By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — Some horses have special souls. The massive vegetarians have gentle ways, soft eyes, a wet muzzle that prods you in the shoulder when you’re standing talking or they follow you around, nibbling at your shoelaces. They can be non-threatening partners who mirror our emotions and attitudes, helping us to see ourselves, put our lives in perspective and heal, according to psychotherapist Heather Gaedt. She puts people and horses together in a ring in Anza at Heavenly Horse Haven, then steps back to see what happens. The demonstrations are part of Help A Horse Day, in which the public can learn about horse adoptions and the creatures’ healing gifts.
“Horses, being prey animals, quickly pick up on how we interact with them,” she told me, when I decided to experience this for myself in order to write about Gaedt’s work. I’d received an email about her businesses, Miracle Ranch Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and The Millionaire Psychologist.
It was a powerful afternoon.
We met at Gaedt’s own 5-acre property near Mountain Center. My first impression was that she was a remarkably approachable, warm, friendly, relaxed person, with a lively humor and genuine interest in people, walking around in riding boots, with her hair in a ponytail. I didn’t expect this from a person called The Millionaire Psychologist. Second impression: hey, she adopted the kitten that I had my eyes on at Animal Rescue Friends in Idyllwild. What is the likelihood I would come to interview Gaedt in Mountain Center at her home and find “my kitty Skittles” in her lap!
As Gaedt and her husband, Aaron Smith, a sober coach, talked with me, Skittles and his sibling, Snickers, climbed all over us. One finally fell asleep on a camera bag belonging to my accompanying photographer, Bruce Edward Watts. Watts, being a naturalist, had already assessed the wild tarragon outside, not to mention the California thistle and scarlet bugler. Gaedt and Smith own 5 acres of land, punctuated with pines, stables, a ring, several young dark brown alpaca and a home on the hill. The couple and their daughter have lived there for a year. The business office is in Palm Desert.
“We use alpaca to work with people who are afraid of horses,” Gaedt explained. “They have a cat-like personality.” She said the kittens are also therapeutic. The 9-week-olds had our full attention, skittering around the room, vying for cuddles, then collapsing for naps in the cozy office in the barn, which includes a rug and comfortable chairs.
Gaedt has called her business The Millionaire Psychologist because she provides therapy to people who are well known or wealthy and prefer to have privacy in their homes. She provides them with an in-house 12-step meeting and/or day treatment therapy for those who may need support with addiction, drugs, alcohol, and/or eating disorders.
“We can also set them up with psychiatric and medical services, depending on their medical or psychiatric needs,” she told me. “Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) can be provided along with other therapies to help with trauma, etc.”
She treats children, adults, couples, veterans, families, cancer patients and business people and says “remarkable breakthroughs” can be achieved without ever speaking a word.
So, what is equine assisted psychotherapy, I asked, as I settled into an environment that was so cozy I was ready to nod off in the afternoon heat.
“It’s client-led,” Gaedt said. “It’s hands on, all ground work. We don’t tell the client anything. We usually ask if there’s something the client would like to share. We ask what they’re working on.”
Smith added, “Our clients have often received more benefits in one session than from years of therapy. Dr. Gaedt and I have cried — along with our clients — from the power of what a horse can reveal. Miracles really do happen here — we have seen relationships mend and people get sober, while others have found their life purpose and much more.”
They said Miracle Ranch is certified through Equestrian Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), an international non-profit organization for professionals using horses to address mental health and personal development needs.
Smith and Gaedt have volunteered at Heavenly Horse Haven and Smith trained under Gina Perrin there, a professional in the field, for almost two years. The couple takes part in Help A Horse Day in conjunction with the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Gaedt told me Smith grew up around horses on his family’s ranch and has wanted to own them his whole life.
For my experiment, I decided to head to the ring and try it out, without telling them anything. Gaedt told me I could choose any of the props and do what I liked with the horses — an Arabian with white socks, a thoroughbred/quarter horse and a sweet, inquisitive Shetland pony.
