Grieving the loss of my relationship

I currently have my laptop on my right and The Right to Write by Julia Cameron, on my left. I also have my phone playing Tim Wheater’s flute music which the book suggests. I know two things for sure in this moment: number one, I feel called to write and number two, I’m stuck on what to write about. There are a few significant topics in my life right now and I’m scared to write about them. The biggest topic that keeps coming up and brings tears to my eyes in this moment, is my recent breakup.

It jolts me when I think too long and hard about it. The loss of a wonderful man in my life. The loss of our dreams together. The pain and ache in my heart that hits when I think about the memories we shared. The gut-wrenching feeling before I open my eyes in the morning, knowing he’s not there.

The grief is raw and the tears come in waves.

For the first time in my life, when someone says. “How are you doing?”, I don’t answer “Fine” or “Good.”  Instead, tears start to leak before words come out. My body won’t let me hide the truth.

I can’t deny how I feel and my vulnerability defenses are down.

My mantra fluctuates multiple times a day between “You’re going be ok” to “God, please help me.” I have wailed into Blue’s mane. I have screamed in my car. I have beaten and sobbed into pillows.

It feels messy and cleansing at the same time…allowing my heart to ache and express itself. I’m not shoving down the feelings I don’t want to face like I have in the past.

What I am learning is to let grief move through me. To not resist it or put an expiration date on sadness.

I’m not in the place of “getting over it”, nor is it time to move on. It is time to honor and mourn the heart-opening love I experienced. Grief is teaching me to listen to my heart and what it needs. I know “Strong Devon” and in recent years I’ve gotten to know “Soft Devon” but “Openly Sad and Hurting Devon” is a new one for me. Allowing my sadness to be heard, seen, and acknowledged is what my heart needs to heal.

By writing about it, I no longer feel stuck. I feel open and connected.

light through

“Grief is a matter of the heart and soul. Grieve your loss, allow it in, and spend time with it. Suffering is the optional part. Love never dies and spirit knows no loss. Keep in mind that a broken heart is an open heart.” – Lousie Hay

Allowing it in,

Devon

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

My Life with Horses

My legacy is to bring the healing power of horses to others in need.

My mission- to help others experience the support and acceptance found in connecting with horses_Unbrildled Retreats
I was blessed to grow up with horses, although at the time I didn’t realize just how lucky I was. Both of my parents are horse people. Every Sunday we would go to the pasture across from my grandparents’ home and ride horses around the lake. My pony was named Chindy.

At the time I didn’t appreciate the gift of horses because I wasn’t given a choice to ride, it was my parents decision. My eight-year-old self wanted to do other things like play soccer and hang out with my friends. However, that all changed in fourth grade when Brynie and Dina, the cool girls, started to take riding lessons at a fancy barn called High Prairie Farms in Parker, Colorado. I was invited to take riding lessons with them, and I became hooked. I loved going to the barn for lessons every Friday after school. I loved the ritual of riding and the riding uniform—paddock boots, leather chaps and helmet.

I began taking riding lessons once a week and my obsession with horses started to develop. By the time I was 11 years old I identified completely with the riding culture. 

When I wasn’t taking riding lessons at High Prairie Farms, I was riding Chindy at my grandparent’s house and spending a lot of time on the necessary chores of mucking, grooming, and feeding. I didn’t mind the work at all; I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my four-legged friends. Brynie and Dina quit riding, but I kept going. The horse force inside me was strong and there was no turning back. “Horse Girl” became my identity, and the barn was a safe haven where I could truly be myself.

My Life With Horses_Unbridled Retreas

At age 14, I started working with a new trainer, Jim, who helped me get accepted into Pony Club. I began competing in three-day eventing which was a blast. Some of my favorite memories were at Pony Club rallies and cross country jumping with one of my closest friends, Brooke. My big, beautiful, chestnut gelding Rooney was my constant companion from the age of 12 to 17. We won one horse trial. Rooney didn’t always like to jump (resulting in a broken nose for me during one attempt). My love for horses  and my horse-life identity was growing every year.

My Life With Horses_Unbridled Retreats-The Early Years

I continued riding up until the end of high school, when I made the choice to go to the University of California in Santa Barbara. I envisioned living by the beach and marrying a surfer guy. I had decided it was time to move forward and explore a life beyond horses. I sold my horse and went to college. At the time I was a perfectionist with control issues and the consequences of these characteristics were starting to show. Being so far away from home without my horse, my friends, or my family led to a deep depression.

