Forty-eight hours after a white-knuckle election, I touched down on a chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific to meet an unlikely sensei: an 1,100-pound beast that would help me learn to trust myself.
As a New Yorker in her early 30s, I’m well acquainted with low-grade anxiety and insomnia. Most nights, in a tumble of bedsheets, I run over the ledger of my finances and try to accept my warped version of a Faustian bargain: pursuing a career as a writer in exchange for an uncertain future and a precarious present, one still shadowed by student loan debt. As I edit my work, I desperately want my inner voice to sound like that of a wise, older mentor rather than an unmoderated online comments section. And in my romantic life, I’ve been so indecisive that friends have said I should date by committee. I’ve tackled these challenges before, on therapists’ sofas and acupuncturists’ tables, all to little avail. So when I heard that some are turning to horses to heal afflictions far more serious than my own, I was more than intrigued. Please, I hoped, let the healing begin.
Nestled high in the hills of Oahu’s North Shore, at the secluded Sunset Ranch, Heart Horses is a program specializing in equine therapy, a method of helping people—from nervous sorts like myself to others facing a vast array of conditions—achieve zen on horseback.
I arrived at the ranch in a red Mustang convertible, which seemed appropriate. Shrimp trucks and fruit stands dotted the road, with very free-range chickens pecking alongside. Coming from the Northeast, the saturated verdancy of Oahu was like leaving gray-scale Kansas for Technicolor Oz.
There to greet me was Carina Cooper, a wide-smiled, sun-kissed island native who started Heart Horses in 2011 with the belief that everyone has something to gain from being around the animals—even if you’re not crazy about them. Or, as Winston Churchill put it, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
Equine therapy, I learned, can be used to treat a host of conditions, from anxiety to depression to PTSD to physical disabilities. Hippocrates recommended riding to treat chronic illnesses, and 17th-century medical literature cites time with horses as an antidote to gout, neurological disorders, and low morale. The first equine therapy centers for the physically disabled reached the U.S. in the late 1960s. In 1999, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning model (EAGALA) was established to treat mental health patients. And in 2016, Anthony Weiner tried equine therapy—unsuccessfully, it seems—to combat sex addiction.
The healing powers of horses derive from their sensitivity and intuition, which allow for peoples’ emotions to surface more quickly and directly than in a clinical setting. As prey animals, they’re hyper-aware of their surroundings, able to reflect our energy like mirrors. Sonja Bigalke-Bannan, the ranch’s executive director, has seen the horses get amped up around big groups and start to gallop around the arena. When a client comes in with profound grief, they sometimes lie supine.
Carina and her team practice two models of equine-assisted therapy: therapeutic riding and Equine Assisted Learning. In the former, you groom and mount the animals; in the latter, you participate in customized activities on foot with the horses. In both cases, you’re investigating emotions that surface in real time. “This is experiential therapy,” Carina explained.
Before I arrived in Hawaii, Carina helped me decide on “self-trust” as the goal for our sessions. By that, I mean trusting that I’ll make it—through another sleepless night, another book, another year in the city. I desperately want to believe that I can handle life’s vicissitudes, yet despite surviving a decade in New York, at times I feel like I’m one false move away from the Greyhound back to my sad hometown. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me how playing cowgirl for the day would quell these concerns, but I held out hope.
My first task toward quieting my ever-dissenting inner monologue was ensuring that I could properly groom Tracker, an 18-year-old gray thoroughbred, without causing a national emergency. Fortunately, he turned out to be my equine soul mate: bleached blond mane, freckled hide, ravenous appetite, a palpable impatience to hit the open fields. As soon as I began grooming him, he evacuated his bowels. “In equine therapy, we work in metaphors,” Carina said as she handed me a shovel. “So, you know, s*** happens.”
We began inside the enclosed arena, where Sonja got me comfortable giving Tracker simple directions: go, stop, turn left, and turn right. She then led me out to the pasture, where I rode in a gentle rain. Initially, all I could concentrate on was ensuring that Tracker didn’t run away with me or, conversely, that he wouldn’t go on strike and simply stand in place, as he did several times. But those fears soon gave way to an in-the-moment presence I’ve only experienced at very isolated times, when beauty smacks you upside the head.
