Monday, August 2, 2010

Lead Me to the Horses

Lynn Daniels and O.A.T.S. Founder Nancy Heussner in front of a pasture.

As I pulled up to the barn at O.A.T.S. (Offering Alternative Therapy with Smiles) I was greeted by Nancy Heussner as she finished instructing another volunteer. Wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, Nancy is a very fit and enthusiastic woman who clearly loves what she does. Her barn and arenas are clean and cheerful. Bunches of yellow and purple flowers are planted on either side of the barn door. As she led me around the grounds, she talked to me about the program.

O.A.T.S. provides year round equine-assisted therapy on a weekly basis to more than one-hundred children and adults with a wide variety of physical and/or emotional disabilities. The group relies heavily on volunteer participation. Like most volunteer gigs, I had to sign a waiver.

"But if you get hurt, we just bury you in the back," Nancy said with a laugh. It was funny the first time, but I started to worry after she said it a third time. Just in case, I assured her that my husband has fantastic health care so she should do whatever it takes if I get injured! I soon learned that I had nothing to fear. We started the day by feeding the horses. As we walked past a long row of stalls, she opened an electric door. But before she opened the gate, she yelled, "Stay up on the ramp."

I hopped up and was soon glad for the warning. Large horses of all breed and size barreled past me eager to get to their feed. It never ceases to amaze me how smart animals are — the horses have their own stalls and they all seemed to know where to go. After we locked each stall for them to eat, we took a ranger vehicle out to the pasture to spread hay for the animals. This is where I learned that Nancy also attended Northern Michigan University — it was an instant bond.

Most of these horses are older, and because they are prone to arthritis they spend much of their time outdoors. On this breezy summer day, I couldn't imagine a better place. While we were feeding the horses, a perky 19-year-old blonde joined us and took over my tutelage. Lynn Daniels of Clarkston has been working with O.A.T.S. for years, and she loves what she does.

"The best thing about this is just watching how the kids progress and how it benefits them," she said. "You accomplish the impossible."

During her tenure, she said she has seen children who initially hide in the car and refuse to talk learn to ride independently.

"Some people will tell us that the kids are nonverbal. Fine, but that doesn't mean we aren't going to talk to them."

It's hard to imagine Lynn at a loss of words — this coming from yours truly, the queen of motor mouths. Bubbly may be the best way to describe Lynn, and I can't imagine a more suited personality to help children with disabilities. In some cases, she said the children do end up talking. She's also seen parents who were told that their children would never walk, do just that.

O.A.T.S. offers both riding lessons and extended day camps. Nobody is treated differently here. Riding the horses helps the riders improve balance, flexibility, muscle strength and tone. The program also strives to develop communication, listening and attention skills as well as building confidence and self esteem.

Nancy only has two part-time employees. The rest are all volunteers. Work never lacks at O.A.T.S. After feeding horses, I mucked stalls — though really I just had to scoop poop. I also helped sweep part of the barn where the horses had tracked in mud. Tomorrow, I plan on actually meeting the kids and leading them on the horses. I'm excited to meet the children and see what O.A.T.S. is really about. So far, I'm impressed. Horse enthusiasts should check out the organization to get their daily dose of O.A.T.S.

To learn more about O.A.T.S., visit

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