Montana is big country.
Big mountains, big landscapes, big animals, big ranches, big distances between neighbors, and, certainly, big sky. This a place—like many lands of the West—that breeds people tough.
The iconic embodiment of this toughness is found in the oft-perpetuated but largely mistaken cowboy stereotype, where strength equates to stoicism and looks like minding your own business, holding in the hurt, and pulling your hat low over your eyes when tears threaten to form.
However, at the Bonanza Creek Ranch—a 25,000-acre working cattle and guest ranch located in stunning South Central Montana—strength looks a little different.
Here, for three days in July, 10 women have gathered to attend the annual Cowgirl Retreat facilitated by Melisa Pearce of Touched By A Horse, founder of a unique therapeutic approach called the Equine Gestalt Coaching Method. In her program, Pearce—a lifelong horsewoman and veteran psychotherapist—taps into the innate spiritual and healing abilities of horses to help people achieve awareness, process and overcome pain, and move forward in their lives with greater peace and clarity.
“I feel that most of the world has pain,” explains Pearce, “and my goal is to have horses—with that essential gift they have inside them—help people finish up the unfinished business in their lives and move toward serenity and joy.”
Serenity and joy are qualities the retreat’s participants are searching for. Some have suffered incredible loss, others are facing overwhelming challenges, and many are plagued by stress, anxiety, and fatigue. Though the women come from all over the country and from all walks of life—spanning career fields, ages, and horse experience—they all share a singular goal to enhance their lives through this experience of working with horses.
The Whole Story
The retreat’s mornings are spent in the lee of the barn, flanked by a horse pasture on one side and an all-encompassing view of the mountains on the other. Gathered in a circle—sitting or standing as the situation dictates—this is a time for guided coaching. Led by Pearce with incredible kindness and empathy, the women unpack and work through the unfinished pain in their lives. They share stories of addiction, abuse, trauma, and loss. There are gut-wrenching accounts that make your stomach clench and your heart hurt. Tears fall freely into the dust.
In this place, however, surrounded by horses, nature, the solidarity of a group of women, and Pearce’s skilled guidance, it is safe to cry, hurt, and heal.
Lori Brockway is here to work through the pain of losing her 37-year-old son, Travis, to alcohol abuse. As she looks into the compassionate faces of the women surrounding her, holding their hands for added strength and support, Brockway shares the arc of her son’s life with the group. He was a toddler with a zest for a life, an athletic and thoughtful teenager, an animal lover and outdoorsman, a veteran, a lawyer. Loved and successful, Travis’s narrative is not typically one associated with alcohol addiction—a point Brockway is adamant to make. If this could happen to Travis, it could happen to anyone.
She says, “He was a strong, intelligent man who could conquer anything in the world except alcohol. He couldn’t conquer that. It blew us all out of the water. Alcohol killed him. It was such a shock that such a capable man could be consumed by this. Alcohol pulled the rug out from even him. It broke him.”
Brockway isn’t the only retreat participant who’s lost a child. Pearce herself lost her daughter several years ago and explains that it’s not unusual for grieving mothers to find their way to her “through the magic of the universe.”
As she shares the story of her son’s life—taking special time to remember humorous anecdotes—light and joy creep back into Brockway’s eyes. This process of telling a lost one’s comprehensive life story is important for healing, explains Pearce.
“It’s important for these women to tell their child’s story in a way they hadn’t told it before. They’ve told brief and painful snippets to police and newspapers and lawyers, but they often haven’t had the chance to back up and talk about their children as, well, children. It’s so helpful for them to tell their child’s story fully, in its entirety, instead of just dwelling on the mistakes and the pain. That’s not what defines their child.”
Another crucial component of the morning’s work takes place in the horse pen with Ruby, a soft-eyed sorrel mare. This is where the magic happens. To understand the power of Pearce’s Equine Gestalt Coaching Method, it helps to break down the terminology. An explanatory video on Pearce’s website clarifies the terms and process:
Equine: Horses have been partnering with us for thousands of years. Recently, horses have come to be seen as teachers instead of tools. Because of their size, gentle nature, and ability to connect, we have come to realize they can teach us how to communicate better, create safe and respectful boundaries, and be better leaders.”
