Augusta, GA (WJBF) — It is a 20 acre farm just five minutes from downtown Aiken, South Carolina. To many it may look like one of the many other farms in the area, but this one is different. Great Oak Aiken Therapeutic Riding Center (GOATRC) is designed to offer therapeutic riding to children and adults with physical, emotional, and psychological challenges. GOATRC recognizes that the number of people living with challenges is higher than the national average in the CSRA, and they are ready to help those that need them most.
Brad Means: Now the ways that horses can help a lot of folks, people with psychological, emotional and other needs, physical limitations, certainly. These horses can step in and help thanks to the hard work of the Great Oak Aiken Therapeutic Riding Center, and I have two very special guests from Great Oak with me today, Eva Finnan and Nicole Pioli. Eva and Nicole, thanks a lot for taking the time to be here today.
Eva Finnan: Thank you.
Nicole Pioli: Thank you for having us.
Brad Means: And similar to how dogs help the veterans, you do use these animals and pair ’em up with people who have all sorts of needs and they work with them. How did you even think that this was something that needed to be done? Either one of you can answer that.
Nicole Piolo: So, therapeutic riding is used internationally and Great Oak will be accredited by that international organization, and that’s PATH, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. And Aiken being one of the equestrian capitals of the country–
Brad Means: You’re darn right.
Nicole Pioli: It was about time that we put a premier center on the map for Aiken.
Brad Means: Okay, so how do you determine where these people come from and is there an age group that you’re targeting for people with emotional, psychological and physical needs? Who qualifies?
Eva Finnan: Well, we don’t really have an age group.
Brad Means: It could be kids?
Eva Finnan: It could be kids. Usually, four, age four and up, but we would like to be available to the whole demographic.
Nicole Pioli: Anyone can benefit. It can be individuals with autism, on the autism spectrum, or anyone suffering from anxiety or depression and certainly a variety of physical limitations, like you mentioned earlier.
Brad Means: And how do you get the horses? Does it take a special kind? Do you have to train ’em? How does that work?
Nicole Pioli: It does.
Eva Finnan: It does, it takes a very special kind. Usually, it doesn’t really matter what breed they are, and there are certain breeds that are calmer than others in nature. However, you really are looking for a horse that is just calm, doesn’t react to loud noises, is desensitized, doesn’t have the big flight issues that most horses really do have.
Brad Means: Yeah, they sure do.
Eva Finnan: But we just work with ’em every day on manners and on those desensitizing mechanisms that help them. And horses, usually, the age group of the horses plays a part in it also. They can be anywhere from let’s say age eight up until even age 20. And just because they’re older doesn’t mean that they’re gonna be better at it. It’s just really that calm demeanor that we’re looking for.
Brad Means: And what is it about a horse, do you think, that enables the animal to make that connection with the human being? Some people might think they’re too big, they’re too scary, they’re too intimidating, but there is a connection, and if you can just give me some insight into how that happens.
Eva Finnan: You know, it’s funny, it’s almost the size can be a benefit too. For some people, the fact that they’re maybe a 90-pound child and suddenly they’re handling and working and kinda playing with this 1,000-pound horse, that can give them a great sense of accomplishment, self-esteem and all that. So, yeah, size is kinda like, “Wow, why a horse?” But similarly to the dogs, horses don’t judge. They don’t lie. They are very in-tune to their environment. They pick up on things very quickly. So, they often say that they can mirror how you’re feeling. You’ve probably heard, “If you’re frightened of the horse, he’ll know it.” Well, that’s somewhat true. I mean, if you have a certain fear, that horse can feel that and read it and then it mirrors it and you can actually really learn from the horses, the fact that they will just use body language and read, and you learn how to read what the horse is saying and the horse reads the person.
Brad Means: If someone has a physical limitation, is it that the horse can make them feel mobile? Is it something as simple as that, but as beautiful as that?
Nicole Pioli: Absolutely. If you think an individual who spends their entire life in a wheelchair, and suddenly they’re on top of the world when they’re on that horse’s back and they have a whole new perspective. And it just provides them an opportunity to be an equal and to experience something very unique. It can simulate muscles in their body that they don’t get to use because they’re not walking, and so suddenly they’re gaining this core strength and they’re gaining hip mobility and flexibility due to the horse’s gait mimicking the human’s natural walk.
