Archive for Equine Assisted Therapy

The Horses Are Calling: Time to Step Up Our Game

Male-Female Drama: On a cool and gray mid-September day, I arrived at Medicine Horse Ranch to begin making plans for the book that equine guided education facilitator Alyssa Aubrey and I are writing about women and horses. I was consumed with a familiar heartache—an old painful pattern my lover and I had enacted many times before—and that had previously split us up. Instead of my usual “healthy” green tea, I happily drank sweetened Dunkin Doughnuts coffee laced with thick heavy cream from nearby Strauss Creamery. I poured out my relationship drama to Alyssa before we talked about beginning our horse book. She shared some of her own relationship challenges. Conflict, retreat, respect, boundaries and unmet needs were all part of our coffee conversation.

Equine Equinox: Once we started talking about the book, several themes emerged—the historical subjugation and mistreatment of horses, women, and the earth, the emasculation of stallions, generational war trauma, and loss of wilderness. We also spoke of women inextricably drawn to be with horses and how the horses were calling us to be in right relationship.

I read to Alyssa from a written dialogue process I had done with the Horse Ancestors years earlier where they had asked me to bring people together to pray for the horses at the 2004 spring equinox. The Horse Ancestors had told me that focused prayer could right the ancient and current wrongs and trauma suffered by the horses, because prayer can move between the worlds, crossing time and space. Equinox celebrations in spring and fall traditionally celebrate and restore balance. Maybe it was time to do it again. Alyssa and I quickly formulated a plan to do a simple private autumnal equinox ceremony the following week, and gather a larger spring gathering with and for the horses.

Another Male-Female Drama: As we walked down to the barn, the skies had cleared and dog Lila ran ahead joyfully. We were quickly greeted by the curious interaction of two of the ranch’s retirement horses in the paddock. Navarro, a 17-hand Hanoverian was pestering the diminutive Arab filly Sueva by nipping her and backing her into the fence. Meanwhile Sage, the ranch’s lead mare had her ears back as she watched them. Tizzy, the sentinel and protector of the herd was the only other horse in evidence.  

Neck on the Line: After a few minutes we passed through the gate into the front pasture where Sage greeted us and faced due north, toward the road. In the medicine wheel, north is the place of wisdom, winter, the ancestors and Buffalo Calf Woman. As our attention turned back to Sueva and Navarro, a shift had taken place. Even after Navarro had stopped bullying her and left her alone, Sueva continued to push up against the fence, dangerously risking injury.

I realized that the exaggerated drama between Sueva and Navarro was keeping us both from paying attention to Sage. As we focused back on Sage still planted at her post facing north, Alyssa noticed that her neck was hovering dangerously close to the barbed wire.

She later wrote, “She stood stoic, her neck on the barbed wire fence, skin touching the wire just between the sharp barbs, near enough that it caught my whole attention and took my breath away. I could feel her insistence, her requirement to offer nothing less than everything—she had her neck on the line; she was telling us in no uncertain terms that she meant business and we were called here to step up our game.”

Sage’s Response to Our Plan: Alyssa asked Sage whether we should do horse equinox ceremony and embark on our planned work together. In that moment, everything changed. Sage came directly to me, then Alyssa, and then walked directly in between us, standing with us. In the west, all of the program horses—previously out of sight down the hill—were suddenly present and ready, summoned by their lead mare. Even more surprisingly, to the east, Sueva and Navarro calmly grazed together. The beauty and the blessing of that moment were staggering. With her eyes brimming with tears of gratitude, Alyssa told me, “I have never seen Sage stand for so long in the north.” Alyssa recognized Sage’s actions and this moment as an unequivocal affirmation of the importance of our new work together. Then, just as quickly, Sage and most of the program horses dispersed. Rosie came up to get some scratches, and then we had another visitor.

Notice Me! Billy Brown, a tall, young black BLM gelding came up to us. Alyssa explained that he would test boundaries, and to hold firm as he advanced. I admired her horsemanship as Alyssa protected herself and me from him, but Billy still persisted even as she shooed him away using an energy technique. Finally, intuition prompted Alyssa to hold his big head in her hands and rock it gently and slowly from side to side. He then stood with us and I sensed his respect and support.

Honoring Without Emasculating: “I was thinking about how to claim my power without emasculating him as I rocked his head,” Alyssa later said. She also explained that between Sueva and Navarro, the petite mare had more rank and could have made Navarro back down at any time. As we discussed our learnings and what we witnessed, first one, two, and then three red-tailed hawks circled directly overhead as Rosie and Billy Brown peacefully groomed each other.

