By Deborah Donohue Photography by Lori Faith
The sun was setting in a pool of pink, crimson and gold behind the desert foothills of the Silver Bell Mountains. Green Saguaro and lilac-washed Prickly Pear cactus dotted the landscape as my driver crested the last hill, heading down into the land of the White Stallion Ranch. I was supposed to have arrived hours earlier, but a mishap of cancelled and delayed flights had made getting to Arizona a pilgrimage in itself.
I was in Tucson to attend Devon Combs’ Unbridled Retreat, a long weekend of personal coaching work with horses, along with a generous dose of pure dude ranch fun. Combs’ workshops utilize the Equine Gestalt Coaching Method as well as more traditional Life Coaching. She describes it as “healing and awakening through horses. I work with people on a spiritual path who are searching for healing, to help them get unstuck.” Clients and retreat participants are “assisted in completing unfinished business from the past,” and are “encouraged to take definitive steps…towards creating a positive future.” Initially, another member of the COWGIRL team was slated to attend. When it turned out she would be unable to make the trip, it was offered to me. I looked at Devon’s Beyond The Arena website and was intrigued by her description of the Unbridled workshops. I ignored the twinge of uncertainty in my gut and agreed to go. I didn’t know at the time that the universe had just arranged an invitation that would challenge me to the marrow of my 63-year-old cowgirl bones.
Upon arriving, Devon herself met me at the entryway of the historic Southwestern enclave. After a warm hug, she assisted me with my registration and escorted me to where the rest of the weekend’s participants were gathered, a group of women who had come from all over the country. Women like me, who had perhaps come to shed a skin or grow a new one. They were, each and every one, approachable, open and welcoming. After introductions, cocktails, and a classic ranch dinner (complete with sexy singing cowboy) we headed to our casitas. The night was deeply dark, still, and free of distractions, allowing the subtle sounds of the desert to prevail: the whinnies of the ranch horses, a great horned owl calling to its mate, the beautiful melody of a night bird I could not place but would not forget. For the first time in many nights, I slept like a baby. A good thing, too. The horses would be waiting for us, bright and early.
There’s something I should mention about that twinge in my gut. A few years ago I somersaulted off the front of a big, gentle horse during a riding lesson in the Santa Ynez Valley, not far from my home in Santa Barbara. I was transitioning from a canter to a trot and lost my seat. I regained it briefly, then, doing the antithesis of what I’d been taught, lost it again, for good this time. I sailed through the air in what felt like an interminable moment, before raising a cloud of arena dust as I landed on my right side, smacking my head hard against the ground. The horse, a well-trained fella unused to folks flying off his back was more surprised than anyone. Covered in dirt, I stood up, took a few shaky breaths and got right back on. I went through the very same maneuver I had attempted before the fall, executing the change in gaits without a hitch. All good, right? Wrong.
During the next few days I had some strange flashes of light when turning my head. I wasn’t experiencing headaches or other signs of injury, but to be on the safe side I went to my doctor. He reassured me all was well and that the light flashes would subside. So I returned for my lesson the following week. The horse I had been riding periodically went back to its owners, so I was given another horse to groom, saddle and ride. The new horse, though smaller, seemed to have a defiant personality, or perhaps simply sensed my nervousness and reflected my uneasiness back to me. She and I were clearly uncertain of the other.
As I sat on her back holding the reins I felt fearful and insecure. My body began to tremble, tears burning behind my eyes. My confidence had crashed with the fall, despite its innocuous nature. I hadn’t been physically hurt, yet something had seismically shifted inside of me. The horse incident had been the culmination of a cascade of traumatic events that included my mother’s death, a friend’s massive stroke, my mentor’s slow decline in the throes of Alzheimer’s, and my beloved dog dying. Somehow, falling off that horse had shattered my fragile sense of well being into a sharp point of particular and personal vulnerability. From that day on, I no longer felt safe in the world. Fear became an insidious and too frequent visitor, and the parameters of my life began to quietly narrow. I still dreamed of riding, but there were good reasons not to…a sprained ankle here, bursitis in a hip there. My heart began to feel as though it was enveloped in a dark cloud of existential fear, encasing its joy and freedom, its ability–or perhaps willingness–to live out its dreams and adventuresome nature. I didn’t ride again.
It was COWGIRL’s Editor-In-Chief that encouraged me to go on the Unbridled retreat. She had given me the option of participating as much or as little as I chose. I could simply observe and write about others’ experiences if that was my preference. I took the assignment, but as the trip grew closer so did my trepidation. I knew my bluff would be called. I imagined jumping cactus flinging their pods of needles my way, rattlesnakes under every bush, scorpions in my boots, and mountain lions who could effortlessly take out a petite woman for an evening hor d’oeuvre. Not to mention the horse issue.
I tried to bow out, suggesting someone else take my place. No such luck. Perhaps, she suggested, it was a synchronistic opportunity. And so I looked at my options. I could say yes to fear or yes to getting my life back. I felt frustration—and the possibility of real regret if I could not muster some courage. I knew staying home would not help me. And I wanted my former, fearless self back, the one who knew she could handle whatever the moment presented. I surrendered. I gave in. My desire to heal overrode my ego, who continued to warn of the embarrassment and shame of having her insecurities paraded around a round pen. In the end, I committed to go as a participant, as myself, the most inexperienced, wannabe horsewoman on the Cowgirl magazine team.
