The Santos Family
4 Great Brothers…4 Even Greater Stories!

The Santos Family with their therapists

On Tuesday mornings, soon after our blue driveway gates swing open, our dedicated volunteer parking lawn fills with our team of “GO” Getters ready to start the day with an inspiring group lesson consisting of four great brothers, The Santos Brothers.

Ranging in age from 4 to 10, have quickly become a living highlight reel to our farm each week. The four boys began riding at Great Oak in May of ‘21. Since then, they have captured the hearts of our volunteers, been celebrated for their achievements by our barn staff, and managed to create moments of situational humor amongst themselves when here.

Over the months, we have been privileged to get to know their mother, Heather. In a recent conversation with her, she shared,“…it is an absolute blessing for our four boys to be able to ride together…for the first time all of our children were able to participate in one specific activity as a family.”  

When the Santos family is on the farm, you can genuinely feel their close connection as brothers and their love for each other. Watching them work as a team and support one another in their weekly lesson fills our hearts and supports the mission work that Great Oak strives for.

Heather went on to share that, “the Great Oak volunteers and staff have always been patient and compassionate with our boys. It’s a breath of fresh air to see other genuinely accepting and kind-hearted people. When sharing their knowledge of horses with our family, we as parents have been reminded that it’s okay to not always feel anxious about community interactions with our children.” 

She went on to share, “that when our two younger boys, Samson and Sawyer, were able to watch their big brothers riding, it motivated them to keep going, when they were lost in the lesson session. Sioni, one of our older sons, has gained loads of confidence being able to be a horseback role model for his younger siblings.”

“And you can just see the joy on Sylas’s face, one of the oldest brothers, when he knows it’s time for horseback riding. Every time he sees it’s ‘Horse Day at Great Oak’ on the calendar, he gets the biggest smile and sits on the shoe bench in our home with his brothers waiting to be laced up! As a mother, I saw that he struggled for so long not understanding why he could not attend all of the same activities as his siblings. For him to now be able to gain that understanding that he CAN indeed have the same opportunities in life as his siblings, has been a blessing to be able to give him all because of Great Oak. And, in our experience, that is a very rare thing for families with multiple special needs children to have inclusive activities for all siblings.”

During their time here at Great Oak, their mother, Heather, says she has “watched our children grow to become more confident in themselves and their abilities and willingness to try new things. No one had to be left out due to age or disability. Not to mention the logistical convenience it provided my husband and me trying to balance activities for our four children. Therapeutic riding and Great Oak have given our boys an engaging and stimulating activity for our boys and my husband and me a sense of peace and hope as their parents.”

Continuing, Heather shared, “we often remind our children that they can do and overcome anything they want, as long as they keep trying and practicing. Just as they have shown themselves while riding their horses at Great Oak. There’s noticeably less rigidity now when they are attempting new activities because what they’ve learned through Great Oak is that maybe new things can be really fun!”

That is the mission work of Great Oak. That is why therapeutic riding exists and continues to demonstrate the true power of instruction and compassion.

A Salute To Eva

A recent letter was written by one of our riders, Dr. Carlin Vickery to our Lead Instructor, Eva Finnan

Read about her journey back from a brain aneurysm with Woody and Eva.

“Life is full of uncertainty and unexpected blessings…   I have lived mine with careful planning through my secondary school, college and medical school followed by seven years of surgical residency.  Seeing retirement on the horizon,  my husband and I carefully planned long awaited trips maximizing our free time away from the demands of our professions. In 2014, we decided to purchase a home in Aiken because I was stabling my horses here in the winter and spending most weekends riding in the Hitchcock Woods and competing in local cross country shows.  

Yet life has unexpected detours waiting to appear at the most inopportune moments. A week before my official retirement date as a plastic and reconstructive breast surgeon in Manhattan, I visited my internist for my yearly exam. Headaches had plagued me for several years so out of an abundance of caution he sent me for a brain MRI. Unfortunately, it revealed a cerebral vascular aneurysm which is an exaggeration of a major blood vessel to the brain. On that fateful yearly exam, a repeat MRI showed that the aneurysm had become unstable with the imminent risk of rupturing causing irreversible brain damage. Therefore, on the advice my primary care physician and the Chair of Neurosurgery at NYU Langone Medical Center, I decided to have the aneurysm resected. On June 7, 2017.  I went to surgery where regrettably the aneurysm ruptured in the final stage of the operation. My neurosurgeon saved my life but I spent three months in a coma in intensive care and six months in convalescent care before returning home to be with my husband, James Capalino. 

After a number of months, we made the decision that I would relocate to Aiken and he would spend weekends and one week a month with me in Aiken. 

Horses have been the joy of my recreational life and Aiken has been the epicenter of my eventing  passion. One of the most difficult losses of my completed surgery was the loss of my physicality cancelling my long held wish to pursue eventing without the time constraints of a busy surgical practice.

While recovering in Aiken, I remembered Great Oak’s therapeutic riding program. My husband and I had been enthusiastic supporters of Great Oak before my surgery and I had watched Eva Finnan work with clients indoors applying years of experience to customize a recuperative training program for each person.  Resting at our home on York Street, I knew that Great Oak would be my mental and physical salvation.  Eva and her staff of dedicated volunteers, well trained horses, and customized training program for each client, restored my confidence that one day I could again enjoy the magical  experience of riding with the wind in my face and the movement of a trusted horse carrying me across the ground.

But relearning how to ride is only possible with the knowledge of a trained staff which brings me to Eva.   From my first ride with her, I was so impressed with her confident teaching and goal setting.  While I was not to enjoy the thrill of galloping through the fields and jumping challenging objects, we were able to set realistic and challenging goals to achieve. Eva’s experience and exceptional intuition about horses and riders enabled her to customize a program to help me define and reach my goals. Her gentle command and instinctual grasp of my physical challenges particularly related to balance, renewed my passion for horseback riding.  

During my first months with her, we concentrated on restoring confidence in my balance and awaking my core muscles which had languished after my brain surgery.  At the appropriate time, she introduced a few trotting step. We then advanced to short distances and weaving obstacles to sharpen my instincts and balance.  

Through two years of lessons,  I can trot the length of the arena and am learning to get through corners  I have even begun to imagine another riding trip to Ireland. One of my surgical professors famously said that the qualities of a great teacher are accessibility, ability, and affability.   Eva shows each of these qualities in spades.  Having her and those like her available at Great Oak in Aiken is a precious asset for anyone who is determined to restore or enhance their equestrian capabilities.

Carlin B. Vickery, MD
Great Oak Rider