Gestalt: “Gestalt” is a German word that loosely means “wholeness.” In psychology, Gestalt Theory refers to the “unified whole”; how our personal history, family values, and social values shape our focus and the meaning we give each moment, event, and experience. Our physical bodies hold a lot of this information, and if we simply stop, get out of our heads, and pay attention, we can become aware of a great deal. This connection with the body is called somatic awareness. A gestaltist can assist the person in an exploration of this new awareness and through direct experience shed light on their way of being. Since this is done in the moment, experientially, the knowledge gained is not just mentally understood but fully integrated into the person and in doing so, creates wholeness.
Coaching: The coaches job is to assist an individual through a co-active process to gain clarity on a situation, take immediate action, and also to clean out mental barriers that might be holding you back.
How does this all work together? The coach partners with a horse and uses gestalt techniques to get an individual connected with the moment. When that happens, our horse teacher fully engages in the process. As the person connects fully with the animal, they can experience a shift in their awareness. Horses don’t judge us or get frustrated with us or look on us with anger. They truly see us. Their mere presence can heal us, make whole that which was fragmented, and restore that which was lost. Horses can offer us what we need most: healing, insight, and a true connection with spirit. Through experiential interaction, the horse assists in clearing the energy that has been holding the person back.
In the pen with Ruby, Brockway is guided by Pearce through a series of questions, exercises, and meditations. Ruby takes her job seriously. As with many horses, she is remarkably sensitive and responds to Brockway’s emotional energy.
Sometimes, Ruby stands heart to heart with Brockway; other times she rests her head over Brockway's shoulder; often, she simply locks eyes with and sighs deeply. Her actions provide informative feedback, and Pearce’s studied interpretations help Brockway and the other participants understand the meaning behind Ruby’s movements. Ultimately, Ruby lets Brockway unload her pain onto her strong back then walks away with it, shedding and diffusing any regret, guilt, and anxiety into the vast Montana landscape.
“Ruby just opened up my heart,” says Brockway. “Before, it felt like there was barbed wire binding all around it. I didn’t want to let anyone in. But with Ruby, I could feel that wire pop open. Just being there, being strong, being present, sharing her primitive but sophisticated wisdom. She cleared a lot for me. By the end of our session, I was standing straighter and feeling so much better. It can just be about standing still, taking it in, and developing a deep connection.”
The morning sessions are followed by a delicious home-cooked lunch (equally delicious breakfasts, dinners, and copious desserts are also provided), where the conversation moves fluidly from horses to ranching to poetry to goals for the future.
The afternoon option to ride offers another brand of therapy that horsewomen the world over understand: saddle therapy. Rides range from peaceful walking-only rides to more adventurous rides that log hours in the saddle and involve long lopes through high alpine meadows.
There is a unique and powerful healing that happens on the back of the horse, and it’s made even more poignant in this setting, where a cool wind blows off the peaks, the scent of pine and summer grass is a natural perfume, and the ancient Montana mountains stretch into the horizon.
By the end of the retreat, there is a marked difference in the women. Seventy-two hours of stunning vistas, good horses, and female camaraderie have made an indelible mark. Backs have straightened, fists have unclenched, smiles and laughter come easier, and eyes sparkle.
Brockway radiates with a new sense of peace. She says, “This has been an opportunity to continue my life. Coming here was like making the choice between going through life numb or going through life feeling joy. I went from not hardly being able to talk on the first day, and now I’m so full of joy. I felt afraid and exhausted coming here. And now I feel so good, so light.”
Cowgirl strong means something a little different here, where emotion is raw and hearts are open. Sometimes—even where the land is wild and the people are tough—strength looks like a circle of brave women, a soft-eyed sorrel mare, and tears in the dust.