The dorm rooms were not a safe haven as the barn had been. I began numbing my feelings through bulimia which quickly became a daily routine. This helped me feel more in control, numbing my discomfort but it also kept me from a social life and affected my studies. After six months in California, I dropped out of college and returned to Colorado. I attended Colorado State University briefly, but at that point, my obsession with food and numbing my emotions ran my life. I thought joining the polo team at CSU would be helpful because I’d be around horses, but it wasn’t the same.

Riding horses wasn’t the answer—I was out-of-control and facing addiction. I tried to escape. I dropped out of college and went to New Zealand thinking if I went halfway around the world, I could run-away from my eating disorder. 

Waitressing in Queenstown in the South Island, the bulimia continued. I moved again, to the North Island, thinking if I worked on a horse farm in small town Raglan maybe being around horses could fix me. I got a job as the head groom of a hare hunting stable and I was riding four or five horses every day. It was beautiful country, the riding was great, but again, my soul craved more than riding horses. I felt lost and confused and I knew I needed to heal from the inside out.

I ended my work visa early and came back to Colorado feeling like a failure, ashamed at my attempts to escape my problems. I was self-sabotaging, which landed me in a hospital, then a mental institution, then Mirasol, a holistic eating disorder treatment center in Arizona.

Mirasol offered equine therapy to help patients. I’d never heard of equine therapy, but I knew that “equine” meant I’d be around horses again. When I showed up at the treatment center in Arizona, it was unlike the sanitary mental institution feel of the hospital. There were no fluorescent lights, only natural sunshine and a beautiful hacienda that had been converted into an inviting treatment center. I immediately felt my soul take a deep breath, and I knew this was where my healing was meant to happen.

I looked forward to the equine therapy sessions and I was excited to be around horses again. I volunteered to be the first to go in a session and I stepped into the round pen with a horse named Jack. There were no bridles, no saddles—this was not about riding, this was something different. Marla, the equine therapist, told me to go to Jack and connect with him. I confidently walked right up to him and he walked away. He turned his butt to me and walked as far away as he could! I stood there feeling ashamed and embarrassed. Even the horse didn’t want to be with me at this point of my addiction and self-destruction. I didn’t blame him.

Marla saw my pain and told me to ground myself in the dirt and take long, deep breaths. As I began to connect and root to the earth, I felt a wave of emotion come from deep within me. For the first time in my 21 years of life, I could not control my emotions. The tears began leaking out of my eyes and I started sobbing. The moment my authentic emotions were released, Jack turned and looked at me and then immediately walked over and placed his gentle muzzle in my heart.

My Life-Changing Encounter with Horses_Unbridled Retreats

I was wailing and sobbing and Jack stood with me through my pain, not moving. He stood with me and offered unwavering strength, support, and unconditional love. I was shocked, experiencing a deep love and connection I had never known. Jack accepted me exactly as I was, and that’s what my soul needed. In that moment, everything changed. My relationship with horses stopped being ego-based, and instead began to emanate from my heart. Jack’s presence and love had shifted my vibration and I felt open, hopeful, and eager to share more of my authentic self with the world, a feeling I’d never had before.

That moment in the round pen opened up my heart and my past and started me on the path to helping others through the healing power of horses. I finished my 60-day treatment at Mirasol and returned home full of hope and purpose. I soon was introduced to a training program that taught coaching with horses and I immediately signed up to attend. It seemed that the universe had placed in my hands the ideal education. I was excited and passionate about learning to help others through horses in a healing way. I became an avid student, always studying (something I had never done in college). I now had a purpose— to connect people with horses for healing, self-discovery, and empowerment. 

My bulimia had subsided and my energy was redirected with intense focus into my newfound passion. I began volunteering at therapeutic riding centers, immersing myself in the equine coaching world. I had found my calling. Horses had been by my side throughout my life, patiently waiting, but it wasn’t until my darkest days that I saw their light and was pulled me out of my dark tunnel of despair.

It became my life’s purpose and living legacy to help others experience the love, support, and acceptance found in connecting with horses—it’s an authentic connection unlike any other relationship. Several years later I founded Beyond the Arena and then Unbridled Retreats. With horses as my partners, we help people access their inner wisdom during coaching sessions and horse retreats to take back into their everyday lives. This happens without judgment, through love and pure honesty. After a lifetime spent with horses, I am still in awe of their gentle patience, and their ability to teach all of us about ourselves.  

