By Dustin Turner • Photo by Chris Thelen


“She is fearless; truly fearless. And she has taught me to be courageous. I see her do things that I think a neurotypical child has trouble with. I see her doing it, and I know it’s God’s grace,” explains Jacqueline Heider, mother of Leanna Heider, 15, who has ADHD, a developmental delay and cognitive disability that make learning, reading and writing challenging.   

Jacqueline attributes much of her daughter’s courage to her love of animals, especially horses. Leanna has been riding since she was 7. “She loves animals. Always has— dolphins, dogs, cats, chickens— any animals. She just loves them,” Jacqueline said. “We used to call her the Butterfly Catcher because butterflies just fly up and sit on her hands.”

On an overcast day in early June, Jacqueline and Leanna are at Great Oak Equine Assisted Programs in Aiken to see what the facility has to offer. Great Oak provides individualized programs for people with special needs, whether it is physical, emotional or psychological. Director Nicole Pioli says the horses help students accomplish their goals.

“Riding has built her confidence and given her something to feel good about,” Jacqueline says as Leanna rides a horse with help from Nicole and the Great Oak’s staff. “It has helped her with focus, too, because there are a lot of things you have to do when you are on a horse. It helps with focus and learning to follow commands because the trainer is telling you how to do things, and you have to follow along.”

Leanna said riding a horse helps her feel calm. “They help me face my fears. Like if we’re going to jump, I start shaking, and they help me calm down because I hear them from inside my head.”

Nicole understands exactly what Leanna means.

“We have an autistic student here who rides,” Nicole explained. “He gets off the horse, and for 10 minutes, he just stares into Buddy’s eyes. They are having a conversation that we will never understand and can’t replicate. That student, though, feels like someone understands him.”

Seeing her daughter ride has been beneficial for Jacqueline, too. 

“I’d always wanted to ride and never got a chance to, so I just figured I’ll live out my dreams through my child,” she said with a laugh. “We started getting her lessons, and she gave me the confidence to be able to ride at age 40-something.”

The programs at Great Oak are designed, among other things, to help students find such confidence. Nicole tells the story of a student with a high level of anxiety and post-traumatic stress. “We were doing groundwork, which means she’s working with the horse and a rope halter to walk the horse through an obstacle course. All we wanted her to do was ask the horse to step away from her. She came in the barn, and she’s hunched over and really quiet and is whispering, ‘Step back.’ Finally, she got strong and assertive, pulled her shoulders back and asked the horse with some authority. The horse backed up, and she immediately teared up because she got a 1,200-pound horse to listen and respect her. She might now look at people and think, ‘If I can get a 1,200-pound horse to back up, I can ask a person to get out of my space and not feel vulnerable anymore.’”

Great Oak’s students range in age from 4 to 78. They have autism, muscular sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, anxiety, depression and more. “Their therapy depends on why they are here,” Nicole explained. “We tailor the therapy they receive to their needs, abilities and goals.” She gives the example of a student in a wheelchair. “When she mounts that horse, it might be the first time in her life where she is eye level or above somebody. Imagine what that does for her confidence. We have a student in a wheelchair who got Fitbit, and she said riding the horse was the first time her Fitbit has measured steps.”

Great Oak’s four instructors are certified through the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship. The horses also go through an assessment and training process before working with students.

“It’s all about the relationship with the horse,” Nicole said. “They teach life skills– responsibility and ownership of your behaviors and actions. We all know how lucky we are to be doing what we do here.” One big misconception, Nicole said, is that the classes are not difficult for the horses, because it is not physically taxing. “But we ask a lot from them emotionally to give that feedback to a rider. They have to respect the person who’s leading as well as the person on their back, and many horses never have to do that.”

Leanna has gotten off the horse and is excited about giving Buddy some treats. Her mother smiles as she watches. “I look at her every night before she goes to bed, and I say, ‘God has made you beautiful, and He is going to use you for His glory.’ Because of Leanna, I have started a nonprofit that supports moms of children with special needs. I could never have done that without a child who has a disability.”

When asked what she wants to do when she grows up, Leanna smiles from ear to ear and quickly responds: “I want to ride and train horses to connect with people.”

This article appears in the July 2020 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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