I’ve never owned a horse but I’ve ridden a few times. I have a healthy respect for a horses’s size. My first thought was to let these ones know I was friendly, so I approached them slowly and held out my open hands and talked to them softly. The quarter horse, with a fly shield over his eyes, stood by a hay dispenser and seemed to ignore me, so I engaged the others.
Gaedt doesn’t tell her clients the horses’ names or sexes, so the horses can become whoever we want them to be. I was amused that the pony followed me, rubbing his nose on my shoes and nibbling my shoelaces. The Arabian stood nearby watching. The other seemed to be in its own thoughts, off to the side of the ring.
To my delight, I found hula hoops among some props. They reminded me of the hoop dance I’d seen performed by native Americans in “Ramona” at Ramona Bowl Amphitheatre last year. I began slowly moving three hoops in the air, laying them on the ground, stepping through them, moving my body through them, showing them gently to the horses and repeating this for several minutes. From time to time, I’d put down the hoops and walk slowly over to interact with the horses. The Shetland, after showing initial interest, then gravitated toward the Arabian and followed it passively everywhere, from time to time looking in my direction. (Later, Gaedt and Smith told me they’d never seen any of this horse behavior by any of these three horses before — one off to the side by himself, detached, and the Shetland following the Arabian with his nose practically up the Arabian’s behind. They asked me what I made of it. More on that later.)
Eventually, I picked up two more hoops and flung some in the air and caught them. The horses watched quizzically. Then I laid all the rings down, overlapping them like the Olympic Games symbol. I found a small green weighted ball among the props and put it in the center of them.
I didn’t have a clue whether I’d done this all “properly” or if there was anything useful in it or what any of it meant. I was simply doing my artistic “thing” spontaneously. I figured my time was up, so I stepped out of the ring and chatted with Gaedt and Smith under a tree. Watts went down the hill discreetly to photograph wildflowers.
Gaedt and Smith didn’t tell me anything or interpret anything. They were quiet. They asked me what I thought of the horse behavior and what it meant. As a storyteller, I’ve heard it said that every character in a story (or dream) is part of ourselves, so I started there. I interpret life metaphorically, so when I looked at the metaphors, it was a very creative, spiritual experience. I was delighted to learn that the previous owner of the property was a native American. I wondered if she did the hoop dance.
It would be too personal and would take way too much time to tell you what I made of my session but I can tell you that it was a beautiful and profound experience, which remains with me weeks later. I hope it will remain with me forever.
I use healthy skepticism when I go into journalistic encounters like this. Yet, there are times in your life when you just want to let your guard down and enjoy something on a personal level too. I do like horses, sunny days and Mountain Center, so I was in a good frame of mind. I walked away feeling that this couple really cares about the people they engage. There was a moment when we were all close to tears. The experience was very positive and it confirmed some decisions I’d recently made for my life, one of which was to set off on a journey to find “The Heart of the PCT Towns” along the Pacific Crest Trail, on my own, through three states and across the Canadian border. All I knew was that I felt called to the story, though I would have to do it on less than a shoestring, with a wing and a prayer. Actually more like two wings and constant prayer.
“Do it!” they encouraged me, sharing their own experiences with huge leaps of faith.
And I did. The scenery, kindness, interest and support I met along the way has been life-changing.
So, based on my session of equine therapy, I would say that at the very least it is a very relaxing way to spend an hour or two and if you come away renewed or enlightened, that’s even better. You will meet two wonderful people, two sweet kittens and three endearing horses. Maybe your life will be changed.
To read a volunteer’s experience with Gaedt and Smith and equine therapy, you can read this article in the Anza Valley Outlook. The woman’s comment was, “I felt a strong connection with the horses, it took the human element out of the therapy and made it more honest and real.” Gaedt told me that sometimes, as in this case, the horses can represent parts of a person’s family or themselves. The way the horses interact can be a reflection of how the person interacts with the family. I would agree and it’s a whole lot more fun than sitting inside.
Gaedt and Smith’s next equine therapy retreat is Sept. 9-11. If you’re interested, you can contact them through their web site or call 760-834-1586.
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