My mission- to help others experience the support and acceptance found in connecting with horses_Unbrildled Retreats

Have you been transformed by horses? Share your experience in the comments below.

With love,

Devon

A Reminder to Breathe


None of us are raised to think about our breathing. We assume breathing just comes naturally. Some cultures, and religions, and scientific studies, however, show us the significant benefits of bringing awareness to your breath.

When we take short breaths, we tend to be disconnected from our physical sensations and stuck in our head—overthinking, uptight, and stressed. This physical and mental tightness wreaks havoc on our bodies and our lives, making us sick, unhappy, and anxious.

Getting out of your head and into your body allows you to become more present. Unbridled Equine Coaching shows us how to be present in our breath through horses. Horses live completely in the present. They’re not depressed about what happened in the past or anxious about what could happen in the next five minutes. They are fully present in all of the sensations and solidity of now. When we emulate them and become present through focus on our breathing, we bring our awareness to the moment. We let go of worries and anxiety. We become present.

Being present is particularly important when you’re working with a 1,200-pound animal. When my clients are connecting one-on-one with horses, I remind them to breathe into their emotions.

When we deny our emotions, we create physical symptoms in our body. Emotions are energy and that energy has to go somewhere. If we suppress our emotions, that withheld emotional energy will manifest and can disrupt our well-being throughout our lives.

I learned this through firsthand experience. In the past when I would have a feeling of anger, upset or unhappiness, grief, or sadness, (any emotion that wasn’t happy or upbeat), I would suppress and deny these “negative” emotions. I did not breathe into them. I didn’t acknowledge them. I didn’t give them air. I didn’t release them. I didn’t know how. All of those emotions were trapped and manifested in my body as an eating disorder which allowed me to maintain the illusion of control. I was able to hide my emotions in a very unhealthy way for a period of years. My suppressed emotions did explode later on, and my mental health was deeply affected.

When I learned to breathe allowing new energy in with each inhale, and pushing old energy out with each exhale, my body started to release and soften, and I was finally able to process my emotions and let them go. This is the action and the outcome I share with my clients to anchor them in the moment. When you breathe into and out of your sadness, your sorrow, your fear, your disappointment, your joy, or your happiness, new energy cycles through your body and old energy is released.

Breathing is especially important when you’re with a horse. As a prey animal, a horse can immediately sense if you’re not breathing normally. If you’re feeling fear, you get tense, and your body tightens; the horse feels your energy. When you get tense and tighten up, the horse mirrors your energy and gets tight and tense—the horse is directly responding to your energy field.

One of my favorite sayings to clients is “breathe and smile!” The moment I speak those words, their bodies start to relax, a smile crosses their face, and they lighten up. When that change occurs, the horses visibly relax. It’s a chain reaction, a cause and effect. When you’re breathing and you’re in the moment, you are calm, inviting, and open to people and the horses you interact with. 

Where in your life can you practice taking deeper breaths?

I’d love to hear….share in the comments below!

Breathe with me. Inhale 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, exhale, 1, 2 ,3 ,4, 5, and relish this present moment of your life.

Devon 

Sisterhood Spotlight with Unbridled Alum, Shurla

Shurla has attended two Unbridled Retreats. She is a recent graduate of a health coaching program, proud mom of a 13-year old son, and CEO of her household.

 

How did you discover Unbridled, and when was your first retreat?
My first retreat was the beginning of my journey. It was Spring of 2018. I was taking a nutrition course, and one of my classmates told me about this horse program. I was going through a divorce and really felt like I needed to get away, so I did some research to see if I could find out more about it. The first retreat I found online was Unbridled in Arizona, and the dates and everything just came together.

The divorce was hard, and I was feeling pulled in so many ways. Everything felt like it was on me, so many emotions and changes to manage. I just really needed a break from all of it. But it took a lot of courage to take the step to go.

I had no idea what to expect once I got to the retreat. I remember the opening circle. I’ll never forget it. I thought to myself, “What’s the worst that could happen? I’m meeting people who live in the US. I live in Canada. I will probably never see them again!” But it was such an open and freeing space, and with Devon’s energy and presence, I remember sitting in the circle, and we introduced ourselves, and we shared a little bit of our story. I felt so comfortable in that moment that I felt free. The tears just came, and I felt like I could release and be open. And it was such a beautiful experience. I never really experienced that before.

Prior to Unbridled, I always traveled with my former husband, or friends or family. For me to go on my own was a huge leap.

