On a frozen January night about 15 years ago, Lynn Moore was sitting in the pasture, as usual, after feeding and watering the four horses that had become her sole companions. Her tanking self-esteem had come to match the thermostat readings – both were well below zero.
The pasture was where she had been lamenting the end of her marriage, alternately wailing out loud or weeping silently as the horses munched, siphoned water, and shuffled about. Past losses came to haunt her there, and sorrows piled upon sorrows as they tend to do when one is down. It was a bleak chapter of her life.
But on this night, a full moon and dense stars were brightening a fresh layer of snow, and Moore could not help but appreciate the beauty.
Something else came into focus: The horses were present, just as they always had been through her period of mourning. Sometimes they would take a step or two away from her, sometimes they would come in closer, sometimes they would press a nose against her cheek or chest, and sometimes they would nudge her. Sometimes their breathing helped her regulate her own. She knew they needed her to survive, but now she was beginning to understand just how much she needed them.
“When I looked up, I wasn’t alone,” she said. “They were right there with me in the moment. They weren’t thinking about where they were going next or what they had just done. They’d never left me. … I thought, wow, this is powerful stuff.”
“There are many roads to recovery,” those in recovery circles (of all kinds) like to say. Moore realized that her 20-acre farm in Chisago City, Minn., offered one road and that she needed to extend its promise to others who were wounded: women in transition; war veterans; people in recovery from addiction; people with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or traumatic brain injury; children caught in high-conflict divorces or living with ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder or developmental delays.
It would be about five more years before Moore’s farm would have a name, a team, and a full menu of licensed and accredited counseling and experiential learning services – including on-the-ground equine therapy, life coaching, and art and music.
First she needed to get some (more) education, overcome some obstacles, dump some baggage and reclaim lost gifts and talents.
Collared in blue
Moore’s modest upbringing on St. Paul’s East Side and her family’s blue-collar lifestyle had taught her that any “extras” needed to be conservatively stashed.
This never curbed her natural inclination to bring home stray people and stray animals whose outsider status called to her. “You’d better get a big house when you grow up,” her mother would say.
Other things stood in the way, however, before she could fully come into her own: Her father’s death from lung cancer when she was just 11 surprised her, shattered her trust and left her with the feeling that she had been foolishly unaware. “How come I couldn’t have figured it out?” Throughout high school and college, she kept her feelings at bay with a string of failed relationships, alcohol, academic and professional achievements and extreme busyness.
From the outside, everything looked buttoned down, including her successful career in banking, “but I was a shell of a person,” she said.
She walked onto the acreage in Chisago City 20 years ago with her soon-to-be ex-husband, unsure of what was leading her there. She ignored the rundown house and headed for the two pastures out back, encircled by white fencing and connected by a gate. “This is it,” she told the Realtor. “No, no, no,” he said. “This isn’t it; you haven’t even looked at the house.”
Back to school
It wasn’t long before Moore found herself alone on the acreage with her small herd, whose members she had rescued from various stages of abandonment and abuse. On that January night, among other things, she had resolved to walk through her personal pain, realizing that sidestepping it had only prolonged her misery.
Eventually she would ditch her banking career and take on even more broken and unwanted horses – throwing off everything she’d been taught in childhood about saving for a rainy day.
Her faith guided her, she said, and so did the horses – “a powerful, strong and steady presence.” Free of “agendas, preconceptions or judgments,” they acted as mirrors to her behaviors and emotions, “providing consistent feedback” and nudging her into “a more authentic way of being.” In her interactions with them, she learned that she could move forward while “still holding space for the next step” and the next – without having to understand why or control the outcome.
Moore entered Hazelden’s Graduate School of Addiction Studies and earned a master’s degree. She then earned certification as an equine specialist and mental-health professional through the national and international Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), a Utah-based organization with more than 4,000 members in 49 countries. The certification requires an advanced degree in the mental-health field, 6,000 hours (three years) of hands-on experience with horses, and continuing education.
In 2001, Moore’s little farm was reborn as Acres for Life, an equine therapy center cofounded with her new husband, Jeff Moore, and its gates were opened to the “strays” that had always found a home with her.
Acres for Life now has a herd of 14 and a team of nine people with various levels of EAGALA certification. One team member, Scott Engel, also brings 20 years’ experience in the U.S. Navy, making Acres for Life the only EAGALA Military Services Provider in the state, and one of the oldest in the country.
