Our Story

The genesis of Great Oak starts with the story of a boy, Alan Corey IV.  Alan enjoyed adaptive riding on Long Island, New York. More than 20 years ago, while visiting his father in Aiken, he asked if there was a similar program available.  When the answer was “No,” he questioned, “Why not?” That is when Specialized Therapeutic and Recreational Riding (STAR Riding) was born.

Today under the protective branches of a Great Oak, that dream is carried forward by a dedicated group of passionate individuals and reliable horses under the professional affiliation of PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship).  The future holds so many possibilities for unbridled success.

Our advantage is our knowledge and experience. We leverage our assets in  a state-of-the-art facility that is supported by generous contributions from many of our local patrons and students.

Over the last 15 months alone we have served over 200 unique individuals through creative programming, dedicated volunteers, certified instructors and our fantastic herd of award-winning GO Ponies. Great Oak now manages a facility that allows for transformative growth through equine assisted activities in all seasons.

We believe that riders aged 4 years and older with emotional, cognitive, and physical challenges will find that equine interaction may improve their condition. Prior to programming all potential participants must complete a screening session with Great Oak PATH certified staff. As we grow in our community and beyond, we look forward to the new adventures and journeys that our students will go on with us, and we know we cannot do it alone. It can take up to three volunteers and an instructor for reach individual session. We provide thorough training for volunteers assisting with therapeutic riding lessons, barn management, office administrative tasks, fundraising efforts, or community outreach.

Great Oak is located on a picturesque 20-acre farm give minutes from downtown Aiken, South Carolina. Aiken is among the foremost equestrian communities not only in the Southeast, but also in the nation. It seems imperative that Aiken should be home to one of the PATH certified riding programs. We share our expertise to empower individuals with special needs and their families. We aim to see our students discover a new relationship with the horses through thoughtful programs that guide and nurture the riders.

Simply put, we change lives. Help us build the next 20 years and beyond at Great Oak.

Our Team

Wendy O’Brien


Wendy O’Brien is an accomplished equestrian with a lifelong dedication to equestrian disciplines, farm life, business ventures, and community causes. Her equestrian pursuits include Radnor Hunt Pony Club, horse showing, foxhunting, steeplechase racing, three day eventing, breeding and training. She is a competitive Combined Driver, and was on the U.S. Pony Team in 2011 and 2013, winning with the Bronze Medal Team in 2011. She currently competes driving a four-in-hand.

Wendy grew up in New York and Pennsylvania, graduating from Chatham Hall and Bennett College. She owned and managed Unser Gehoft Farm (raising Duroc pigs), Pig Hill Inn, and Trout Walk Farm (raising Belted Galloway), all the while volunteering and serving on multiple nonprofit boards. She was married to the late Daniel O’Brien for 38 years and worked with him in various restaurant successes until his passing in 2007. They had four children and Wendy now enjoys nine grandchildren.

Wendy moved from Duchess County, New York, to Aiken in 2008, with her two corgis and Norwich terrier, and many horses, ponies, and Poitou donkeys. Wendy truly believes in the power of horses to bring healing physically, emotionally and mentally. She served on the board of directors of Great Oak’s predecessor since 2008. She is committed to the development of a state of the art facility in Aiken that provides the highest level of Therapeutic Riding on a continuous basis. 

Michael Sullivan

Vice Chairman

Michael Sullivan served on Great Oak’s predecessor board and he is interested in helping Great Oak grow to a scale sufficient to serve a broad population. Michael is a graduate of Williams College and he received his MBA from Vanderbilt University. After Michael graduated, his interest in finance took him back east, where he joined Citicorp in New York. Later, he became a principal at Richardson & Associates, a boutique investment firm in New York focusing on early stage investments.

Michael and his wife, Cissie, came to Aiken in 2002 with the intention of being seasonal residents. Their enjoyment was such that they became full time residents in 2008. Michael serves on the board of the SPCA, where he is treasurer, and on the board of the Aiken Tennis Club, where he is president. Michael and Cissie enjoy outdoor pursuits with their three dogs and horse. Michael is a tennis player and an avid soccer fan, having captained his college team. He also has an abiding interest in residential renovation.

Duncan Huyler


Duncan has held senior leadership positions across multiple industries, including retail, advertising, technology, manufacturing, and finance. He began his career as an officer in the U.S. Army, spent ten years as a hedge fund CFO in New York and most recently was the CEO of the United States Polo Association.