I had always been afraid of horses but being in the desert and with all the other women and being in the presence of the horses and learning about their nature…they are so powerful yet so peaceful and so gentle. Devon shared a lot about the horses being prey animals and how they always must be present in the now. That really struck me because I am always busy doing so many things at once. Watching the horses, listening to Devon, things just started to click for me.

Now when I’m unsure of something, I always go back to my time with the horses, and the gentleness and grace they had, just being present.

You mention the courage it took to go to your first retreat. What was your process for moving through that fear?
I needed a break from everything so badly, I thought I would burst if I didn’t take some steps. When all the logistics worked out for the retreat, I just thought why not? I was crawling out of my skin. When something big breaks, it’s like the uprising of everything. You’re getting a divorce. He’s moved out. Your son is crying every night. This is happening. This is real. I had so many questions, and I needed a change of environment to clear my head and make sense of it all.

In some ways my first retreat was more for my son, finding courage to be a better person and figure out how to get through this divorce as my son and I move forward together. I knew I would come back a stronger person.

Looking back this was the beginning of my journey. When I decided to say yes to the Unbridled retreat, it was the beginning of saying yes to myself, to my growth, to a more authentic version of myself, and to stepping into who I really am.

Once you took that leap and went to your first retreat, did you start to find that it got easier to care for yourself?
There were so many things that happened in Arizona that I have taken with me. I felt like I was safe to be myself. The Unbridled Retreat was so powerful. I wore cowboy boots and went all out. I believed I could move forward with everything I learned when I left, but it takes time. When you come back home, you’re back into your life with everything else and if you don’t have boundaries in place, it becomes easy to get back into the old ways.

One thing that really changed is how I parent my son. The horses taught me the power of being present, and I realized that when I talked to my son, I needed to be fully present. I consciously started putting my phone down or turning it over. I would sit and engage with my son and listen to him and be present.

Being surrounded with the other women and sharing each other’s progress and how we changed and grew was powerful. I was able to release a lot. I came to understand way deep down I would be okay, even though there was still a lot of work I needed to do.

Was going to a second retreat a way to keep your Unbridled spirit alive?
Yes. I went to my second retreat in Montana and felt much more comfortable being on a horse. I felt comfortable and powerful. It was so freeing. Someone said to me, “You look so happy!” And I was genuinely happy because I felt free.

The retreat and the horses helped with that sense of presence. I am better at boundary setting. I’m a better person, a better parent, a better sister, better friend. Being present, authentic, and true to myself are the biggest lessons I learned.

Whenever I second guess myself, I always go back to the horses.

The horses don’t second guess themselves.
Exactly.

Has your son noticed the difference in you and your relationship?
Yes. We’ll sit on the porch and just chat now. Our relationship has become better because he shares more. He’s open. We both practice being present together. To have that bond is very important to me because it’s a very different bond than I had with my parents.

What does being Unbridled mean to you?
It means being free, stepping into the truth of yourself and your being, and who you are wherever you are, in that moment in your life. Trusting the process. But deeper than that, trusting yourself to become the best version of yourself. Being Unbridled is like a flash of light and an opening of all the best parts of yourself. Stepping into that light and not apologizing for anything. Being the best version you can be as you go out into the world and project yourself, spread your goodness, your light, and your beauty. Freeing and breaking free. To live in that space is powerful. And Devon taught me how to do that with her program.

What would you share with someone who is thinking about going on an Unbridled Retreat but needs a courage boost?
Feel the fear, don’t push it away. Be brave and step into it anyway because what’s the worst that could happen? We often look at the outcome before we’ve had the experience. So go to the experience and be fully present and available. Be there for yourself and don’t compare yourself, it’s your individual journey. Others are on their own path. So, stay in your lane and receive the lessons you need to receive to continue your journey. Be open. Great things can happen.

What’s the biggest gift the horses have given you?
Not being afraid of new things. Just saying yes, saying yes to myself.

Anything else you’d like to share?
My first retreat was 5 years ago, but it still feels like yesterday. I felt free of the entanglement of my life and could just be me in that moment with my cowboy hat and boots on, and Yeehaw! That’s how I felt. I was just being me at my most relaxed and happy. I found out I was a pretty cool person. I like to have fun and do interesting things.

The divorce was not fun but I’m grateful for it, and it happened for me because I was somehow hiding. And now I have reawakened.

I am learning to trust myself and trying to teach my son to do the same. When he goes into a new venture or new place or new people, I tell him to just trust himself. That’s the greatest lesson.

