A two-time world champion in showing American Saddlebreds as a youth, Allison Vermeer VanWyngarden ’03 believed her horse training days were over as an adult.
“I always loved horses. I worked in the barn growing up; I was always around horses. But when I got to Calvin, I made a conscious choice that I was not going to go into horse training,” she said. “I decided that horses would be my hobby but not my job.”
Upon graduating from Calvin, VanWyngarden stuck to that decision: first pursuing a career with a large financial company, then earning her master’s in business administration from Drake University, and finally working for her family’s business, Vermeer Corp., a worldwide manufacturer and distributor of industrial and agricultural equipment.
“That was the first 10 years of my career,” said VanWyngarden. After a hiatus to stay home with her and husband Kyle’s two young children, she planned to return to the family business.
That’s when her career path took an abrupt turn.
She had heard about a program called Mainly Music, an interactive program for babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and their parents that provides education and development outcomes through music and play, and, “I had thought, ‘I wish we had that here,’” she said.
Despite an initial hesitation, VanWyngarden lanched Mainly Music at Calvary Christian Reformed Church in her hometown of Pella, Iowa. This, she said, prepared her for her current venture: Grace Therapeutic Riding.
“Mainly Music taught me how to gather volunteers, how to start a program, and it made me realize how much I care about kids—blessing them, seeing them grow, and helping them build community,” she said.
So when VanWyngarden was introduced to the idea of training her family’s horses for therapy, she was interested but tentative.
“I reached out to Kinetic Edge Physical Therapy in Pella, and told them I have access to horses and I’m willing, and then went on to tell them all of the reasons it wouldn’t work,” she said. “But God kept opening doors, and I kept walking through.”
VanWyngarden earned certification as a therapeutic riding instructor and now serves as the director of the therapeutic riding program at Grace Therapeutic Riding, which serves 15-20 participants—mostly children—a week.
“I love the idea of using animals to help people,” said VanWyngarden. “It’s amazing how animals can do this, and it’s good for the horses, too. It’s really important for them to have meaningful work.”
Embracing God’s plan
The riding program has also brought her parents, Bob and Lois De Jong Vermeer ex’67, full circle in the horse business. The Vermeers offer their support by providing the horses, the arena, and encouragement.
VanWyngarden’s goal is to include more adults in the program and expand more on the mental health side. She has focused her recent efforts on hippotherapy, a form of therapy that uses the natural gait and movement of a horse to provide motor and sensory input for participants with physical and mental disorders.
“I am really embracing who God created me to be,” said VanWyngarden. “I have this love for working with animals, and I am trying to lean into that and grow while creating a place for people to belong.”