Gaining Human Insight from the Horses: The horses had spoken. We mused about how the horses had mirrored our own issues. In a short time, they had shown us conflict between the sexes, bullying, self-harming behavior, affirmation, distraction from purpose, mutual nurturing and much more. As I drove back home through the hills and craggy rock outcroppings, I mused at the parallels between my relationship issues and the behavior of the horses. In my desire to merge with my lover, I had overextended myself and not set boundaries. I was not taking care of my needs and staying true to my purpose. I am left with the following questions:

  • Where am I on the fence?
  • Where do I need to step up my game?
  • What is at stake and where am I putting my neck on the line?
  • How am I instigating and perpetuating my relationship drama with the man in my life?
  • What is distracting me from my highest purpose?

Clearly, following the call of and the wisdom of the horses is the way through, there is no time to lose and it’s time to step up.


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Dream Horse Women Interview: Alyssa Aubrey and Medicine Horse Ranch

alyssa-and-teen.jpg  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


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.


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The Horse that Got Away Part II–A Core Wound

Last week I wrote about not getting a Shetland pony at the Chagrin Falls, Ohio Blossom Time fair when I was seven. I turned away from my loss at the time by turning away from my love for horses, with the exception of doing artwork of horses. Yet, horses doggedly pursued me in my dreams, artwork and meditative experiences decades later. I am now 51 years old and have never owned a horse, or even been in their company on a regular basis. Why, then, did I just devote five years of my life to a unique piece of research on the amazing and wondrous relationship between women and horses and what it means for our times?

Somehow, last week, in writing First Love: The Horse That Got Away, I felt my childhood loss and betrayal in a new way, especially after talking to a dear friend and lifelong horsewoman. Pamela spoke compassionately about the enormity of that loss in a way that evoked long-unshed tears and caused me to look at this loss with more respect. She also said that losing that Shetland pony, especially when my dad bought the ticket for the other girl who won it, may have even caused me to lose faith in God as a child. 

The Gifts of Core Wounds

Therapists and psychologists, if they are rigorously honest to their soul work, typically specialize in the areas of their greatest wounds—core wounds. A core wound can both be the worst and best thing that ever happens to us. I say that it can be the best thing because if you work with your wounds with courage and respect, they may reveal special gifts. Indigenous cultures, the ancient Greeks, and modern-day psychologists work with a concept called the Wounded Healer. In indigenous cultures, a healer was chosen by their ability to heal themselves from a life experience/wound that could have killed them or led to insanity. Wounds reveal gifts—often healing abilities, empathy, and spiritual awareness. We all know someone who has taken a tragic situation, and instead of being shattered by it, has instead used it as a springboard to new growth and awareness. One example is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s concept of death awareness, which is the person who lives vibrantly because of the awareness of death. In archetypal psychology, founded by James Hillman, illness, wounds and symptoms are seen as the soul’s way of getting our attention.

Trauma Healing

The core wound cuts deep into our psyche and helps define the way that we experience the world. We try to avoid our core wounds because it hurts so much to feel their pain. Core wounds are typically caused by a traumatic incident. Yet why do different people respond so differently? Two people may experience the identical traumatic incident such as a fire, or a sudden deep loss, yet one recovers and the other is held hostage to the trauma, coming back to it over and over again, unable to “move on.” Like a dog chewing on a bone when the meat is long gone, trauma victims often are stuck in a kind of time warp, forced to re-live their experience over and over.

The interesting thing about trauma, is that it is not what happens to us, but rather how we think about what happened to us that makes it traumatic. Often this thinking has us believing that we are bad, unworthy, or unlovable. Other mistaken beliefs may be that we are alone, and do not need or deserve help from anyone else. We may also, as my friend pointed out, end up with a lingering sense that we are unlovable in the eyes of God, or however we imagine the Divine.

I have worked through numerous issues of loss, betrayal, physical and sexual assault, the sudden deaths of loved ones, and family issues of alcoholism. I have grieved two divorces. I have also been an art therapist to combat veterans, incest survivors and child victims of violence. Currently I work as a hands-on healer with people with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.Yet in all my years of personal therapy, training and schooling in psychology, and deep psychological work, until last week I managed to tiptoe around one of my own deepest core wounds—the loss of a horse when I was a young girl. Even as I write these words, my inner critic (posing as my logical mind) is trying to minimize the loss as a way to keep me from feeling its depth.

Next Week: Working With a Core Wound

In the next posting, I will demonstrate how to engage the imagination in working with my own core wound.

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