Brad Means: You have so many people in this area who love horses and especially in Aiken, as you mentioned. What about volunteers and how they can help you, somebody who has that love of horses or who wants to help their fellow man or woman? What do the volunteers do at Great Oak?
Nicole Pioli: We are a very volunteer-intensive program. So, one single rider on one horse may require up to three volunteers during their lesson, working with their certified instructor. So, anybody who’s interested in working with the horses by themselves. I mean, these horses are gonna need to be cared for, just like many people in Aiken’s horses in their backyards.
Brad Means: You call that groundwork, right?
Nicole Pioli: So, groundwork, definitely.
Eva Finnan: And maintenance.
Nicole Pioli: And the horse maintenance. So, our horses right now, since we’re not currently offering programs, they are mostly just in a groundwork program. So, we’re preparing them to that lifestyle where they’re going to have a leader and two side-walkers on each side guiding them and helping to support that individual that’s on their back.
Brad Means: How long does a typical ride or lesson last in order for you to see results, and perhaps how many lessons might it take before those results kick in?
Eva Finnan: Lessons usually run about 20 minutes to 40 minutes at the very most for the actual lesson. A lotta that has to do with the disability that maybe is apparent with the rider. But for actual results, it’s just similar to with working with the dogs. You could have an instant connection. Somebody could suddenly have this, there was a little boy that I was teaching one day and he was on the mounting block and his head was down and he was just quiet and low and there was nothing going on; he didn’t seem present at all. And yet, the minute he actually got onto the horse, it’s like somebody switched that little light switch and his head kind of went up and his eyes came up. And, boom, you have something going on there that you wouldn’t normally have. So, again, it can be five minutes, it could be a year. It’s just patience and time and letting the horse do what they do naturally and just let the healing happen naturally.
Brad Means: We want people to donate money to your organization to help you. We know that you are in the middle of a very important capital campaign. Where are these funds going to go? What are you trying to do out there at Great Oak right now?
Nicole Pioli: So, we have crossed the 70% mark to our $1.5 million capital campaign, and that is going towards the construction on our 20-acre farm. So, we have built an 80-by-160-foot indoor arena, which is huge, and that’s going to give us the ability to offer lessons all year long. No conditions are gonna stop that individual from riding, because it may be why they got up that morning was to go to their riding lesson, it might be what’s keeping them mobile. So, we are just so excited to have this beautiful facility and we cannot wait to fill it with smiling people.
Brad Means: You know, one thing I’ve noticed about both of you during our brief time together is a lotta joy and a lot of enthusiasm.
Eva Finnan: Oh yeah.
Brad Means: This has to feel great. And I guess I’ll just wrap by asking each of you to tell me how it feels to know that the work that you’re putting in is going to help so many people live better lives.
Eva Finnan: Well, I can say when I discovered it, I realized that I had found my element; I was in my element. It’s very authentic. From a very selfish point of view, it feels phenomenal to help somebody. And they help us also. It really is a two-way street. As much as we’re there assisting and helping, what I’ve learned from the students and from the horses is remarkable. And we’ll continue to learn and we just hope that what we’re offering really is a very safe, comfortable environment for some healing to happen and for some fun to happen.
Brad Means: I mean, Nicole, you’re probably excited when you drive up to Great Oak every day.
Nicole Pioli: So excited. It doesn’t feel real. It’s just such a unique, amazing opportunity to not only get to work with horses, who I love, and to see lives transformed, but also to provide a volunteer opportunity where people are gonna get to give back and feel like they’re serving individuals in their community. And it’s just a great opportunity and we’re so excited for it to be here in the CSRA.
Brad Means: Well, we’re excited as well. We’re gonna celebrate when Great Oak goes over the top with our fundraising campaign and is able to do all that Nicole and Eva described today. You can get in touch with them and support them. There’s the website right there. There is Great Oaks’ phone number and their address in the All-America City. Great Oak Aiken Therapeutic Riding Center. Eva and Nicole, thank you for what you do for people who so truly need it, and best of luck with everything. Again, we’re gonna celebrate with y’all, so best of luck.