Sisterhood Spotlight with Unbridled Alum, Martina Will, PhD

Living the Transitions, Cowgirl-Style

by Martina Will, PhD 

“Life is in the transitions.” – William James

In their cowboy boots and hats, they look like cowgirls, but the horseback women at the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Colorado include the CEO of a high-end skincare line, a massage therapist, a former college professor, and an attorney. Until a few days ago, they were strangers, meeting for the first time in a dusty circle amid a herd of horses. Seated in that circle in an outdoor arena, the air was full of anticipation. The horses’ snorts and occasional whinnies punctuated their conversations. Some were nervous to be near horses and others a little uncertain about what they’d committed to do for the next four days. Still, all were poised for whatever was next.

These grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and daughters came together from around the country to experience equine coaching under the leadership of Devon Combs, a horse “listener” and founder of Unbridled Retreats. Devon has been leading retreats across the U.S. since 2011, and with the horses, helps women connect to their visions for the future. In doing so, they must often confront their internal and external barriers. “Your future is not your past,” she says, knowing that for many, the past is the most onerous obstacle. She instructs the women to “Put a stake in the ground and say: ‘This is what I am choosing to consciously believe.’ Take courageous action to make that positive change.”

Unbridled Retreats take place all over, with 2023 dates including locations in Lanai’i, Hawai’i, as well as California, Arizona, and Colorado. This particular retreat takes place in the sun-dappled foothills outside of Loveland, Colorado on a late summer day. The family-owned dude ranch is entirely occupied by the Unbridled guests, who enjoy leisurely meals and private cabins. For some, it is the first trip away from children or spouses. All have gone to great lengths to afford this escape and carve out time away from professional and family responsibilities.

Devon sets the tone on the first day by sharing her own story in the sandy outdoor arena. She experienced first-hand the transformative power of equine therapy as a young woman struggling with depression and bulimia. Though Devon had grown up with horses, she had never interacted with them in the same way as she did during that first experience with equine therapy, when a residential treatment center in Arizona found her in a different arena.

She recalls standing isolated on one side, immersed in her own thoughts and issues. It was only when she released her self-doubt and anguish and let her guard down that the horse approached her from the far side of the arena. She collapsed into an embrace of the horse, allowing herself to just be present. “Horses are intuitive,” she says. “You can’t fake it with them. Horses allowed me to see myself in a new way.”

There is tremendous power in Devon’s vulnerability. It lays the groundwork for the women’s openness, and the incipient sisterhood that forms over the next four days. Several women take turns in the group setting to dive deeply into raw emotions. Many are in transition and seek to clarify their next steps. Devon encourages them to “reclaim your desires, centered in an awareness of your power.”

Her words are not theoretical. Devon left her real estate career after determining that her calling wasn’t showing people their future homes but showing them their futures’ possibilities. She disregarded those who suggested she keep her real estate license “in case this horse thing doesn’t work out,” and established Unbridled Retreats after becoming certified in equine coaching. When she tells the women in her quietly authoritative, unwavering voice “Trust your vision. It’s coming to life for a reason,” she knows of what she speaks.

“This is not therapy,” Devon emphasizes. “Connecting with horses can be less intimidating than traditional therapy,” and her work centers on coaching and creating a vision and path for the future midwifed by the horses’ quieting presence. In the following days the women share five decades of life experience. They reveal their personal and professional challenges and their most troubling concerns: a family member’s addiction, an emotionally abusive marriage, and the deaths of siblings and parents. Their stories are at once unique and universal, the products of lives lived fully in relationship to others, with all the attendant messiness.

By the end of the retreat, the multigenerational group of women has laughed, cried, and “Yee-ha’d!” many times. The horses’ serene presence has been constant whether in the arena’s equine coaching sessions or on the trail and in the cow pen.

Some of the women have shared their deepest challenges before the group and others have engaged in soul-baring exchanges one-on-one, in quiet conversations over shared walks, meals, or the campfire. They have encouraged and embraced each other during moments of secret grief over past trauma and profound uncertainty about their futures. They have held each other up and borne witness to each other’s experiences.

As they leave the ranch and the horses, the women exchange photos and phone numbers. All of them have articulated to themselves and to each other clear goals and next steps. All of them are prepared to embrace their transitions, and a follow-up virtual reunion ensures that they can continue to support each other after the trail dust on their cowgirl boots has disappeared.