Horses are magic. Riders know that a horse and a human together can become another, greater, being.
Chase Berke is truly a magician. After being a volunteer with the organization for more than 25 years, Chase is currently the vice president and COO of the Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy in Palm Desert. She also serves as the program director and lead instructor—and she is an expert at harnessing both the magic of the horses and the energy of some 140 other volunteers to change the lives of special-needs children and adults.
“We don’t put people on a horse to teach them to ride,” Berke says. “This program helps these individuals in so many facets of their lives—their mental, physical and emotional needs. Due to their many disabilities, these individuals will never be cured, but there are so many worthwhile benefits to our program. For example, we have experienced at Pegasus people who are confined to wheelchairs. When they get on our horses, they feel exhilarated—almost as if they are walking for the first time.”
Berke was born and raised in the Philadelphia area, and moved to the Los Angeles area in 1980 when she was in her mid-20s. She worked in modeling and management for a while, and then decided to help out a friend, Buddy Berke, with his business, which was then celebrating its 25th year in Los Angeles. Buddy and Chase’s friendship blossomed after two years—and they got married. Chase became the vice president and successfully ran the business for another 25 years.
The Berkes lived in Los Angeles during the workweek before traveling every weekend to their “true home” in the desert. They were involved with several worthwhile charities in L.A., but Chase realized they would one day be living full-time in the Coachella Valley, so she began looking for ways to give back to the community here.
Chase was always around special-needs children and adults while growing up, and she says she always felt like helping them was a “calling.” Francis Allen, a lifelong friend of the Berkes, was responsible in 1995 for introducing Chase to the Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy and to its amazing founder, Lori Sarner.
“As we turned onto the street that leads to Pegasus, known as Chase School Road, I knew this was going to be the right fit for me,” Chase says. “I have always loved charity work and giving service to people.
“At Pegasus, we do ‘heart’ work. The clients that come here are truly pure love, and I feel the clients give us more than we give them—and we give them everything. So you can imagine the joy we feel as volunteers.”
Lori Sarner had made Pegasus into one of the most unique charities within the Coachella Valley. One key reason why it is so successful: All donations to Pegasus go directly into its programs and classes—not toward administrative overhead. Berke was so impressed with Pegasus that she jumped right in, initially volunteering every weekend as a “side walker,” working in the arena with the horses and special-needs riders.
After about a year of volunteering, Sarner took Berke under her wing.
“Harvey, Lori’s husband, told me that Lori had never picked anyone to train to take over Pegasus, in the event she decided to step down or if something were to happen to her,” Berke says. “I was so honored when he said that—realizing that Lori had complete faith in me!”
Berke oversees the different equine-assisted therapies given to the riders. She is also in charge of the 140-plus volunteers, overseeing the volunteer coordinator and stable manager. As the lead instructor, Berke is usually in the arena working with the horses, volunteers and riders during the half-hour classes, each of which has from four to seven riders. The organization’s first priority is to make sure everyone is safe at all times. When someone is put on a Pegasus horse, they are accompanied by two side walkers and a horse leader. The side walkers walk on each side of the horse, and help the rider with exercises.
“Some of the benefits of our program include the strengthening of muscles, strengthening of hand-and-eye coordination, and strengthening speech,” Berke says. “Our horses work all the riders’ muscles in the body, which might mean helping the muscles that are in distress, as well as keeping up the muscles that are good and strong. Our program is advantageous to these riders’ digestive systems, as well as to their balance. A lot of these special-needs children do not have good balance, and many of them cannot sit up on their own. The miracle of the Pegasus program is seeing these riders start to sit up on their own after a few months!”
Pegasus is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, and provides buses for special-needs children coming to and from schools throughout the Coachella Valley.
“Pegasus does not charge any money for people to be in our program,” Berke says. “We survive on grants and donations, and right now, we are not getting any grants or having any fundraising events, so Pegasus desperately needs donations to take care of the horses and the clients’ needs. We definitely need operating funds to stay open, and we always need more volunteers. These volunteers can be as young as 16 years of age, all the way up to people in their 80s.”
For more information on the Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy, contact Kayla Pressman, the executive director, at 760-772-3057 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Madeline Zuckerman is the owner and president of M. Zuckerman Marketing and Public Relations.