Back in the barn, as I unbridled Tracker and brushed away the field’s dirt, I was struck by how at peace with himself he seemed. Sonja told me that when the annual hurricanes descend upon Oahu each summer, the staff braids strips of paper containing the ranch’s contact information into the horses’ manes, in case they get lost. But most often, she finds that the horses simply stand their ground, facing away from the torrent and waiting out the storm.
For those who seek the hypnotic lull of therapeutic riding sans barn labor, a guided horseback ride is the answer. The next day, I hopped aboard Cody, a timid brown and butterscotch boy, at Turtle Bay, the sprawling resort down the hill. He brought new meaning to the term beast of burden as he clopped along the lip of the sea, following the leader nose to tail like a sentient Segway. Three-foot waves crashed in the distance, and without having to concern myself with Cody making a break for it, I allowed the layers of ultramarine and turquoise water to saturate my eyes. Under the spell of the horse’s lulling rhythms, I floated into a meditative rest, in which the water and the sky melded into a vast, open canvas. Away from the constriction of sharing a city with eight and a half million strangers, I felt my shoulders drop and my rigid contours begin to soften. The Kentucky Derby this wasn’t; rather, we glided along at a soothing trot, and my cortisol levels plummeted with each step along the beach.
That afternoon I headed back to Sunset Ranch to try Equine Assisted Learning, the more character-building method of equine therapy. Carina led me past my beloved Tracker, who was engrossed in chomping some hay, to the door of the arena, where, I was informed, the horses were waiting for me, roaming free. Nerves shot through my body: What if I was trampled in a stampede? What if one ran up and bit me? I crossed the threshold and laid eyes on my potential assailants: Two miniature horses, each no bigger than a calf, who were considering me with expressions of guileless curiosity.
My first task was to get acquainted with the two minis, and to name them. Carina told me they have clients do this because the animals sometimes become symbolic, standing in for difficult family members or coworkers. The blond horse with a braided tail and a heart shaved into its rump I anointed Stephanie. (Moments later, it became clear that Stephanie was actually a Stephen.) I called the chocolate-brown one Cookie.
I was then tasked with bridling my tiny teachers—with no guidance. Many creative angles and false starts later, I set out to lead Cookie and Stephen around the arena. The only problem was that Cookie would halt for no apparent reason. (Perhaps he sensed that if I couldn’t trust myself, why, then, should he?) Sonja asked what feelings this brought up. Inadequacy, I said—that I’m incapable of completing simple tasks like getting absurdly small horses to follow me. As silly as it sounds, something about being in the echoey arena, stripped of my typical defenses, allowed those emotions to flow freely and for me to feel them fully. I couldn’t hide and pretend to respond to an urgent e-mail on my phone. I had a job to do.
If that was a struggle, the next task proved Herculean: A sizable swath of the arena was now an imaginary lava river I had to ford with my team of horses. Our raft? Pool noodles, a tarp, a few blue barrels. Cookie and Stephen, at this point, regarded me with vexed insouciance. My strategy was to scoot across the tarp, which fascinated the horses so much that they, too, stepped atop. Yet even mini horses are quite heavy. And so we were stranded in the middle of the imaginary lava until two volunteers came to the rescue and we strung the noodles into a bridge and (humanely) dragged Cookie and Stephen across. In my vulnerable state, I felt relieved for their insight, and I left with that delicious exhaustion we recall from childhood, a fatigue not from work, but from play.
We debriefed after my session—just the right amount of distillation and discussion—but soon we were done. How, I wondered, could any of this improve my life in New York? I was still asking myself that as I drove away from the ranch with the Mustang’s roof down. It started to rain, but I didn’t put the top up right away. As the water soaked my hair, I thought about the dross of life—the bills, my writing, the instability. If there’s a takeaway to any of this, isn’t it that we’re all just bridling our own horses without instruction, fumbling in the dark, hoping our steeds don’t run for the hills?
But the thing is this: For the most part, they don’t. They stand their ground. And I’m trying to do the same. On particularly restless nights, I imagine Tracker, that steady old thoroughbred, quietly turning away from the hurricane, trusting that the storm will pass.