I awoke to the early morning desert, the air crisp and clear. Outside my casita, cottontail bunnies darted among the cactus. After breakfast, we gathered with Devon and began our work. The first exercise had us seated on chairs arranged in a circle adjacent to the round pen. We took turns pulling cards from a gorgeously illustrated horse-themed deck designed by Melissa Pearce. Pearce developed the Equine Gestalt Coaching Method. (Devon Combs is a Certified Equine Gestalt Coach, which entails graduating from a two-year program similar to a Master’s program.) I selected a card without looking—a beautiful sorrel horse. On the back was the word Energy, with a paragraph describing the power and intensity of thoughts and emotions, and how we can redirect and guide our energy “in the most positive direction possible, focusing on the task at hand and trusting what unfolds.” We all checked in with one another, one at a time, expressing what our cards might represent to us and our goals for the workshop.
Next, we would work with the horses. The irony is that I have written previous articles for COWGIRL about equine-assisted healing (for veterans with PTSD, for example). Intellectually, I knew of horses’ healing abilities. However, personally experiencing their energy fields and intense attentiveness in a somatic, body centered way was entirely different, and life changing.
I was reminded of what most cowgirls already know: try as one might, we cannot disguise our innermost feelings in the presence of a 1200-pound prey animal.
All horses are able to read body language and energy. Over millennia, they have had to hone their ability to tune into exactly what was going on in their environment in order to survive. After my experiences at the Unbridled weekend, I believe they can also intuitively sense where a person is holding pain—physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually. And they will meet you right there. I believe that is why tears may come when one approaches a horse with a vulnerable heart. They accept us as we are in that moment.
Working, or simply being with a horse can be an opportunity, in Comb’s words, “to let down your mane.” There is no point in maintaining pretense when the horse has your number. While this process may be “therapeutic,” Combs is quick to point out that it is not therapy. Rather, it is a lively engagement of “discovering one’s own answers” and “connecting to our inner wisdom.” Worn out excuses and stories are neither indulged nor accepted, and Combs does not shy away from calling “bullshit” on occasion.
An experienced horsewoman with a charismatic and down to earth attitude, Combs is a woman who has walked the talk. In fact, her intelligent, empathic work with others grew directly out of her own harrowing journey through bulimia and depression. She credits her life being saved to a last ditch stint at a treatment center in Arizona where the program included healing modalities with horses. “I was able to pour my heart out in the presence of a horse,” she explains. “A horse who did not run away but instead came closer.” That experience re-awakened a sense of self-awareness, self-compassion and forgiveness—and it opened the door to her life’s work.
I too, was able to let my heart be seen and recalibrated by the spirit and presence of the horses I encountered. The animals insisted I stay in the moment. I breathed close to the delicate velvet of their noses and felt their warm breath on my cheek. I brushed their manes and their dusty backs. I buried my face against them, releasing the last vestiges of the fears I had been carrying. With lowered heads, they accepted my grief, my uncertainties. I wrapped my arms around their necks, leaning into their well-muscled shoulders, taking in their scent, imprinting it on my heart which broke open in a flood of tears, washing away the terror that had homesteaded within me. I felt safe.
That afternoon, I got back on a horse. After an hour lesson with the resident wrangler, I set out on a long trail ride among the cactus, winding through the serene Sonoran terrain. I didn’t see any rattlers. I didn’t find any scorpions in my boots (though I continued to give them the recommended morning shake-out) Instead of mountain lions, I spotted two majestic six-point bucks and two fawns. I was relaxed and at ease in the saddle. Another of the gals riding behind me on the trail actually used the word “graceful.” On the last afternoon, I even took part in the team penning! At one point my hatband flew off as I loped along after collecting a wayward steer. Russell True, ultimate cowboy and owner of the White Stallion Ranch retrieved it and approached me. “You signed on as a beginner at the start of the weekend. Right? That’s what your card said.” “Yes,” I replied. The man of few words beamed, “You’re doing great!”
I returned home from the White Stallion Ranch and the Unbridled Retreat with a buoyant heart and a sense of self-respect and self-reliance I had not felt in quite some time. I’d left my fear in the dust and had a barrel of fun in the process!
ABOUT UNBRIDLED: Devon Combs’ Beyond the Arena equine-assisted coaching process is ninety-percent ground work, but holding the retreat at the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson afforded the opportunity to take lessons and trail rides, and to participate in team penning—all activities provided by the ranch and available to all guests. At White Stallion Ranch, every person is assigned a horse specifically suited to their level of riding experience, and guests usually ride that horse for the duration of their stay. www.beyondthearena.com
The beautiful White Stallion Ranch, originally built in the 1900s, has been owned by the True family for fifty years. The Trues take great pride in both “mindful stewardship of the land,” and “exceptional guest service.” With one of the “largest privately owned herds of horses in Arizona and a large herd of cattle,” it is definitely “beyond the arena.” www.whitestallion.com