Ten women. A comfortable ranch setting in Arizona. Lots of horses. It was the perfect formula for a memorable weekend retreat. What made it unusual was that the attendees all hoped to resolve personal issues and find healing through horses with the help of ranch owner Melisa Pearce.
A therapist who pioneered equine-facilitated psychotherapy more than 30 years ago, Pearce is the founder of the Equine Gestalt Coaching Method (EGCM) and Touched by a Horse retreats and seminars. She is a frequent speaker at Equine Affaire and other conventions.
“That was a powerful weekend,” Pearce recalls. “One woman had been raped twice, five years apart. Another thought her husband of 17 years had left her, only to discover he had been murdered and buried in a neighbor’s backyard.”
“A 72-year-old woman was the last in the group to interact,” Pearce says. “She told us she had given up her career as a doctor mid-life to become a therapist. That’s not something you hear every day, so I asked her to tell us about it. The story that unfolded was incredible. As a young, inexperienced physician she joined the Peace Corps and was sent to a drought-stricken region of South Africa where people were starving to death. After two years of feeling helpless in the face of famine, she returned to the U.S. A few years later she went back to Africa and found that the rains had come and life was good for the village where she was assigned. Then measles struck, wiping out 14,000 villagers. That was the end of medicine and Africa for her.”
As Pat (not her real name for anonymity) talked, one of Pearce’s horses, Tori, had been watching from the round pen. When Pat went to stand in the ring’s center, Tori walked in a wide circle around her with her nose close to the ground, making nibbling motions with her mouth. Then she went to Pat, pressed her nose against her heart, and dropped her nose to the ground as if she were eating dirt.
“I had never seen Tori do this before, so I was puzzled,” says Pearce. “Then she grabbed a mouthful of dirt and let it fall from her mouth. Pat burst into tears and began telling us how mothers in Africa fed their starving infants dirt to keep them from crying. Tori was pantomiming this. Then Tori dragged her front hoof through the sand, digging a trench. Pat described how mothers dug graves with their hands to bury their children. She added that Tori’s initial circling of her was like the village medicine man drawing a circle in the dirt around a doctor and patient.”
“At this point we were all crying,” says Dawn Calahan, a certified EGCM clinician who was in training at the time. “It was one of the most powerful, eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had in working with horses. Pat came to the retreat to deal with grief over the death of a patient, but Tori pantomimed something much deeper that needed healing so she could move on. That’s the beauty of this work, that horses pick up on what’s needed in areas we clinicians sometimes miss.”
Pearce, who has devoted a lifetime to healing clients with the help of equine “coaches” has hundreds of stories to tell. So do the EGCM clinicians she’s trained. Their experiences, some of which are chronicled in Touched by a Horse: Equine Coaching Stories, are touching, sometimes funny, and always thought-provoking.
For instance, there’s Heather, who agreed to be a “subject” for other students during her first week of training and discovered something vital about herself: she needed to end her current relationship and follow her own path. She became an expert in working with abused or neglected children. There’s Terri, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a riding accident and slowly recovered with the help of her horses. She’s now an equine gestalt coach specializing in clients with brain injuries.
“Our students come to EGCM with varied life histories and experiences,” says Pearce. “During training they’re encouraged to find a niche for their practice focus. The goal is not to replicate me personally, but to express themselves and draw clients from their own sphere of influence. One EGCM practitioner specializes in the complex relationships of mother and daughters. Another focuses on veterans. Others work with people who have experienced sexual assault and other forms of trauma.
“The EGC Method has proven to be much more effective than regular talk therapy models,” she adds. “In its experiential form it includes the horse as a second coach. Horses can see into places deep within us, making whole that which is fragmented, restoring that which was lost. They offer healing, insight and a true connection with clients.”
To learn more about Touched by a Horse’s Equine Gestalt Coaching Method and Melisa Pearce’s books, seminars, retreats and upcoming appearances, go to touchedbyahorse.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.