Thanks to COVID-19, the 2020 Dunwoody 4th of July parade was canceled. Based on past attendance, more than 2,500 participants and 32,000 spectators were left with a gaping hole in their Independence Day.

Especially disappointed were the members of the Central Georgia Mounted Color Guard, the patriotic riders and horses that carry the flags and lead the parade.

Carol Niemi is a marketing consultant who lives on the Dunwoody-Sandy Springs line and writes about people whose lives inspire others. Contact her at worthknowingnow@gmail.com.

According to parade Co-Chair Pam Talmadge, when the pandemic caused participants to start pulling out even before the cancellation, the one group that was all in was the CGMCG.

Though most parade-goers have a favorite float or band, the horses seem to rank high on everyone’s list. No surprise.

Even people who don’t ride them like them. In fact, for more than 5,000 years we humans have not just liked them. We’ve farmed with them, worked with them, traveled with them, gone to war with them and built a country with them. Today, we mostly just love them, which is why the members of the CGMCG are passionate about sharing their equine partners with the public.

The Central Georgia Mounted Color Guard was founded in 2012 as a nonprofit by two lifelong horsewomen, Ruth Wilson and Ann Harris, with the motto “Honoring Those Who Serve.”

They led their first Dunwoody parade in 2014.

“We love the Dunwoody parade,” said Wilson. “It was the first parade to seek us out, and we were honored and thrilled.”

Unlike smaller parades, Dunwoody offers a small stipend.

“We really depend on that stipend,” said Wilson, who adds that the group has some small sponsors, but the riders pay all their own expenses except for their official jacket and shirts, which they give back when they leave the group.

The Central Georgia Mounted Color Guard leading the 2019 Dunwoody 4th of July parade. Front to back: Lisa Stacholy on Joe, Jan Stacholy on Twister, Ruth Wilson on Major, Nick Stacholy on his patriotically decorated bike. Hidden behind Major is Serina Stacholy as safety walker. (Paul Ward Photography)

Members pay for all of their own travel costs, which are significant when hauling a horse trailer, plus all their color-coordinated, parade-specific attire and tack (such as color-coordinated saddle pads, fly caps and hoof dressings). In the case of the Dunwoody parade, it’s red, white and blue down to the glitter on the horses’ hooves.

The core group consists of four members, supported by children, grandchildren and spouses, who participate as riders, safety walkers and cleanup detail. Young riders don’t carry the colors. The safety walkers keep overly excited spectators from approaching and spooking the horses.

According to Wilson, as proud as they are to carry the colors, their favorite part of the Dunwoody parade is the meet-and-greet after.

“Parents can’t pull their kids away. A lot of them are as excited as the kids and buy watermelon for the horses,” she said.

Two years ago, at the end of the 2018 parade, Dunwoody resident Lisa Stacholy visited the meet-and-greet and asked if she and Joe, her Appaloosa, could join the team. Normally, prospects must attend desensitizing clinics at Wilson’s farm, where horses are exposed to sights and sounds they might encounter at a parade.

“We look for a confident rider with a confident horse,” said Wilson. “Our clinics expose them to people, noise, smoke, flags and a shooting range that sounds like motorcycle backfire.”

Since Stacholy knew Joe was unflinchable and the team needed a rider for the upcoming Alpharetta Old Soldiers Parade in August, she skipped the trial. She and Joe rode in that parade but didn’t carry the colors.

On July 4, 2019, they rode in Dunwoody, her hometown, and carried the colors of the U.S.A.

“Dunwoody was an indescribable feeling,” she said. “We’ve lived here since 2002. To do something so huge was a proud moment.”

After the 2019 parade, Lisa Stacholy and Joe get ready for the meet-and-greet with the help of Jordan Fields. (Special)

Even more special, her whole family participated. Her husband Jan, who grew up with horses, rode Twister, one of Wilson’s horses. Her daughter Serina was a safety walker and her son Nick followed the horses on his bike along with a Dunwoody High School classmate doing clean-up.

“Our vets give so much they deserve more than a wink and a nod,” said Stacholy. “I always get choked up when someone struggles to stand and salute the flag.”

Like Wilson, Stacholy loves the meet-and-greet.

“Joe understands the different levels of people,” she said. “When a family approached with their special needs son in a wheelchair, Joe patiently stood there, head lowered, as they lifted their son’s hand to pet his nose. It was a magical moment when the child made the connection.”

Stacholy and her teammates all hope to ride in next year’s parade. Meanwhile, they are looking for riders, helpers and sponsors. For information, go to cgmcg.org or facebook.com/CentralGeorgiaMountedColorGuard.

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