The e-mail said that on Cerini Road I would pass two cattle guards and see the horse barn on the right. What it did not prepare me for was the dynamic, yet relaxed and generous horse woman I would find waiting to let me into the gate. Alyssa Aubrey welcomed me one recent July morning at Medicine Horse Ranch, a center for Equine Guided Education in Tomales, California. She greeted me with a firm handshake and strong, penetrating hazel-green eyes as she asked me why I wanted to meet and interview her. Like the well-tended horses in her life, she is curious, intuitive, and at ease with herself.
Alyssa Aubrey is the founder and program director of Medicine Horse Ranch, which is home to 22 horses. She runs a retirement home for horses, as well as taking in other horses to board. Her intelligent eyes light up when she talks about her twin passions: horses and teens. Alyssa is relatively new to having horses in her life fulltime, yet her competence in tending the horses is obvious. As a girl she collected dozens of horse figurines and spent hours drawing horses, but had no horses of her own. As a woman, she volunteered to work with children and teens removed from their homes to help them navigate the legal system and receive much-needed services. After doing that work in Florida, and moving to California, she began taking workshops with mentor Ariana Strozzi and became a Certified Equine Guided Educator. Since 2005 she has joined her twin loves for teens and horses through a remarkable program for at-risk adolescents.
Teens and Horses
Aubrey’s “Horse Sense for Teens” groups began when she got a call from the Novato Youth Center asking her to organize a special day for teen girls in their pregnancy prevention program. She donated her time, while others donated the space, the horses and the art materials. What began as a one-day workshop for six Novato Youth Center at-risk teen girls hosted by the Novato Horsemen Association has grown to ten two-day workshops serving 90 at-risk adolescents young women and men. Non-profit social service agencies rely on her unique training program that helps teens learn about themselves using the language of the horse.
Standing up to a Bully: It’s All About Congruence
A teen that came for a recent private session with Aubrey had dropped out of school and refused to return because she was being harassed and bullied. The young woman began her session by describing her experience of being intimidated by a fellow student. As she relayed her story, Medicine Horse Ranch program horse Toyota walked over and began to knock his head into the girl’s shoulder, gently, but insistently. Toyota continued to “harass” her by pulling on her collar, pushing her around, and at one point even untying her shoelaces with his teeth. The young woman was clearly irritated with the horse’s antics; her jaw tightened, her breath quickened, and her speech got tense. The young woman appeased, then pleaded with Toyota, saying, “Please don’t do that,” while simultaneously petting him on the neck. As she continued her efforts to ‘make nice’ with the horse, the horse continued the harassment even more until finally, in complete exasperation, the teen held both hands out in front of her and yelled, “STOP IT!” Instantly Toyota complied, dropped his head and stood quietly by her side. Until that moment, the girl’s actions were not in congruence with her intentions.
For the first time, by witnessing the horse’s reaction to her, and her response to his actions, the young woman could recognize that she was giving off mixed messages, which were only contributing to worsening the situation.The teen now had a reference point for the congruency needed to effect change. She had learned how to stand her ground and mean it. In just one session, under Alyssa’s firm guidance, the willing Toyota had guided the young woman to learn how to access her own personal power in a powerful form of experiential learning. Having practiced new skills at Medicine Horse Ranch, the young woman returned to school and successfully stood up to the bully.
Because horses are “prey” animals (they do not eat other animals, but instead are food for various predators), they are very attuned to their environment with what has been called socio-sensual awareness. For horses, predators are easy to spot because their intentions do not match their behaviors: they are incongruent. The horse, just like an astute teen, can spot the deception easily.
Horses and Teens: A Winning Combination
Alyssa Aubrey loves working with teens because she finds them honest, and very savvy about picking up cues from the herd. Aubrey explains that teens respond especially well to the work with the horses because much of it is in non-verbal language, and they are keen observers of the social cues around them. She finds them willing to face their fears and make positive changes. Aubrey stresses that the non-verbal nature of the work is especially effective for English language learners. In Alyssa’s previous career as a talent scout for models, she learned the importance of empowering young people.
Incorporating the Wisdom of Ancient Traditions
Alyssa Aubrey incorporates another non-verbal modality, art making, into her “Horse Sense with Teens.” The youth especially enjoy listening to rhythmic drumming, imagining their personal spirit horse, and then decorating special horse masks that they take home. Aubrey’s work has indigenous roots in ancient cultures that had rites of passage for teens going through massive changes physically, psychologically, and spiritually on their way to becoming adults.
Following the Call of the Horse
Alyssa Aubrey is passionate about her work, even as she scrambles for donations to cover the costs of the non-profit. She feels called to the work not only by the agencies that contact her, but by the horses themselves. Aubrey became very reflective as she told me how many women she has met like herself that have been inexplicably drawn into being with horses at this time on the planet. It is a calling that she and others find is hard to put into words, but it is real and compelling nonetheless.
Aubrey notes that since 2000, there has been a 300% increase in programs that bring humans and horses together for healing and learning purposes. Aubrey has joined with other like-minded equine educators and practitioners as co-founder of Equine Guided Education Association (EGEA) to support practitioners to learn and share best practices. For more details about the January 2008 EGEA conference that will feature speaker Linda Kohanov and other noted equine education facilitators, see www.equineguidededucation.org.
Fortunately for us and the young people entrusted in her care, Alyssa Aubrey has the integrity and courage to follow her own calling, and has answered the call of the horse.