"changing lives one ride at a time"

About O.A.T.S.

Offering Alternative Therapy with Smiles was founded as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in 1997 by Nancy Lee Heussner. Located on 50 acres in Clarkston, Mich., O.A.T.S. and its staff of caring, dedicated and enthusiastic instructors and volunteers provide equine-assisted therapy and a lot of smiles on a weekly basis, year-round (thanks to our heated indoor arena), to more than 100 children and adults with a wide variety of physical and emotional disabilities. See our program in action: watch one of our videos, browse our O.A.T.S. Notes newsletters, or better yet, come out and volunteer.

The O.A.T.S. difference

With safety always the priority, the goal for every rider at O.A.T.S. is to ride independently (without assistance from a leader and/or sidewalker), no matter the disability. While not always possible, the important thing is that it’s encouraged.

We also strive to engage our riders from the moment they arrive until they leave. Riders are asked to converse, recognize horses and volunteers by name, assist with leading horses out and untacking, notice their surroundings, participate in games and activities, test their limits and most of all, have fun and SMILE. Parents, caregivers, teachers and doctors are often surprised by what our riders can do!

More than just a place to ride

For parents, O.A.T.S. is a support system and a place to network and share information. For riders, it’s a place to be a “regular” kid through annual events like the Mane Event horse show and fair, holiday parties and our Smiles on Saddles day camp.


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In memory of Nancy

"Founder of horse therapy nonprofit 'left too soon'" by Sharon Greene, The Oakland Press (PDF)

"Founder's O.A.T.S. legacy to live on" by Phil Custodio, The Clarkston News

Benefits of therapeutic riding

  • Improves balance, flexibility, muscle strength and tone
  • Develops communication, listening and attention skills
  • Encourages social interaction
  • Builds confidence and self-esteem

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Our Instructors

Nancy Heussner, certified in 1996, founded the program in 1997 and was its first instructor. “I wanted to do something that united my love for human beings and horses," she said. "I had a vision of what it would be like for a child in a wheelchair to leave that chair behind and be on the back of a horse riding through the woods." That vision became O.A.T.S. It continues despite her passing in March 2013.

All of our dedicated and enthusiastic instructors are certified through PATH Intl. (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International). This means they've met criteria an instructor must possess regarding instruction, teaching methodology, disabilities, equine management and horsemanship. Most started out as volunteers in our program, a great way to find out if this special calling is for you.

Claudine Hildreth, certified in 2002, became involved with O.A.T.S. because "Therapeutic riding gives me the chance to get my horse 'fix' and is a great source of joy in my life. Being able to share my love of horses, while seeing the benefits that it brings the riders is an incredible reward. I was honored to be appointed president of the O.A.T.S. board of directors in 2006."

Beth Pellerito, certified in 2004, attended school to become a special ed teacher. "I was halfway to completing requirements when family responsibilities intervened," she explains. "Now I’m teaching and that’s what I wanted to do. I love it!" Beth's son Nick has been a rider in the program for several years

Sue Torpey, certified in 2007. After volunteering in the program, "I realized how much I loved coming to O.A.T.S. and seeing the wonderful smiles on the riders faces because of the pure joy that comes from riding a horse," says Sue, who went on to become an instructor. "The thing I love most is seeing the riders overcome their fears and that this therapy really helps riders with all types of disabilities."

Bethany Pellerito and Hannah Pellerito, both newly PATH certified in 2015. They grew up @ O.A.T.S., along with their brother Nicholas, and both of their horses (Ernie and Mickey) are in the program.

Ruth Hannam-Fahrenbruch, also newly certified in 2015.


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Meet some of the heroes of our program

Black Jack: black Quarter Horse gelding, 16 hands high, born in 1984, dependable, loves trail rides, Telly is his best friend, loves to canter.

Dixie: brown Pony of the Americas (POA) mare, 14 hands high, born in 1982, has a pretty trot, kind and willing.

Elf: palomino Haflinger gelding, 14.1 hands high, born in 2001, special needs-born with "cow ears" (a genetic deformity), a people horse, rescued from a slaughter house by Maggie who then donated him to us. Read more about Elf.

Huckleberry Finn: black Grade Pony gelding, 13.1 hands high, born in 1986, lives up to his name, may be one of the shortest out at the barn but doesn't let the others push him around, cute as they come.

Reo: red roan Appaloosa gelding, 14.3 hands high, born in 1977, one of our oldest horses (although he doesn't act it), has five spots on his rump that form a paw print, LOVES to play in the mud and water.


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