Story by Lisa Berretta and photos by Terry Georgia
This past August, I attended the Unbridled Retreat at the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Loveland, CO, located an hour’s drive from Denver in the foothills of the Front Range. I didn’t know what to expect except that I love both horses and Colorado, and was very interested in discovering more about the “healing power of horses.” The experience was something way more than what I’d anticipated and one that I will continue to cherish.
Devon Combs, a skilled horsewoman and leader of the Unbridled Retreat, started her company, Beyond the Arena, based on her personal healing through equine therapy, and her calling is to share this healing process with other women. She is a trained Gestalt Equine Coach, partners with horses as her co-facilitators, and describes Equine Gestalt Coaching in its simplest form as “healing and awakening through horses.”
Devon has a kind and compassionate spirit and in her gentle way leads women to expose their vulnerability, uncover any pain that may lay beneath, and move forward with a strength they didn’t realize was already there. The Unbridled Retreat’s intention, explains Devon, “is for women to create a renewed focus and plan for what’s next in their lives.”
Including myself, 11 women from around the country joined Devon and her awesome assistant Heather Kirby, for this four-day retreat.
On the first day, after meeting at the lodge, we walked over to the stables and headed out on our first trail ride. Each of the horses at Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch is lovingly cared for and named. As part of the advance registration for the retreat, we were asked to advise the organizers about how much experience we had with horses, and any other information that would be helpful in making certain that the right horse was selected for each participant.
I revealed that I’d been on a horse just twice in my life, and that was fine, because all levels of horsemanship are accepted. Kicking off the program, we were taught some basic safety measures and then went to meet our horses. The first horse I was paired with was named Pistol. With a name like that, I wondered if he’d be too much for this newbie rider. But other than bending down frequently wanting to eat some grass, he was quite mellow. Before the ride, Devon reminded us to breathe normally while on the horses. She pointed out that they will feel any sense of uncertainty or fear. She told us they know when the rider is not “present.” One perfect example: my mind drifted to something outside the retreat, and Pistol started moving away from the trail. I immediately got my mind on track and steered him in. While I was a bit uneasy, I quickly settled in, bonded with Pistol and was able to relax and enjoy the spectacular scenery. I was also looking forward to getting to know what seemed to be a wonderfully- supportive group of women.
The first evening, Susan Jessup, owner of Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, joined us at dinner and then stayed to tell us her story.
The ranch was bought by her parents and had been a long-time dream of theirs. While they didn’t have the money, they figured out a way to make it happen. The message from Susan was “Don’t worry about what you don’t have.” My impression was that she has a heart as big as the ranch itself. In fact, her heart IS the ranch! This is her home, and she makes it her job to ensure everything is perfect for her guests. She even hand picks every one of her outstanding staff including Karen Burbank, Dude Ranch and Lesson Programs Coordinator, who was phenomenal in the organization of this event.
The Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch has been family-owned and operated by the Jessup family since 1946. Spread out over 3,100 acres in the Rocky Mountain Foothills, and available to host all types of events, celebrations and dude ranch vacations, the property offers a variety of lovely cabins and guest houses spread out around the property. There are no TVs in the cabins, but who needs TV when you can listen to the sounds of the Big Thompson River? Complimentary Wi-Fi is available on the main ranch grounds and in the cabins. The delicious home-cooked meals are all served in the main lodge.
The second day, we met up with the newly assigned horses. I was paired with Hollywood, a sweet older fellow who was a little smaller than the other quarter horses. He was gentle, steady and walked a bit slowly which was perfect for me. Devon told us to spend some time getting to knowthe horses. I let Hollywood smell my hand, then loved petting him and seeing my reflection in his soulful eyes. This was going to work out just fine.
The day’s trail ride turned out to be very steep. Talk about “overcoming fears.” While I was not comfortable going up and down such high terrain, I kept thinking that while I’m not experienced, Hollywood does this every day! I did, however, stay in “the present” and took the time to enjoy the scenery and be ever-so-grateful to be having this experience.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the retreat was being in the arena with the horses while they were “at liberty.” Being surrounded by horses and “horse energy“ was magical.
Even during the sessions when we were in a circle, the horses were roaming around us. Several even wanted to be included in the circle. It was amazing. These horses are not trained therapy animals and, in fact, had not been part of this type of group before. They were just being themselves – horses.
I learned a lot about myself through the daily group conversations, and in the journaling session we worked on identifying and manifesting our visions for the next 12 months. This was a challenge for me, but I came away with tangible ideas, and since we worked with a partner, we have a “check-in” scheduled in two weeks’ time. Devon pointed out that this two-week follow up with our retreat partners would provide some accountability, so the notes taken during our journaling sessions wouldn’t simply remain notes.
Throughout the four-day retreat, Devon shared with us the essence of the healing power of horses:
- Horses don’t lie and they don’t judge
- Horses connect you to your authentic self
- Horses teach you to live in the present
- Horses help you get out of your head and connect to your body and intuition
- Horses can feel what people don’t see
- Horses instinctively know where your energy is blocked and they can help clear it
It was incredible to watch the horses gravitate to the people who most needed them.
On the last day, as I sat across from Devon, I got the courage to experience personal coaching. The horse Lucky (the equine coach used for this one-on-one session) was in the ring behind me. He knew I was nervous and stayed very close to me. Devon has a way of bringing out deep-rooted issues and uses her skills and her equine coaches, like Lucky, to release any energy blocks preventing a person from moving forward.
Each time I return to Colorado feels like I’m coming home, but with this experience at Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, I think I came home to myself. I also have a wonderful new group of friends and can now feel I can truly enjoy life “unbridled!”
Find out more info about Beyond the Arena. No horse experience is necessary to attend one of their retreats.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
As a contributor to Travel to Wellness, Lisa Berretta participating in the retreat as a guest of Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch and Unbridled Retreat.