Unexpected Grace: How Horses Changed My Life

December 13, 2008 by  

The working title for a memoir I am writing is, “Unexpected Grace: How Horses Changed My Life” so this is the beginning of the story.  I believe it is in those spaces in-between what I call “holding the sacred space of possibility” that grace and guidance happens. I follow what Robert Johnson calls, “the slender threads” in his book, “Balancing Heaven and Earth” and at this stage of my life look back on people, circumstances, and experiences that have guided me, I know the nudges I followed were many times where the most significant changes occurred.    As a child and young adult I remember riding horses across fallow corn fields in Indiana with my cousins and feeling the wind in my hair and the pure joy of being in sync with these magnificent beings.  When I was older and had children every family vacation included at least one horse ride.  My youngest daughter, Meghan, tried many times to covince her Father and me to get her a horse but eventually had to settle for riding her friends’ horses or the horses at my sister’s ranch in Colorado.  I loved it all and have to admit I took much of it in stride until grace entered in and changed my life.

My grandmother, Frances Shea Klein, probably wasn’t doing anything extraordinary on the day this picture was taken.  This image of my grandmother, placed on my mantel with other family pictures, was one of many in an old photo album I found of hers.  Grace is why I believe this particular image was the one I decided to take and reprint for my sisters, children and Aunt.  My grandmother, gone many years, was such an important part of my early childhood and I love to think about her in this innocent, beautiful scene with the black and white working horses.  What was she thinking about?  Her whole life was ahead of her and I imagine she was out on a morning stroll and stopped to commune with the horses and maybe have a long chat.  Equine Facilitated Learning is a name for a new field of working with horses in human development but somehow I believe my grandmother already knew this.  Barbara Rector came to see me for some consulting and noticed this picture and asked “Are you a horse person, Kathleen?”.  Little did I know then where that question and her observation would eventually lead me.

Frances Shea Klein     Wisconsin 1908

Frances Shea Klein Wisconsin 1908

My first introduction to working with horses in this way was through Sierra Tucson in the1990’s.  At the time I was director of marketing and intake at the center for the treatment of addictions and co-dependency.  In a recent newsletter sent out by Sierrra Tucson honoring their 25 years of service , co-founder Bill O’Donnell is quoted saying, “In the beginning, we had more horses than patients.”   I wonder what the horses knew then that had not been revealed to us?  By the late 80’s we had 185 beds for adults with chemical dependency and other addictive disorders, and had acquired dual lincensure as a psychiatric hospital; a 72 bed eating disorder unit; and were in the process of building an adolescent treatment center.  Reed Smith was in charge of creating the new center for adolescents and he wanted to bring the horses in to work with the children. I called Reed a few weeks ago to ask him what made him decide to do this work.
Here is a portion of the interview I had with Reed:
“When I was eight years old my father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and became bedridden.  I had been with horses at my grandfather’s ranch and so turned to them for companionship during this time.  I had heard how the horses had helped my great Uncle when he was suffering from depression.  At that time there were not many “cures” for depression or what they called “melancholy”, however, I remember stories of how the horses “healed” my Uncle in the late 1800’s.  I grew up with this story so when I was struggling with the crisis of my Father’s illness I began to think about how this might be just what would help me.  I applied for my first wrangler’s job at 8 years old.  Well, I didn’t get the job but I started volunteering and working with the horses.  I learned to halter train them as foals and started them bareback.  When I was 11 years old I became a camp counselor for kids and worked with the camp in the summers until I was 18 years old.  The horses saved my life in many ways.  Horses as healers goes back thousands of years in Arabian families and we all know the stories of the horses in the Old West.  All of the years that I worked at the Bar L Ranch in Guthrie Center, Iowa we never had an accident with the horses and the kids.  I attribute this to [1] Safety[2] the relationship with the horse and human being the most important, the horses were not passed around or deadened [3] the horses were pasture bred and raised.  When the idea to work with the horses at Sierra Tucson, which was on the property of an old dude ranch where the horses could be ridden by the patients, I knew I wanted to create something like the Bar L.  I had heard of a woman, Barbara Rector, who was one of the founders of TROT in Tucson where the horses helped them work with handicapped children.  As soon as I met her, I knew she had the understanding and the vision to help me create this innovative program to work with the adolescents.  She was very safety minded, well trained and had a natural way of working with the horses which was full of respect and not technique.  Thus began the collaboration with Barbara a year before the center was ready to open.”
My next meeting was with Barbara to find out about her recollection.  Barbara had been the first person to ask me to work with her and her partner Ann Alden in Barbara’s program, “Adventures in Awareness”.  We recalled the other day that this was around 1994-95.  I began working with Barbara individually and then participated in several workshops before I started to teach what she called” taking therapy to the barn”.  I would work with them at workshops and did a lecture on the benefits of working with horses as co-facilitators.  We didn’t even have a name then but knew it “worked”.  As a practicing psychotherapist, I really saw the changes in the clients and referred many of my clients to Barbara and Ann.  I wanted to ask Barbara what she recalled of the “early” days in the field of equine facilitated learning and her time at Sierra Tucson in 1990-1993.
Barbara said,
“Reed hired me and we began our collaboration to put together the program at adolescent.  We called it STIRRP, Sierra Tucson Integrated Riding Resource Program.  Adolescent opened the the fall of 1991 and the program was a huge success with the adolescents and their families.  We began to see how much the horses impacted the children and the family system. In 1993 I presented a paper and a training video on the STIRRP program, then referred to as equine facilitated psychotherapy, to the International Riding for the Disabled Conference in Aukland, New Zealand.” Barbara can be contacted at www.adventuresinawareness.net
The curriculm and program developed intially by Barbara and Reed has undergone changes and the equine program at the center continues today and is fully integrated in the primary group process. www.SierraTucson.com
My next stop was a visit with Ann Alden down at her ranch in Sonoita where she lives with her 16 horses and her partner, Haus  When I asked Ann, “Why Horses?” she replied.
“Working with the horses has validated what I knew as a child and couldn’t express in words.  I remember reading a book called “Kinship with all Life” by J. Allen Boone when I was 16.  I would go out and sit in the grass and commune with the animals.  My relationship with animals as a child has continued into my life today and prompted me to take what I knew then and work with the horses in this area of human development.”
By the time the center at Sierra Tucson had opened, Wyatt Webb was the executive director and began his journey through the way of the horse.  Wyatt works today at Miraval and is the innovator of their successful Equine Experience program as well as the author of two books about his work with horses.  Wyatt and I worked together on the management team at Sierra Tucson in the late 80’s early 90’s.  I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that either one of us would be doing the work we are today.  You can contact Wyatt and find out more about the equine program at www.miravalresort.com
Through my work with Barbara and Ann I met Linda Kohanov and thus we began our collaboration in 1998 and we worked together until late 2007.  You can read more about my work with Linda under the Equine Facilitated Learning section of this website and can contact her directly at www.taoofequus.com
I think about my grandmother, Frances, often and would love to have a conversation with her about her early life, what she was doing with the horses, whether she loved them as much as I do, but most of all to thank her for the way she guided me to this work.  I really know that when we are open, we receive these gifts of grace in many unexpected ways.
Cisco at Yvonne Monahan's Ireland

Cisco at Yvonne Monahan's in Ireland