discussed horse nutrition.

"It's really simple equipment. No PowerPoints. No lasers," Jackson resident Margo Greer said as she set up a white board in the barn to review essentials of a horse's diet.

A farrier came to demonstrate shoeless hoof care.

"You're never going to get instant gratification. Healing takes time," said Erika Chase, of Waynesboro, Ga. She was talking about fractured hooves, but the meaning was directed at the women.

The parallel isn't accidental, Mrs. Garrison said: "When you take care of the horse, when you take care of yourself, you let things happen and you heal."

The women start at 9 a.m. with classes opening in prayer and song, followed with lunch at noon.

"It's the most amazing thing just to be able to come here and experience this for nothing," said Katie Patterson, 20, of McCormick, S.C. "I love horses. I've always been interested. I come to be around horses but also to witness, to be with other women."

The day ends with a Bible study and support group.

Mrs. Garrison, 54, a registered nurse, hopes she can eventually add cabins and turn the farm into a full-time ranch where women can live and work and ride the trails.

"This just dropped into my spirit. I know it's what I'm supposed to be doing for April Jean," she said. "What the devil meant for naught, God uses for his glory."

Confirmation came last year when Mrs. Garrison signed up for a weekend Christian retreat and, on arrival, picked up her goody bag. Everyone else got just one little wooden cross in her bag, but Mrs. Garrison's bag contained two. Both were tied with a ribbon in purple -- her and her daughter's favorite color.

"It was as if she was there with me," Mrs. Garrison said. "She and I had shared so much and we were going to share this, too."

Ms. Hamilton, a correctional officer known for sharing Christ with inmates, was on her way to work when she died in a car wreck.

"We know we'll see her again one day," Mrs. Garrison said. "Until then, we've got some work to do."

Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552

or kelly.jasper@augustachronicle.com.

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