An avid amateur polo player and active volunteer, Duncan has served on several committees of the USPA, including chairing the Interscholastic and Intercollegiate Committee for five years. He has served on the board of the New York Hedge Fund Chapter of the Financial Executives Alliance, the Sound Practices Committee for the Alternative Investment Management Association, and was a founding member of the Children’s Cancer Research Fund of New York Medical College. He also served on the board of Friends of Karen, a children’s charity in metro New York and is currently a volunteer mentor with the SCORE program of Aiken.

Duncan received a BS from Cornell University and an MBA from the University of Louisville.  He grew up riding, driving, and showing Morgans and Saddlebreds in the northeast before turning to polo at Cornell. Duncan and his wife, Erica, a USEF licensed official and accomplished equestrian, moved to Aiken in 2017 and enjoy their new life here.

Joan Lioi


Joan grew up in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. After completing her associate’s degree in secretarial science, she worked for six years at PPG Industries in Pittsburgh. When her first child was born, Joan quit her job to become a full time mother. Her daughter was joined by a son three years later. In the past, Joan volunteered with the Girl Scouts. She moved to Aiken in 1992 and got a clerical job at Savannah River Site. Since 1995, Joan has worked in various capacities at Tri-Development Center, a local United Way agency providing services to individuals with disabilities. She worked in the activity center initially and was promoted in 2000 to administrative assistant to the executive director. Joan has been involved with STAR Riding, and now Great Oak Aiken Therapeutic Riding Center, since 2003. Joan is very excited that Great Oak now has its own home, and is thrilled with the benefit and enjoyment that the riders gain from their participation.

Ralph Courtney

Immediate Past Chairman

Ralph Courtney, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities, is the Executive Director of Tri-Development Center and Aiken County Board of Disabilities. His work experience includes 44 years of providing service coordination and early intervention, and operating a variety of residential settings, job placement, and other day programs for children and adults with special needs. He also serves as the President of the Tri-Development Center Foundation. Ralph is currently the Co-Chairperson for the Coalition, and has served as Chairperson of the SC Chapter of the American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the SC Human Service Providers Association.

He has been involved with the therapeutic riding program in Aiken since its inception, and has always dreamed that the organization would one day have its own facilities. Ralph is excited that the equestrian community and other great friends of individuals with special needs have finally come together in a big way to create and support a program that will, for many years to come, provide many wonderful opportunities and therapeutic experiences for individuals in our area.

Ralph obtained a BS degree in Secondary Education and a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Services from the University of South Carolina. He also completed all but his dissertation for a doctorate in Educational Administration before beginning his current positions in Aiken in 1991. A native of Greenville, South Carolina, Ralph lives with his wife, Jody, and two wonderful dogs in Aiken. They have a son, Josh, a daughter, Melia Bolchoz, and one granddaughter.

Bonnie Fulghum

BonnieAnne Osbon Fulghum is a lifelong Aiken resident. She earned her bachelors degrees in speech communication and theater/vocal performance from the University of South Carolina and is currently working on finishing her master’s degree in special education. She grew up working in her family business, Triple O Printing Company, until it was sold. Bonnie and her mother then opened Sylvia Anne’s Bridal Shop. Bonnie taught K-5 for Aiken County Public School District for 16 years until taking her current job at Tri-Development Center of Aiken. She is well known in the theatre community in Aiken. Bonnie is on the executive board of “His Kids” – The Dawson Owen Fulghum Foundation, and has been serving on this Board for the last three years. Bonnie’s greatest joy in life is being wife to Warren and mother to Dawson, her son, who is a rider in the program.

Jeannie Groat

Jeannie grew up in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and attended Hiram College, studying history and art history, and performing in musical theater and concerts. Her marriage to Stephen Groat brought her to Aiken, where Steve taught at the Aiken Preparatory School and Jeannie studied at the University of South Carolina. In 1971, the Groats moved to Chester County, Pennsylvania, where Jeannie enjoyed being a full time mother, a part time writer, and a community volunteer. Moving back to Aiken in the late 1980s, the family settled into Aiken’s busy social, sporting and civic life. While Jeannie served on the Racing Museum’s Advisory Board and started a decorative painting business, Steve joined his friend Alan Corey on the Board of the newly formed STAR Riding, eventually creating the Bluegrass Festival in order to raise money for the therapeutic riding program of STAR Riding. The Bluegrass Festival quickly enlisted the energies of the extended Groat family and, over the years, it has provided substantial financial support for STAR Riding. After Steve’s death in 2012, Jeannie was appointed to the STAR Riding Board. She continues to be involved with the Festival, the Museum, and her six grandchildren. Jeannie is excited to be a part of the therapeutic riding program now known as Great Oak.

