Marianne Van Winkle walks up to the stall as a large, yellow horse approaches the metal bars. The horse, Bubbles, is brand new to the barn, and Van Winkle is meeting him for the first time. She puts her hand up to the cage and lets him smell her. She makes sure to stand off to the side so he can see her with his mane-covered eyes.
Soon, the head instructor comes and takes him out of the stall for his trial, which will help determine if Bubbles is appropriate for People and Animal Learning Services’s equine therapy program. He’s new now, but if he shows an ability to work with different riders, he can become a program horse.
Van Winkle is new, too. She started as PALS’s executive director in September and hopes to grow the program through community partnerships and increasing the number of clients PALS can serve in its equine therapy programs.
“I haven’t been here that long, and it’s been amazing,” Van Winkle said. “I was both welcomed here and in the community of Bloomington, because I’m new to both.”
PALS was founded in 2000 and provides equine therapy for people of all ages with disabilities. It also provides lessons for recreational riders and activities for community groups.
When PALS gets a new client, it assesses what kind of program would be best for them — mounted or unmounted. The mounted program teaches clients how to control and lead the horse in rides in the indoor and outdoor arenas.
“Our riders can range from anywhere from fully independent to needing assistance on all sides of the horse essentially,” Van Winkle said.
Riders who need assistance have leads who help direct the horse and sidewalkers who stand on either side.
Some clients are not suited to ride a horse and instead participate through the unmounted program, which allows them to interact with the horse through grooming, leading and learning about horse care and nutrition.
“We want to help create quality of life for people,” Van Winkle said. “This kind of program really impacts somebody’s quality of life.”
Van Winkle said equine therapy works because of the physical and emotional connections the clients develop with the horses.
One PALS client is wheelchair-bound from cerebral palsy. She used to ride horses but had to switch to the unmounted program due to the development of her condition. Van Winkle said the therapy has changed her posture. Other clients can be seen calming down when they are near a horse, and riding can provide mobility for those who generally experience trouble walking or running.
Van Winkle said people can’t discount the emotional connection humans have with animals.
“There’s this certain connection you find with horses and people, kind of like a shared energy,” Van Winkle said. “They just don’t have a bias that people do.”
Before coming to Bloomington, Van Winkle worked in nonprofit management for a barn in Los Angeles without having much equine experience. Years later, she moved back to Indiana and saw the opportunity at PALS to combine nonprofit programming and the equine world.
As executive director, she wants to reach out to other programs in Bloomington to spread PALS’s special projects.
Van Winkle has also started inviting groups of volunteers to help them with the therapy program, fundraising events and reconstruction of their outdoor arena. Inviting these groups exposes them to the program’s mission and helps them share in it, she said.
“In essence it becomes therapy for everyone who is engaged,” Van Winkle said. “You think, ‘Oh wow, what I’m doing right now is making a difference in someone’s life — literally making a difference.’”
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