The pasture as metaphor
When clients enter the pasture, they’re encouraged to think of it and everything in it as a metaphor for their lives.
All sessions are facilitated by an equine specialist and mental-health professional (who have signed the EAGALA code of ethics) and all work is done on the ground. The no-riding rule is grounded in the belief that once saddled, a horse will respond the way it has been trained rather than the way it is naturally inclined. Trained facilitators observe the movements and interactions of horses and clients, watching for patterns, repetitions and any unique or unusual events. Guided activities are added, including building obstacles (with cones, foam noodles, plastic hoops, barnyard junk) that represent life challenges (fear, anger, acceptance, trauma) and learning to lead a horse through the obstacles without molasses treats or others forms of bribery.
Team members take a “solutions-oriented approach,” asking open-ended questions or making objective observations about what happens in the pasture, and allowing clients to find answers for themselves. For example: “That horse has circled you three times.” “That one has been avoiding you.” “That one makes a beeline for you.” There are no right or wrong interpretations, just opportunities for discovery.
“Our belief is that what happens in the pasture happens outside the pasture,” said Ray Anschel, a member of the team and, as a longtime English instructor at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, a champion of metaphor. “We find as facilitators that the fewer words we use allows the process to move along in directions that it wouldn’t otherwise.”
Team members take particular pride in their services tailored to military veterans, for whom there is no out-of-pocket expense. It’s a group with higher rates of suicide and PTSD and, said Anschel, generally less inclined to “talk about it.” Experiential therapy is an alternative, he said. “We take civilians, train them, deploy them. They engage in combat, they come back as veterans. But we don’t do the last part. We need to bring them back to being civilians. And so this work allows that last part of the journey.”
Research on the efficacy of equine-assisted psychotherapy is scant, but there are a few studies that suggest that it’s beneficial. One small study of 60-some children showed that it appeared to be effective in improving the Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) scores of those diagnosed with adjustment disorder, mood disorders, PTSD, ADHD and disruptive disorders [PDF]. The benefits were greatest for the youngest children and those with a history of intra-family violence.
In any case, the animal-human bond is well established, and Moore and Anschel illustrate this point with their clients’ stories:
- An Iraq War veteran with a family history of silence and secrets and a bucket-load of resentment walked onto the yard, setting off a stampede of kicking, biting horses. Instead of being alarmed, she was delighted by the transparency. But she deduced that this could well be the impact that she was having on others, and she expressed her desire to find more peace and balance in her life. She built a 2-foot high wall of junk (including some manure for good measure) to represent her desire for acceptance, and chose a high-strung thoroughbred mare to walk through the pile with her. It would take many attempts, and, finally, a request for help, before she reached her goal.
- A man who wanted to move forward in his life and “keep his eye on the prize” haltered a horse that he thought he could lead. Instead, they got into a tug of war. Anschel asked him, “Where is the prize?” He turned and pointed forward. “So why are you looking backward?” When he faced forward, the horse followed. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he told Anschel. “It can’t be that simple.”
- A strong, tall, athletic veteran whose job had been to retrieve human remains and who was “angry at God,” immediately engaged one of the miniature horses in a playful game of catch with his balled-up cap. The lead horse, a large paint, stood back but never took his eye off the soldier. As the session was winding up, the soldier debriefed with facilitators then returned to the pasture for one last look. The lead horse approached him, and the soldier put his hand out. The horse took a sniff, then dropped to the ground. The soldier followed, and the horse wrapped his neck around him.
“When horses show us something like that, there’s something underneath there,” said Moore. “It allows people the paper, the canvas, on which to tell their story.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
Acres for Life now conducts about 1,000 individual and group sessions a year for a wide range of clients, from veterans to those in recovery from addiction and business executives who are working on leadership skills.
Moore, happily married now with two children, isn’t looking back. Her working toolkit is stuffed with daily affirmations and other wisdoms that she has earned along the way:
Strive to show up 100 percent in the moment.
Be present for the miracles.
Know that you are not alone.
Don’t try to live up to someone else’s expectations.
Let up a little bit, and the knots will loosen.
Take the next step, and hold space for the next thing to happen.
Trust the process.
“I have been filled and feel that I found where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “I belong. I’m part of something bigger and helpful in the world.”