Overcoming Adversity

Great Oak Equine Assisted Programs Helps Student Uncover Sense of Self

Article by Gayle Bryan

Photography by Gayle Bryan & Rebecca Williams

Originally published in Aiken City Lifestyle

We recently visited Great Oak Equine Assisted Programs in search of some inspiration as we enter the season of giving. Located just North of Downtown Laurens Street, the 44-acre farm is home to some of the most loved horses, incredible volunteers, and daily riders who will inspire you and fill your heart.

One rider, Kaleb, came to Great Oak to overcome something we can all relate to: social anxiety and depression. Making the courageous decision to embrace his fears brought him to the beautiful and serene farm. The award-winning horses, certified therapeutic barn team and dedicated volunteers gave Kaleb a sense of self he had not found elsewhere.

Eva Finnan, Great Oak’s Program Director, is a PATH International Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor and has worked closely with Kaleb since he started riding with Great Oak. Eva exudes warmth and from the moment you meet her the respect she has for her students and her horses is evident. Her teaching and therapeutic philosophy centers on the connection between rider and horse. Riders, like Kaleb, who can sometimes find communication with people difficult, sometimes find it easy to connect with a horse. It is this practice that gives him the confidence to communicate with others when he is away from Great Oak.

Eva is very passionate when she talks about the empathetic quality of horses, “They are such sentient beings. They pick up on the energy of each rider and adjust themselves accordingly.” Eva has proven to her riders and their families that communication skills and techniques learned while at Great Oak translate well to life outside the barn.

Kaleb loves all the horses (and donkeys) at Great Oak, but has a special bond with Arnie, a 17-hand, Irish Sport horse that came to Great Oak from Emily and has a history with the esteemed rider, Phillip Dutton.

Like all new students, Kaleb began the program with a horse, a leader and two side walkers. The eventual goal for all riders is independence. Kaleb is now confident walking and trotting independently and is working on cantering and some jumping. While at Great Oak, Kaleb has become an accomplished and respected rider. He recently took home a first-place blue ribbon in the South Carolina Special Olympics Equestrian Show. Kaleb is proud of the strides he has made in his horsemanship. When we asked him what the greatest benefit of his time spent at Great Oak was, he told us, “Before my time at Great Oak, I struggled interacting with people in any way, shape or form. Since being here, my ability to express myself and be open to people is the best part!”

Kaleb’s mom, Ava, is grateful and amazed at the changes she has seen in her son. She stepped away from our interview for a moment, overwhelmed to see her son happily answering questions about the horses and his work at Great Oak.  She told us, “Not too long ago, my son would have walked away from a similar interaction without a word.”

Great Oak has given Kaleb a platform to excel and grow in his confidence. If you are inspired and would like to learn more about volunteering or giving to Great Oak, visit www.greatoakeap.org.

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