20-year-old woman killed at historic equestrian event in Chatsworth, Georgia

Contributed photo by Heath Chadwick / Breanna Chadwick is pictured at Cherokee Veterans Park in Canton, Georgia, in 2019. Her father, Heath Chadwick, served in the United States Airforce.
Contributed photo by Heath Chadwick / Breanna Chadwick is pictured at Cherokee Veterans Park in Canton, Georgia, in 2019. Her father, Heath Chadwick, served in the United States Airforce.

A Canton, Georgia, woman was laid to rest Wednesday after she was struck by a gate during a horse arena race at Appalachain Wagon Train 2022, a 10-day history and equestrian event in Chatsworth.

Breanna Leigh Chadwick, 20, died July 8 at Erlanger hospital after the accident, according to her obituary.

"I'm at a loss for words, because we lost a precious soul," said Gabe Carrell, president of the Murray County Saddle Club, the organization that hosts the annual event.

One of the area's biggest annual gatherings, the Wagon Train events include a wagon train parade, horse riding races for children, as well as more competitive riding events, Carrell said.

In a phone interview, the woman's father, Heath Chadwick, was asked what the response from the community has been like.

"Incredible," he said. "You would not believe how many people my daughter's touched. It's just overwhelming. The funeral home guesstimated that there was 1,100, 1,200 people at the funeral yesterday (Wednesday). There was hundreds and hundreds, one right after another, expressing what my daughter had done for them."

Heath Chadwick said he hadn't been aware of her impact because his daughter wasn't one to talk about who she'd helped.

Sympathy was expressed by her high school teammates and colleagues from the elementary school near Waleska, Georgia, where she was student-teaching. Her students made hand-written notes.

One friend told Heath Chadwick that Breanna Chadwick had saved her. The woman said she was sitting in a corner at a party planning to commit suicide that night. Breanna Chadwick, who was often a sober driver at parties, talked to her for 45 minutes that night and had kept in touch with her ever since.

Despite the family mourning, Heath Chadwick said the outpouring of love and stories about their daughter has made the family smile.

"We heard that for four straight hours Monday, and then 13 straight hours Tuesday," he said. "Just one right after another."

Hali Cheyne is organizing a fundraiser for the Chadwick family to start a scholarship fund in Breanna Chadwick's name. As of early Thursday afternoon, organizers had raised $24,875 of their $25,000 goal.

Cheyne said she had ridden horses with Chadwick's sister for years, while Breanna Chadwick's focus had been lacrosse. Breanna Chadwick was studying to be a third-grade teacher, Cheyne said in an interview through a messaging app.

Heath Chadwick hadn't expected the fundraiser to generate as much money as it did. He said he wants to have an annual scholarship for a Cherokee County athlete and to purchase Dr. Seuss books for young readers.

"Anybody that we can reach in Bree's name over the next 50 years, that's what we want to do," he said.

"I love that y'all are writing about this," Heath Chadwick said of this article, "because it helps to continue her legacy."

Breanna Chadwick was an organ donor, her father said, a decision she made when she was 15 years old. It was another example of how she wanted to help people, he said, doing so even after her passing. When Breanna Chadwick's body was taken from her room at Erlanger to have her organs donated, doctors and nurses lined the halls in a ceremony they call an honor parade. Heath Chadwick said he was told it was one of the biggest ones ever.

Carrell said the accident happened during a competitive timed event in which horse and rider race around barrels. A horse slammed into a gate, and the gate struck Breanna Chadwick, Carrell said. She was only a spectator, Carrell said, but her sister was a barrel rider. Carrell's daughter is a barrel rider too, he said, and that's how he knows the Chadwick family.

"It's just a huge tragedy," Carrell said. "I've been president (of the saddle club) for 10 years, and I would've never dreamed anything like this would ever happen."

(READ MORE: Wagon Train parades through Chatsworth)

Married for 26 years, Heath Chadwick said he and his wife Kristy Chadwick have been going to the wagon train since before their children were born. People come from all over the region to camp and participate, he said. Held in early July, this was its 63rd year of celebrating equestrian life.

"There is more people that ride horses and compete on horses and that have a love for horses and showmanship and different things than you can imagine," Heath Chadwick said.

There are many events, but during the actual wagon train, wagons and riders parade through town and throw candy to children.

"And that was Bree's thing, she never rode a horse through it, she was on a wagon throwing candy to kids," he said.

Thursday night's events began with judged events in which riders compete for who can control their horses the best, Heath Chadwick said. After that, he said, there were timed events. One of those events, the arena race, is how Brenna Chadwick was critically injured.

"So what they do is put one barrel at the opposite end of the arena where they enter, and the objective is to run down around that one barrel as fast as you possibly can," Heath Chadwick said.

The night of the accident, Breanna was there to support her sister Kirstin. When the rider lost control of his horse, people yelled for the gate to be closed because people outside the arena could have been injured. Breanna Chadwick stepped forward to close the gate, Heath Chadwick said.

"To save somebody or to keep somebody from possibly getting injured if the horse come out, she's never done that. Not once," Heath Chadwick said. "But it was meant to be then."

Breanna Chadwick was injured in the early hours of Friday, after Thursday night's races ran long into the night. The next day was the parade, and Carrell wanted to cancel the festivities, "out of respect," he said.

But when Heath Chadwick called Kirstin Chadwick, she immediately said no, he said.

"'You can't do that,' and that was exactly what she said," Heath Chadwick said. "'Too many kids that will be hurt, too many kids that wouldn't get to experience seeing the animals, and that's not what Bree would want.' So they went on with the wagon train," he said.

Heath Chadwick said he didn't attend the parade because he was at the hospital with his injured daughter, but he was told the streets where the wagon train parade was held were lined with teal, her favorite color. Breanna Chadwick's official time of death was 4:21 p.m., her father said, while the wagon train was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

As a Baptist, Heath Chadwick said he believes that "this was all meant to be, all meant to help somebody or bring light to someone that didn't have what Bree did."

At the funeral, he said the family requested that attendees wear bright colors and Heydudes - a favorite shoe of Breanna Chadwick's - because it was meant to be a celebration of her life.

"God has a bigger purpose, and we may not understand it right now or agree with it, but we have to accept it," Heath Chadwick said. "Now it's almost a challenge from Bree. I've never reached the people she has, but in her honor, everything we do from this point forward will be to honor her."

According to an obituary contributed by the family, Chadwick was a student at Reinhardt University.

"She always had a beautiful smile and was full of sass," the obituary said. "You could always find her at Chick-fil-A getting a lemonade or at Bruster's getting a single scoop of birthday cake ice cream. She loved the color teal, her Jeep, Lily (the family dog) and Peanut (a baby goat), but most of all she loved her family and friends."

Funeral services for Breanna Chadwick were held Wednesday in Ball Ground, Georgia.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.

photo Contributed photo by Heath Chadwick / Members of the Chadwick family - from left to right, Kirstin, Heath, Kristy and Breanna - are pictured in 2019.