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Posted: Dec 1, 2005 20:05


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By: Shannon Dexter, LCSW, LISAC, Equine Program Director
In-Balance Ranch Academy
Tucson, Arizona

The sprinkling of rain didn't dampen our spirits as the arch of a double rainbow welcomed us into the place we would later name the Valley of the Wild Horses. With knee high prairie grasses that perked up the noses of our equine co-therapists and majestic trees that looked strong enough for the joy and tears that would be shared, this is where we would live for the next five days. With plenty of space for our tents in the meadow and a grand overhanging tree covering our cooking area, we declared this the place and set up camp. Sally and Connie, Equine staff; and Casey, Wilderness staff, joined me on this first ever equine five-day wilderness trip.

That evening we read from Wyatt Webb's book, It's Not About the Horse, which talks about how horses mirror the relationship skills or difficulties we carry throughout our lives. Wyatt also talks extensively about the fear and self-doubt horses help us uncover and heal. Students shared some of their experiences with their horses and what they hoped to gain from the equine camping experience.

Hot dogs roasting over an open fire, apple cider to warm the chill out of the air, raucous laughter and sharing challenging riddles carried us through the evening under the almost full moon.

The nighttime was restful for the students but not so for the staff. The horses were not quite acclimated to their new home and spent the night escaping and visiting each other. Thankfully, my horse Adi (apparently the positive leader of our equine positive peer culture) nickered her disapproval with every indiscretion so that I would wake up and fix the situation.

Saturday morning breakfast heralded a first for many students who had never had a "fluffer nutter" sandwich. Casey, born and raised in Maine, treated the early risers to the marshmallow fluff and peanut butter treat. The students thought their mouths had gone to heaven!

We saddled up and rode into the Santa Rita Mountains for a rollicking four and a half hour ride. The steep hills and deep stream valleys offered a full-body work-out for both humans and horses alike. The horses were exuberant with their unfamiliar surroundings and challenged everyone's riding abilities, expanding each student's skills to the next level. We stopped for fruit, snacks, water and to rest our wobbly legs at a river bed, and then rode back to camp for a late lunch.

The peace and tranquility of the Valley beckoned many boys to their tents for an afternoon siesta. When all gathered again, I facilitated an equine assisted psychotherapy activity I call The Addiction Swamp. The students were challenged with getting their group from one end of the swamp to the other without slipping into their addictions. They could use their 12-Steps (2 milk crates), their higher power (Cody, the horse) and the fellowship they had in each other. It was fascinating to see them act out their usual modus operandi; some of them rushing headlong into the swamp without thinking anything through or relying on anyone; others getting stuck, frustrated, overwhelmed, etc. Eventually they pulled together and found the strategies that worked and they slowed themselves down to carefully get the project done. The metaphors for sobriety were everywhere apparent and we discussed them during group afterwards and several other times throughout the weekend.

That evening the staff cooked burgers over the fire and then we all settled in for an evening of deeper work. We talked about the next days' solo and each student shared what they wanted to accomplish. The goals ranged from working on their relationship with themselves, to their relationships with family members, finding some inner peace, relaxing and taking a break, discovering why they self-sabotage, connecting with their higher power and deepening commitment to self-realization and sobriety. I taught a brief mediation and discussed not getting caught in a circle of negative thinking while alone.

The next two hours were spent reading the parents' love letters to their sons. The level of emotion was profound and moving and I had to do some deep breathing several times to be able to continue to read. When the reading ended, we opened the circle to sharing hopes and prayers. Many shared that they hoped to continue to remember the feeling of love they felt from their parents that night and to work to improve their relationships with their families. Others also encouraged each other to really hear and feel the love from their parents and siblings and make the changes necessary to repair and reconnect. We asked that silence and introspection accompany them for the journey to their tents and to bed that night, and that the next morning's breakfast also be one of silence to usher them into the most productive solo possible.

The next morning the students packed their tents and packs and came down for breakfast. I read them a passage from Mother Theresa about the roots and branches of self-defeat, and the roots and branches of self-realization. We placed each student in his solo location around the Valley and on the ridges around the Valley's rim. They each set up camp and the staff spent the day caring for the horses and checking on the students.

Midway through the afternoon I decided to let Adi and her best horse friend Sophie have a little romp. I've done this before and felt confident she was now settled in our Valley and would stick around. The two mares loved their freedom and ran and played in the valley, periodically coming down to the fire circle to visit us and drink water. To the dismay of my more sensible equine staff, I let four other mares join the frolic, and the band of mares danced and explored through the meadows and ate grass in our Valley of the Wild Horses. Many of the students watched from their solo sites and were amazed and exhilarated by this vision.

We have a mustang I named Annie, after Wild Horse Annie, who championed the cause of wild mustangs and burros in the '60's. Annie was fussing and twirling herself around on her tie while the others romped around. Whereas my relationship with Adi is close enough that I felt I could rely on her to enjoy her frolic without running off, I figured turning Annie loose would be a bad idea as she had been born in the wild and may be triggered into the wild state easily. Sally and Connie voiced that thought aloud and soon I found myself, in true oppositional form, hiking up the hill to turn Annie loose. Annie galloped into the herd of mares and led them up the hillside onto the ridge in a beautiful and powerful rush of freedom. While we looked on with breathless trepidation, Adi and Annie faced off at the top of the ridge. Annie was apparently trying to lead them into the next county and Adi was arguing with her. We held our breath as we watched the conversation between the two now free mares. Suddenly Adi turned and galloped back down into the Valley with the band behind her. Annie stomped her feet and finally followed. We breathed a sigh of relief and the staff laughed at my "craziness," which I prefer to think of as my adventurous nature.

We went to the solo sites and made dinners for each of the boys and continued our checks through the night on horseback. In the morning Casey rode around and gathered the boys and their belongings to assemble back at camp for a hearty bacon and pancake breakfast.

We saddled and rode out to explore more of the mountains and foothills. We came upon Kentucky Camp, an historic site and we rode a portion of the Arizona Trail that spans the state.

After returning for lunch, the boys started a raucous game of hide and seek. They ran and laughed through the entire area and we enjoyed watching their exuberance and freedom, their joy and laughter; imagining many of them haven't felt or played that way in many years.

We assembled again around dinner and had a group about the solos. Many tears were shared as students talked about their time of introspection, their responses to their love letters and their new realizations.

S'mores followed and many a sticky, gooey mess was created and devoured! The boys had a rousing game of play-acting drama that could probably be heard in the next town and we finally pushed them off to bed around 10pm.

Tuesday morning and our last day. We saddled for a final cantering ride around the area and began to pack our camp into the trucks and trailers. A final group-up allowed time for each to speak about their revelations over the past five days. The group committed to returning to the Ranch with the renewed commitment, new realizations, deep bonding and brotherhood that was formed, and ability to find solutions without bullheadedness and self-righteousness. We had a final meditation to internalize this place and this experience into our hearts, and we said a heartfelt thank you and goodbye to our Valley of the Wild Horses.

Copyright Notice: I Shannon Dexter, LCSW, LISAC, Clinical Director, Equine Program Director, In-Balance Ranch Academy, hereby grant permission for "The Valley of the Wild Horses" to be published in the online and hardcopy editions of the Woodbury Reports, Inc. Newsletter. However, I reserve all future rights in the publication of this article.

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