Mary Guynn

Mary Guynn was born in Aiken. She received her undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary and thereafter obtained her juris doctorate degree from Emory University. She is a partner in the law firm of Smith, Massey, Brodie, Guynn & Mayes, where she practices in the areas of residential and commercial real estate development and finance. Her professional memberships include the Georgia Bar Association and the South Carolina Bar Association. Her civic involvement includes the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare, the Aiken Land Conservancy, Aiken Homebuilders Association, Greater Aiken Integrated Trails Foundation, Aiken County Habitat for Humanity, and Great Oak Aiken Therapeutic Riding Center. She enjoys showing hunter/jumper horses in her free time. 

Gail King

Gail King moved to the U.S. from England at the age of 16. She has proudly claimed Aiken as home since 1977. In the intervening years, she has been a Joint Master of the Aiken Hounds, a longtime trustee and former chairman of the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, and a director of the Aiken Horse Show in the Woods. She and her husband, David, have two sons, Andrew and Kristopher, and Gail has a loving affinity for English Springer Spaniels. Having grown up in England in a polo playing, racehorse training family, she is interested in all forms of equestrianism and is very excited to be a part of the evolving Great Oak Aiken Therapeutic Riding Center. 

Judy McConnell

Judy McConnell joins Great Oak after 18 years of involvement at Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, including three years as the President.  She and her husband, Chuck, have three children and six grandchildren.  They retired to Aiken and reside in Three Runs Plantation with her two horses and Schnoodle.  Judy actively hunts with Whiskey Road Hounds and also enjoys golfing and shooting clays.

Matthew Mullen

Matthew Mullen serves as the District Vice President of the Aiken County and Barnwell County Family YMCAs. Originally from Pearl City, Illinois, he graduated from Western Illinois University in 2006 with a BA in communications. He moved to the area in 2014 to open the Barnwell County Family YMCA and took over the Aiken County YMCA in 2016. Previously, Matt was the Associate Executive Director of the Family YMCA of Northwest Illinois in Freeport, Illinois. He currently serves on the Superintendent’s Advisory Council for District 45 and the Eat Smart, Move More South Carolina Board. His wife, Audrey, is a practicing Occupational Therapist in the area and they have two children, Delaney and Grady.

Tony Rickard

Tony Rickard is a life-long resident of Aiken.  Many of you may recognize Tony from Osbon’s Laundry and Cleaners, which he owns along with his uncle and cousin.  Tony is also the President of the Western Carolina State Fair Foundation.  He has been married to his wife, Ashley for ten years and they have two daughters.

Stephanie Sheridan

Stephanie Sheridan has spent most of her life in the horse industry managing large commercial equestrian complexes, organizing nationally recognized horse shows and competitions and competing in her own right. As a certified riding instructor, she has taught Pony Clubbers, dressage and basic horsemanship to a variety of equestrian age groups. Stephanie co-founded a therapeutic riding program in Arizona and went on to become an equine physical therapist, utilizing Cold Laser Therapy, Pulse Electro Magnetic Therapy, Shiatsu, Myofascial, TTouch and massage therapies allowing her to assist both horses and riders with special needs. 

Cheryl Tyson

Cheryl Tyson woks at Merrill Lynch and has been in the financial industry for over 35 years.  She is recognized as a leader skilled in board leadership, fundraising, marketing, and staff development.  She serves on several non-profit boards throughout the CSRA.  Cheryl has received the “Women in Business Augusta Award for Business Leadership” and has competed the Boston and Chicago Marathons.  In her free time, Cheryl hunts with Belle Meade Hounds.

Nicole Pioli


Pioli has called Aiken home since 2016, along with her husband, two rescue dogs, cat, two miniature donkeys and horse.  She relocated from Myrtle Beach, where she was an avid volunteer and board member for a therapeutic riding program. With degrees in Public Health and Social Work, along with a love of horses, Nicole said that it is a dream come true to come to work every day and see the difference horses can make for individuals with special needs. She is a PATH Therapeutic Riding Instructor and is thrilled to see the strides our riders are making at Great Oak.