(l-r) PALS volunteer Vicki Toelke and Program Director Lizzie Cochrane work with rider CJ Fountain. Photo by Martin Boling


Over the past 17 years, Bloomington-based People & Animal Learning Services (PALS) has provided therapeutic riding programs for hundreds of clients with a wide range of conditions, from bipolar disorder to muscular dystrophy. Now, Lizzie Cochrane, who joined PALS last year as program director, has launched a new, unmounted program to teach horsemanship skills to people who are unable to ride for any reason, including fear, pain, injury, or weight.

“We put the program into action really quickly, and it has just taken off,” Cochrane, 30, says. “My goal is to include absolutely everybody. I’ll go to whatever lengths I can to make horses a part of people’s lives.” Cochrane, a certified therapeutic riding instructor with a degree in animal science and equine business management, has a brother with autism, so she understands the challenges some of her students face.

One of the first clients to enroll in the horsemanship program was a young woman who uses a wheelchair and who had been able to ride before a new injury made it impossible for her to continue. “We call her the horse whisperer now,” says Cochrane. “She can put horses into a blissful state.” Through the program, the client has developed the core muscles in her lower body so she can stand up out of her wheelchair to groom horses. “She uses those same muscles at home to live more independently, by preparing snacks for herself, for example,” Cochrane says.

Another client is Tami Fountain’s 20-year-old son, CJ, who participates in both the riding and the horsemanship programs. CJ has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “Riding is like Zen for CJ,” says his mother. “And Lizzie is the perfect match for him. I’ve never seen anyone who works so well with him.” CJ has become expert enough at caring for the horses that this summer he will become a PALS volunteer.

The program also benefits Cochrane. “I’m usually a very up and enthusiastic person,” she says. But she’s learned that CJ responds better to someone who moves slowly and calmly. “CJ has taught me that my demeanor as an instructor can change,” Cochrane says. “Now I’m even more aware of how I interact with all my clients.”

To learn more about PALS programs, visit palstherapy.org.

CJ has become expert at caring for the PALS horses. Photo by Martin Boling