Even cowboys get the blues. Some bluer than others. Take Wyatt Webb, whose life 30 years ago was straight out of one of the country songs he was singing on the road -- complete with heartbreak, hopelessness and a bottle as his best friend. He was at the end of a very fragile rope, bottoming out on drugs and booze, when he found salvation in a most appropriate friend: a horse. He quit an unsatisfying job as a touring musician, put down drugs and alcohol (and hasn't picked up since), got honest in his relationships and, most importantly, started getting real with himself. Of course, it wasn't all so easy as that. In his book, It's Not About the Horse, he writes: "I always thought courage had to do with being fearless. But when I heard that you could be afraid and still be courageous, a light went on in my head." He let the horses help him fight inner demons that had always petrified him. Though psychotherapy may not be traditionally associated with Clint Eastwood iconography, the equine equivalent earns a Western seal of approval.
"I was willing to have my life changed," he says under the bright Arizona sun near a stable of horses used for group therapies. One of the fathers in the field, he now runs the Equine Experience program at Miraval Resort in Tucson (a heavenly sanctuary of healing, relaxation, and desert landscapes in full glory, for the record), where people not in the trenches of a rehab can still have access to a transformative process generally associated with Sandra Bullock's dramatic hoof lift in 28 Days -- if associated with anything at all. It's not exactly all the rage quite yet. Facilitators like Webb certainly aren't as prevalent as the countless counselors providing traditional forms of talk therapy in our country, which makes sense considering the availability of office space versus stables and corrals. The fact that one session with a horse can be far more efficient, powerful and effective than countless hours talking on a couch isn't widely understood yet. Clients' willingness to try something totally new might just be keeping practitioners like Webb a bit on the fringes.
For their money and vulnerability, people want a sure thing and tend to stay the course, avoid the unknown. Webb challenges that easy excuse. "What if it isn't fear from the unknown," he asked, "but a fear that what I know won't keep me safe, won't be enough to sustain me?" If that's the case, if old coping mechanisms and what you learned about getting your needs met stop working, it might mean actually having to change -- not just actions and reactions, but deep, old patterns. Webb did, trading his ballads for the ranches he's always loved, then helping the rest of us face our fear and self-doubt, too.
And how does an animal help get you there? The idea is that horses -- much like a pet dog or cat who can sense your mood -- pick up on energy, a word I beg you not to immediately associate with crystals and auras. Think of it instead as what's going on inside you rather than what you're presenting to the world. Do the insides and outsides match up? Are you even sure you know what's really what? Animals seem to, and horses are big enough to communicate their reactions and perceptions with little room for doubt. There's no manhandling or manipulating a thousand-pound animal's behavior, after all. Saying you're secure is one thing, transmitting that energetically is quite another -- and believe me, a horse can sense an insecure handler. Or an angry one. Or fearful. Or confident, safe and welcoming. Horses pick up on intentions rather than words, and since intellectualizing 'til you're blue in the face doesn't mean it'll change the real deep down truth, getting instant equine feedback means there's no B.S.ing or subjective analysis involved. A horse ain't got no reason to lie.
Horses, then, translate the truth and mirror it back to you so you can get a clear idea of what you're really bringing to the table in human interactions -- from board meetings to love affairs and everything in between. And when I say "you," I'm sheepishly including "me." I had the opportunity to do equine therapy nearly a decade ago when my relationship patterns (and problems) were dramatically different than the ones that pop up for me today. The first time around, I faced the hoof-lift assignment with the same insecure aggression I brought to all of my interactions. The horse locked his knee and had none of my nonsense until I mellowed out and established trust. This time, many years later at Miraval, I had no trouble confidently lifting the horse's foot for a cleaning ... but as Webb pointed out, I turned my body and took a distinct step away the second I'd established a bond. You'd better believe I looked over my shoulder expecting Webb to be making hand signals or blowing a silent whistle. No signals, no whistle, just Webb as a skilled translator helping me see what I already knew on some level but hadn't really been conscious or aware enough to work on yet.
"Would you rather have a beautiful, empty box all tied up with a bow or a box full of good stuff?" he asks. Don't you want to know that what's going on inside is the real deal and not just what you think you're "supposed to" be thinking or doing or being? What about, instead, approaching life with a sense of responsibility? Wyatt Webb believes in our ability to do so -- to become our own parents, in a way, loving and supportive, if we're willing to adopt a little honest horse sense.
Wyatt Webb leads various levels of the Equine Experience program at Miraval Resort in Tucson, Arizona. For current specials and promotions, contact Miraval. His books -- It's Not About the Horse, It's About Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt and What to Do When You Don't Know What to Do: Common Horse Sense are available on Amazon.