Tak­ing the reins

As equine ther­apy in­spires lux­ury spa menus with the aim of chis­elling away at mod­ern-day stress, Mar­cia DeSanc­tis as­sesses her life – and calls in the cavalry.

VOGUE Australia - - Health -

On a pris­tine Santa Fe morn­ing, I leave a half-eaten stack of bluecorn pan­cakes on my ho­tel bed­side ta­ble and tra­verse a dried riverbed across the prop­erty to a hand­some lit­tle ranch. The air smells of ju­niper and pine, and my pulse is rac­ing. I am about to come face to face with four gi­ant horses, and I’m ter­ri­fied. Like many des­ti­na­tions look­ing to tap into the white-hot world of well­ness, the Four Sea­sons Re­sort Ran­cho En­can­tado added the EQUUS Ex­pe­ri­ence to its spa menu in the spring. The pro­gram claims to “in­spire last­ing change and break­through learn­ing” via the heal­ing pow­ers of horses, ac­cord­ing to Santa Fe na­tive Kelly Wen­dorf, a life­long eques­trian with a back­ground in neu­ro­science, who con­ceived the multi-hour or multi-day pro­gram and runs it with her part­ner, Scott Stra­chan. “It’s about rad­i­cal self-in­quiry.”

The field of equine ther­a­pies is boom­ing, thanks in part to our warp­speed mod­ern lives. Oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pists in­te­grate horse­back rid­ing into the care of pa­tients with cere­bral palsy and autism, and men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als cer­ti­fied in equine ther­apy use the ma­jes­tic beasts in their treat­ment strat­egy for ad­dic­tion, eat­ing dis­or­ders, de­pres­sion and PTSD.

“Horses are very in­tu­itive an­i­mals and they pick up on hu­man emo­tions and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties very quickly,” says David God­den, clin­i­cal di­rec­tor at By­ron Pri­vate Holis­tic Treat­ment Cen­tre in By­ron Bay. “When you’re work­ing with an an­i­mal that’s twice the size of you it takes an enor­mous amount of trust and a cer­tain level of bound­ary set­ting to be able to have a re­la­tion­ship with that horse.”

Equipped with large and sen­si­tive ner­vous sys­tems, th­ese an­cient an­i­mals have an ex­quis­ite abil­ity to read scent, brain­waves and body lan­guage, so they are keenly at­tuned to hu­mans’ emo­tional states and able to de­liver non­threat­en­ing feed­back. This makes it easy for the quar­tet of horses at the ranch to size me up when I ar­rive.

There is no set syl­labus at EQUUS, be­cause whereas fear has a big hold on my life – the fear of age­ing, that I’ll never fin­ish my book, that I’ll end up in an Alzheimer’s home, like my mother – other peo­ple may need to ex­plore dif­fer­ent things: bound­aries, cre­ativ­ity, grief, lead­er­ship or joy. I ap­proach the horses ex­pect­ing them to rear and tram­ple me, and my heart threat­ens to cat­a­pult onto the sand. But as I chat to them and stroke their manes, never mount­ing them, each re­mains some­what calm, ex­press­ing its own per­son­al­ity. One is play­ful, an­other wary. Cooper, a brown quar­ter geld­ing with gor­geous un­du­lat­ing flanks, catches my eye. Three hours pass dream­ily as I am­ble from horse to horse, un­til the strangest thing hap­pens: they all lie down on the ground.

“The horses are say­ing: ‘Fear isn’t some­thing you have to get over,’” Wen­dorf ex­plains. As long as I put up no false front, they can re­lax, which brings me peace as well. When I get back to the ho­tel, I weep.

The next morn­ing, some equine magic draws me back to Cooper. He presses up against me with warm sup­port, like a gen­tle nurse. I con­nect with this nearly 408-kilo­gram cham­pion as if he were a mir­ror. “He doesn’t en­gage much,” Wen­dorf tells me, ex­plain­ing that Cooper is a thinker who tends to live in­side his head. “But when he does, it’s se­ri­ous.”

It is also se­ri­ously mys­ti­fy­ing. The area of equine ther­apy still lacks ro­bust re­search, but some sci­en­tists, in­clud­ing Tim Shurtl­eff, a lec­turer on oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity, hy­poth­e­sise that changes in brain chem­istry that lower stress-in­duc­ing cor­ti­sol and raise bond-build­ing oxy­tocin lev­els oc­cur when a per­son is in con­tact with a horse. “It’s hor­monal,” he says. It’s also spir­i­tual, which is how Noreen Es­pos­ito, a psy­chi­atric men­tal health nurse prac­ti­tioner and equine ther­a­pist who teaches nurs­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, de­scribes the “deep and real” con­nec­tion.

As the weeks go by, I nur­ture a new re­la­tion­ship with my fear: that liv­ing with it, rather than strug­gling against it, could in fact lead to bet­ter writ­ing, more in­ner peace and more ac­cep­tance of pass­ing time. If the horses pos­sess an abil­ity to re­flect only what is true, then my truth is that fear is not a force hold­ing me back. “There are other things that they re­flected back to you,” Wen­dorf writes in an email. “Those are for you to con­tinue to dis­cover.”

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