In 2008, Erin Halloran, an aesthetician and spa owner, took a vacation with a colleague, Maryellen Werstine, in search of inspiration for their practices in Plymouth and Boyne Falls, Mich.
Erin Halloran, an aesthetician and spa owner, gets Ziggy ready for an equine therapy workshop at the Inn at Bay Harbor in Petoskey, Mich.
What they discovered, however, was not a new spa treatment, like the Reiki massage they had added a year earlier, but a therapy that incorporated something they both shared: a love of horses.
Halloran and Werstine spent six hours at Equine Facilitated Learning at Epona Ridge, a personal awareness workshop in Asheville, N.C., where they learned to interpret the body language of horses and humans.
Shortly thereafter the women enrolled in a program in Tottenham, Ontario, called Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning, where in about six months they were trained to integrate its curriculum into their spa practices.
In 2010 Halloran and Werstine teamed with Camryn Handler, a spa director in Michigan, to create the Equine Journey at the Inn at Bay Harbor there.
Equine therapy, long a part of drug rehabilitation and psychotherapy programs across the country, is increasingly offered at spas as a supplement to massages and facials. At most of them, participants do not ride the horses but learn to relate to them to achieve personal goals.
The Travaasa Spas in Texas and the Miraval Spa and Resort in Tucson, Ariz., are among the large spas including programs with names like The Equine Experience in their packages. The equine workshop at the Inn at Bay Harbor costs an extra $250 a day, and Miraval’s more-intensive four-day program is $600.
What do horses have to do with a visit to a resort spa? “Horses are my therapy,” Halloran said. “Throughout my whole life that’s where I’ve gone to get that relaxation and peace of mind, no matter what was going on in my life. I always felt a sense of calm around the horses.”
Finding that calm is one of the goals at the spas; self-discovery is another. The programs at the Inn at Bay Harbor, the Travaasa Spas in Texas, the Miraval Resort and Ste. Anne’s Spa in Grafton, Ontario, revolve around groundwork.
Workshops include meeting the herd and attempting to bond with the animals; learning to guide the horses in a pen using just body language, not forceful contact; and traversing obstacle courses that represent communication or confidence problems guests want to overcome.
Karey White, the stable caretaker at Ste. Anne’s, where guests also muck stalls, groom and feed horses, said the horses make people aware of the nonverbal cues they may exhibit.
“To lead a horse and to have control of that animal that is so large and so powerful that they could hurt you — and they don’t, they listen to every little cue that you give them whether you think you’re giving it or not — the guests find it very empowering that they can have that control,” White said.
Horses are prey animals, and their constant fear of being attacked makes them powerfully intuitive. They are able to sense energy and body language (in humans as well as in other horses) and will react almost immediately.
“You can’t really fool a horse the way you could fool a person by putting a smile on your face or saying something,” Halloran said. “It’s all just pure intention and pure energy.”
Wyatt Webb brought Equine Experience to the Miraval Resort 16 years ago from Sierra Tucson, a nearby treatment center that uses horses, where he worked with troubled adolescents. Coming out of treatment himself 33 years ago, Webb was fascinated by the group therapy process and, “wanting to save the damn world,” he said, began his career as a therapist. It was not until he had an experience with one teenage boy that he understood the healing power of horses.
Working with the young man, who had been kicked out of several treatment centers, Webb observed his interactions with a horse and noticed that when the boy was unable to complete an assigned task — lifting the horse’s hoof — he became frustrated and tried to push around the 1,200-pound animal. When Webb showed the boy how to lift the hoof easily, the teenager, who had been defiant, softened, asking, “How did you do that?” “You know, that is a question that would usually take about three weeks to happen in an inpatient setting with a kid because it would take that long to build trust,” Webb said, “and I knew that when he said that something really special had just happened.”
The levels of training and certification of leaders in the programs vary, as do the goals of the programs themselves. While Halloran and Werstine are experienced in equine experiential learning, they call on mental health professionals if a guest has strong emotional reactions.
Webb has trained at the University of Georgia and other schools, but at Ste. Anne’s White is a Centered Riding coach, trained in the principles of developing clear communication between the horse and human. Hesitant to call the experience therapy, Ste. Anne’s focuses on providing a safe, positive interaction with the horse: emotional benefits to the humans are secondary.
At the Miraval Resort and Spa, “people are very attentive,” said Michael Tompkins, its president, explaining that spa guests are usually willing to try new things.
“When they try things like the Equine Experience, they’re actually shocked because they didn’t realize that a spa vacation was going to become something more,” he said.
Some guests come to the program with an open mind, like Evan Cohen, a dentist in New York who has visited Miraval and participated in the equine program many times.
“There are lots of things that are so far out there that I think are ridiculous,” he said. “If someone’s going to wave a crystal at me or align my chakras, I think it’s crazy. But the horse thing seemed worthwhile to me.”
Cohen said he was nervous at first, convinced he would be the only one unable to get the horse to lift its foot. To his surprise, he “walked right up, did it, and the horse responded the first time.”
“To this day, when I’m faced with something and I think I’m going to fail, I stop and I think about that horse experience,” he said. “That’s the most profound thing that I got out of it, that I walk around with negative stuff in my head, when those thoughts are not really based in reality.”
Others enter the experience with a healthy dose of skepticism, as did Diane Rosenshine, a friend and colleague of Cohen, who traveled to Miraval for his birthday.
“He wanted to do this horse thing and I just thought, ‘Oh, brother.”‘ she said.
Her mind was changed but not her life.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I saw people have major breakthroughs, but myself, I don’t know,” adding, “It’s hard for me to change my life, I guess.”
Other therapies involve getting on the horse’s back. Hippotherapy uses the horse as a tool under the supervision of a medical professional, who leads the horse to carefully stimulate the patient’s muscles and nerves.
Therapeutic riding, on the other hand, is conducted by a certified riding instructor and focuses on teaching people with disabilities like spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy or arthritis how to control the horse as independently as possible. The activity is known to foster confidence and is believed to stimulate the central nervous system.
Most notably, Ann Romney, the wife of the Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, is a proponent of therapeutic riding, incorporating it into her treatment for multiple sclerosis.
Ann Remick Barlow, a clinical social worker who has worked in equine assisted psychotherapy with children and families for nine years, said that even being outdoors can make people be more forthcoming.
“I’ve learned that people seem to relax more and be more themselves outside,” she said. “When they are out there with the horse, they just relax, usually, and talk.”
Barlow incorporates horses into family therapy, using the characteristics of the herd to illustrate family dynamics. She has also worked with veterans who have difficulty relating to their loved ones after returning from combat. The horses can help them understand their importance in their human herd.
Spas are using similar principles with corporate teams looking to better understand office relationships and how they affect productivity.
Executives from Microsoft, Nike, Motorola and the Portland Trail Blazers of the National Basketball Association are among those who have participated in the Miraval Equine Experience.
“They tell us, ‘We want team building, we want innovation, we want conflict resolution,”‘ said Tompkins. “And Wyatt basically customizes the program and through everyone’s behaviors we’re able to see who might be holding back in the group, who is the quiet one who really should speak up more, who are the innovative ones in the group. And it’s at that point that they can apply that to the boardroom or to the work environment to make themselves a stronger team.”