December 19, 2012 - By Samantha Kraska
Sarrah Palmer, of Oxford, and Benny, the horse that helped earn her title. (click for larger version)
Practicing to compete in a national horse show takes serious dedication from both horse and rider to create a strong bond.
So it's a testament to Oxford resident Sarrah Palmer's ability that she recently competed in the American Royal National Horse Show and earned the title of Reserve National Champion with a horse she had only been riding for about a month-and-a-half.
Reserve National Champion is the second highest distinction awarded in each category after Grand National Champion.
Palmer, along with fellow riders Sergey Douglas, Savanah Rovelli and Andrew Paquette, earned the nickname of the "Fearless Four" for their skills in the saddle at the competition on November 17 in Kansas City.
All riders from Offering Alternative Therapy with Smiles (OATS) in Clarkston, they competed in the Exceptional Challenge Cup and each made it into the top ten.
Since she competed at the American Royal twice before, Palmer said she wasn't even nervous and "was just smiling and laughing."
Her mother, Rita Palmer-O'Brien, was also confident in her daughter's abilities but even she was blown away by the results.
"I was not nervous of her capability," Palmer-O'Brien said. "Our goal was just to make it to the top ten, even if she didn't make anything else. Never in my wildest dreams did I think she would make Reserve National Champion."
Without her experience volunteering at OATS, Palmer wouldn't be able to ride horses, let alone compete. Born premature, she suffered from seizures at an early age.
"She was a very sickly child until about age 9," Palmer-O'Brien explained. "Doctors said she would never walk or talk, and here she is working with 1,000 pound animals. I don't think Sarrah would be as far along without working and riding here."
OATS was founded in 1997 with the mission of promoting the health, well-being and happiness of handicapped individuals through horseback riding and related activities. They have 17 horses and see about 120 students a week. They are the only stable in Michigan with a "lift" to help riders out of their wheelchairs.
According to instructor Lynn Daniels, individuals of all ages with any emotional, physical or learning disability are welcome to ride.
"We have riders from 18 months to 75 years old, with any and all disabilities," she said.
The benefits of therapeutic horseback riding for the students at OATS range from physical gains like core strength and balance to calming behavioral issues, Daniels explained.
"It's a lot of core and leg strength," she said. "We have students who come here and start out laying on the horse because they can't hold themselves up and then eventually they don't need help anymore."
To Nancy Heusser, founder of OATS, the most important part is the smiles therapeutic horseback riding brings her students.
"It's giving them their first of anything," she said. "When you get down and out, you look at the guys out there and they have a smile on their face. The smile is the biggest thing."
Palmer began volunteering at OATS eight years ago when other stables wouldn't let her volunteer with them, fearing she would need too much one-on-one attention.
"There was no hesitation on Nancy's part when we called." Palmer-O'Brien said. "Sarrah came in and stayed for about four hours, and she's been here ever since."
Palmer volunteers at OATS four days a week and always brings her helmet, just in case she can ride. Her mother attributes a lot of her growth to the time she spends there and according to Heusser, that's what sets OATS apart. "We train them to become not only equestrians, but go into the real world and have jobs," she said.
Palmer can continue competing in the American Royal until she wins Grand National Champion three times.
When asked if she plans to compete for the title next year, Palmer-O'Brien answered, "What happens, happens. She's already shown me, and everybody, that her abilities are beyond what we thought possible."
For more information about OATS, please call (248) 620-0505 or (248) 620-1775. They can also be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.