Friday, July 8, 2016

New Beginnings at Great Oak

Therapeutic Riding in Aiken

by Pam Gleason

Aiken’s therapeutic riding program has a new home at Great Oak, a 20-acre farm just minutes from downtown Aiken. A registered 501c3 charity, Great Oak Aiken Therapeutic Riding Center was formerly known as STAR and has been serving the community for 20 years. It is an affiliate of PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship), and its mission, according to its website, is “to provide equine assisted activities that promote the physical, emotional and psychological health of individuals with special needs.”

Great Oak represents a new beginning for the organization, which had been facing some challenges in recent years. The chief challenge was that although the program had horses, instructors and students, it didn’t have a permanent home, but operated out of various different facilities over the years. Because it didn’t have an indoor ring, its classes were at the mercy of the weather.

“Things got canceled a lot,” says Wendy O’Brien, who is the chairman of the board of directors. “Most of the students were children and they came after school, so there was only a limited time frame to begin with, and if it rained, you had to cancel.”

Wendy says that the program was first started by Steve Groat, Ash Milner and Alan Corey. “Steve put me on the board of directors about five years ago,” she continues. “Then he passed away almost three years ago. His wife Jeannie and I made a little promise to him and his good friend Alan Corey, who also passed away last year, that we wouldn’t let it die. So we decided that the program needed its own home. We either had to build a facility, or close. So we pushed and pushed, and finally bought land, and here we are.”

The land that they bought is a parcel on Route 19, just three miles from Route 20 and about seven minutes from the Aiken YMCA. The Y has an active adaptive program and will be offering therapeutic riding through Great Oak. “Between Aiken and Augusta, there are 1,600 people in their adaptive program, and they can’t wait to send us students,” says Wendy. Adaptive sports, like therapeutic riding, are modified (or adapted) to be accessible to individuals with special needs.

It took a little while to select the right piece of land, but Wendy says she is thrilled with the new property. “We didn’t want a place that was too far out of town. David Stinson, who was the realtor we were working, with showed me this place, even though it was a little beyond my budget. We drove in, and I realized it was perfect. David showed me lots of other places, but I kept coming back to this one.”

Eventually she decided to buy it, whether it was in the budget or not. “We’re really paying for the location she says. “And it couldn’t be much better. There is so much traffic that goes past us, we’ve been generating a lot of interest.”

The purchase was made in December, and contractors and architects have been working assiduously ever since. There was already a small house on the property, which is being renovated (“It even came with a board room!” says Wendy with a laugh.) The land itself was very overgrown with weeds and bushes, which have been cleared (“It was a jungle!”) In the process of clearing, they discovered an outbuilding that they didn’t know was there, as well as an allĂ©e of giant oaks that probably once lined the drive leading to the main house on the farm. (“That tree is where the name came from,” says Wendy pointing to an oak with a gigantic trunk and a broad canopy.)

Wendy worked with various architects and contractors to identify the best place to build the barn and attached indoor arena. Arena plans call for many sliding windows so that it can be open to the outdoors on pleasant days, but closed up if it is nasty. There are many other factors to consider when building a stable for a therapeutic riding program. “It’s not like building a barn for yourself at all. We’re very fortunate in Aiken that we have so many qualified people that are knowledgeable about therapeutic riding and they have been very generous with their advice.”

While construction is getting underway, the organization is working on recruiting the best and most qualified staff. They are conducting a nationwide search for a PATH certified instructor, as well as for a volunteer coordinator. “The head instructor is the most important thing, because he or she will be our face. And then the program can’t run without volunteers,” says Wendy. People with physical disabilities often need three volunteers apiece for a lesson: one to lead the horse, and one side walker on each side to steady the rider. Volunteers are also needed for many other duties, including keeping the horses fresh. “They need to be ridden outside of the therapeutic program. They can’t just do one thing.”

Great Oak is currently in the process of selecting horses for the program, hoping to start with six, and eventually build up to 12.

“They do have to be special horses,” says Wendy.

“They have to be unflappable. They have to be sound. Horses that are used to a lot of commotion can be good candidates – some driving horses are good, so are some retired polo ponies. A horse like a Fjord or a Haflinger, about 15 hands and very calm, can be ideal. It just depends on the individual.”

Since the new programs will also be dealing with adults rather than strictly with children, there will be a need for some larger horses as well. Great Oak already has one: a 16.3 hand Thoroughbred.

Wendy says her motivation for devoting all this time and effort to Great Oak is to ensure that there is a successful therapeutic riding program in Aiken: “We want to serve this huge community that could benefit from riding, which has so many health benefits,” she says.

Doug Rabold, who is working as a consultant to Great Oak, says he is especially impressed by therapeutic riding because the atmosphere surrounding horses is so different from that in a clinic.

“What’s so special to me is that if you have a problem and you go to a doctor, you’re in a medical setting. When you come here, you get to ride a horse; you get to be outdoors, connecting with a physical being that is nonjudgmental. It’s so different from being in a clinic; it’s like you’re getting therapy without realizing it. There’s warmth and fun, learning and laughing. That, to me, is what makes it so inspiring.”

- Three Runs Plantation Equestrian Blog. Re-published article from The Aiken Horse.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.