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A Horse & A Healing Journey


Midlife Musing Kuel Life Contributor: Joanne Socha

During COVID I decided that I still needed to honor my annual wellness sabbatical. In the past this has meant going somewhere for one week, preferably abroad.

My intention, set in advance, is always the same: laser focus on a project, or garner insights from the solitude, all the while cocooned in lovely surroundings. I crave enough distractions to inspire me, but not too many to steal me away from my original mission.    

I chose Miraval Berkshires, which opened during the height of the pandemic. It’s a sister property to the lovely and very popular Miraval Spa in Tucson. I was eager to explore the property and get lost in its incredible offerings. The place was close enough to home, yet far enough away from my sea views and daily routine.  While there I only had three goals: design my 2021 business plan, take a Qi Gong class with a  Master, and experience equine therapy through the Hero’s Journey. Because of COVID, I decided to forgo spa treatments, even though all are conducted in strict accordance with COVID protocols.

Introductions All Around:

I knew about the equine program at Miraval Arizona, having sent clients there. I’d never personally experienced it, though. I was eager to see what all the buzz was about. Strolling over to the horse barn, Jen Leahey, Director of the Equine program, introduced me to several alluring barn owls. Then, some shy rescue horses came to the edge of their paddock to breathe warm air into my hand. It seems that all of the animals are eager to know their visitors.

Upon entering the huge barn, Jen explained that Maple, a honey-colored rescue horse, and I would embark on a Hero’s Journey together. We’d work within the symbolism that had been set up in an obstacle course, navigating side-by-side as partners. My first concern flared up immediately. I realized that I would not be riding, hence not in control of the situation. I’d have to trust that a strange horse would embark on this adventure with me as a partner. 

Galloping through Pound Ridge Reservation in the Fall was the ultimate escape from my school work and daily ballet classes.

Having grown up in horse country, but having never owned a horse, I spent weekends riding my friends’ horses. Galloping through Pound Ridge Reservation in the Fall was the ultimate escape from my school work and daily ballet classes. But with Maple, this was to be a different kind of soaring, one which had me feeling a bit out of control and vulnerable.

When Jen introduced Maple, she appeared aloof.  When I exclaimed, “doesn’t she like me?” Jen laughed and said, “she doesn’t know you yet.” This revealing interaction had me wondering if Jen thought I needed another type of therapy as well!  

Charting Our Course:

Before setting out in the labyrinth, Jen reminded me that in every hero’s journey there is always a sidekick or guide: “Dante had Virgil, Frodo had Sam, and Dorothy had Toto.” Maple and I circled around each other for ten minutes, sizing each other up. I was happy to have such a strong and seemingly serene companion but I wasn’t sure if I was the hero or the sidekick at this point. I would soon find out.

Jen explained the course to me, describing how the obstacles might make a horse a bit edgy, and that they are meant to challenge people without pushing them over the edge. While this wasn’t paragliding or jumping through fiery hoops (which I may try on my next trip somewhere!), sharing this connection with Maple would enable me to notice personal patterns and test my ability to trust a large animal.  

What Happens Outside Of Our Comfort Zone:

The activity is a metaphor for moving through and around things, representing the growth that happens outside of our comfort zone.”

The symbols along the course are meant to represent challenges from our own lives. The activity is a metaphor for moving through and around things, representing the growth that happens outside of our comfort zone. Each obstacle, meant to bring us into ourselves, is symbolic of the four elements of earth, water, air and fire.  

There is also an opportunity for you to bring something with you on the journey. You place a slip of paper into a burlap pouch and tie it around the horse’s neck. S/he carries it for you on the ‘yellow brick road’, into the center of the labyrinth. Once there you write down a word or a phrase; something you’d like to release. Then, you burn it on the spot, dropping it into a pail. It is a ceremony witnessed only by you and your partner. Maple and I had a bit of a glitch but thankfully I didn’t burn the barn down. When I went to set my slip of paper on fire, Maple was spooked by the fire at first. She lurched to one side, so I jumped as well but found myself quickly reassuring her that all was well.  

At the end of the walk, Maple seemed to want to hang out with me, happily traipsing behind me and soulfully glancing at me. She’d supported me well on the journey as we interacted and successfully navigated each obstacle.

Transformations To Go:

I didn’t process my time with Jen and Maple until several days later, after arriving back home. Energized after our adventure in the labyrinth, I recalled Maple’s big soft brown eyes. I remembered that I’d felt a mixture of fear, excitement and compassion, wanting to understand an animal’s world more deeply.  

I was so grateful that I’d met Jen, the kind of woman who inspires you to ask deeper questions about your surroundings and to ponder animal behavior and our potential friendships with them. She had endless stories about animals and healing, and animals knowing their limits when injured. She clearly takes the opportunity to understand all of those placed in her care.  

Made Some Animal Friends:

She shared how one partially blind rescue owl was adamant about going back into the wild after healing from an injury. After realizing he couldn’t effectively survive out in the world, he’d sought Jen out at her home, miles from Miraval. She immediately provided shelter and food. I can’t help thinking that we could all benefit from having a Jen in our lives when times are rough.

At the end of my stay at Miraval, I felt a bit like a cured barn owl – knowing I could immerse myself back into the world, yet return for additional restorative, healing sustenance if needed. So while  I never finished my business plan, I made some new animal friends and the barn owls visit me in my dreams some nights. 

About the Author:

Joanne Socha is the author of The Red Bandanna Travel Book: The Medicine of Traveling, a lawyer turned Luxury Travel Advisor, Your Wanderess Host™ and mentor. She is praying for a healed world without borders, one where all can travel freely and mine for spiritual treasures. You can find Joanne at joannesocha.com  And, follow her on social: FacebookInstagramTwitter, and LinkedIN.