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Young Professionals 2 Follow: Nicole Pioli helps riders reach their goals

July 9, 2018 GMT

Nicole Pioli always says her move to Aiken in 2016 was serendipitous.

Her husband, Michael Smith, had accepted a position here, and with degrees in public health and social work and as a therapeutic riding instructor certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, Pioli knew Aiken, being a horse community, would be a good place for her to find a job to match her education and experience.

“We were on vacation and driving home to Myrtle Beach from Florida,” said Pioli, who is the program and volunteer coordinator for the Great Oak Aiken Therapeutic Riding Center on Edgefield Highway. “I was on my phone, and this job had just been posted. So we pulled off the side of the road in Jacksonville, and I applied at a Panera Bread. I think our move to Aiken – this is why - so I could be involved in something like this. It was a perfect fit.”

Pioli said Great Oak’s mission is to provide equine-assisted activities that promote the physical, psychological and emotional health of people with special needs.

Currently, 20 riders, ranging in age from 6 to 76, work with Great Oak’s certified instructors and volunteers. About half are on the autism spectrum, Pioli said, but others have traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy or post-traumatic stress disorder or are recovering from strokes or brain aneurysms.

Many are former riders.

“It’s an environment where people can come and be with their horses and know they’re safe and they’re surrounded by dedicated volunteers who just want to be there to help them and help them reach their goals,” Pioli said.

In June, Great Oak’s staff and volunteers worked with the Aiken Horse Park Foundation to host the statewide Special Olympics equestrian games over two days at Bruce’s Field. The games had not been held in South Carolina in seven years, Pioli said, adding plans are to bring the games to Aiken annually.

“We had 35 riders, 17 horses and 80 volunteers from across the state in Aiken to show the community what therapeutic riders can accomplish. It was honor to be a part of it and to see their smiles,” Pioli said. “It was a perfect combination of our two organizations showing Aiken what our missions are. Everyone said it was the happiest horse show they had ever been to.”

Pioli, 32, said being named a Young Professional 2 Follow was both “surprising” and “an honor.” Through her position, she said she hopes to reach out to other young professionals to volunteer at Great Oaks.

“Young people in Aiken have so much to give,” she said. “I think it is absolutely wonderful that I get to connect people in the community to this organization and give them an opportunity and an outlet to give back. I feel like I go to work every day doing what I was meant to do.”

And with another nod to serendipity, Pioli added, “I love it here. I think we were meant to be here in this community.”