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.