So I am surprised to find “me” standing with a horse on a desert ranch, waiting for the animal to reveal, as I’ve long been suspecting, whether I have father issues.
Wyatt Webb, founder of Miraval’s therapeutic equine programs, looks into my eyes with his unwavering stare. He’s a tall man with an upright posture, a cream cowboy hat and a fluffy white beard. “That guy’s name is Cracker, but he doesn’t care what you call him,” the 68-year-old says in his Nashville accent, motioning to the chestnut horse inside the pen at Purple Sage Ranch. “This is an opportunity for you to learn something new about yourself.”
About five women are part of this morning’s group therapy. Webb tells us to walk up to the horse, grab its leg and squeeze the tendons above its ankle. When the animal kicks up, you’re to catch its hoof and use a pick to dig out dirt and debris.
At every other spa that I’ve been to, I was the one getting the manicure.
But this is Miraval, an all-inclusive resort touted by Oprah Winfrey, which sits on 400 acres of arid Tuscon land with views of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Its specialty is wellness, healing and self-discovery.
“From this moment forward, pay attention to what you think. Pay attention to what you feel emotionally, instead of making up stories about what might happen next,” Webb says, sitting on a stool in the horse’s pen.
“[This way of thinking] is also the formula for living your life from a place of accountability. If you’re paying attention to your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, you’ll come to understand that life isn’t coming at you. It’s coming from you.”
At Miraval, self-improvement is unavoidable. It’s the kind of place where buffet items come with dietary information (the quinoa asparagus salad with honey basil vinaigrette, for example, is 45 calories per ½ cup). And it’s the kind of place where you can confidently walk the grounds all day in your bathrobe (a luxury that so far only Hugh Hefner has been able to pull off).
You can do nothing – just sit by the pool and watch humming birds flit among the cacti – or you can do everything. The resort offers access to golfing greens, rocky hiking trails, swimming pools, spa services and almost 100 different classes and activities including cooking, yoga, ziplining, meditation and drumming.
Whether you’re looking to lose weight, relieve stress or get happy, there’s a specialist to help you. Tejpal Kaur, a Brennan healing practitioner, teaches a course on finding your life’s mission (“We have one duty – it is to share our gift”). Anne Parker, a psychotherapist, leads an afternoon seminar on grief (“Acceptance is the first step – not the last”). Junelle Lupiani, a dietitian, eats lunch with guests (“Eat food, mostly plants, not too much”).
“I see people who want to prevent disease and who want to age well,” explains Dr. Jim Nicolai, head of the resort’s integrative wellness program. “What we do is teach people how to live better and when we teach them how to live better, they get healthier.”
The 43-year-old father of three who has appeared on TV’s The Doctor Oz Show, says three-quarters of the patients who visit him are stressed out. (The vast majority of visits to all doctors have a stress-related component to it, he adds.)
I can relate to the over-stressed, so Dr. Nicolai teaches me some breathing exercises. The following day, I put my breathing exercises to use and court stress. At 6: 30 a.m., a group of us have enlisted to walk across a log, 25 feet above ground.
“How you deal with stress here is how you deal with stress in life,” Matt Voss, Miraval’s outdoor adventure guide tells us. “Breathing is huge. Use your legs. Please do not sit on the log because you won’t get up again.”
“I’m not going to puke but I’m really nervous,” says Wendy Schreiber, a 43-year-old mother of four. Her legs are trembling.
“Your body knows what to do just turn your brain off and walk,” Voss says, holding on to the rope that is attached to her harness.
“I don’t know if I can do it.”
“Take another step and find out,” he tells her. “Just start walking like you’re headed to the smoothie bar.”
Eventually, Schreiber makes it 40 feet across the log. Back on the ground, she says she’s pleased with the experience. “It seems strange to go to a spa and scare yourself to death, but do it.”
For some people, the experience is transformative, Voss, 43, says. “Most people say they just wanted to try something new, but in the end, I think they kind of realized something about themselves.”
I’m not afraid of heights. I do, however, have reservations about the equine experience – horses, or anything that can trample me, make me nervous – which brings me back to Webb’s challenge.
One woman approaches the horse, pats its side and squeezes its leg. The horse doesn’t respond. So she pets him and steps away.
Webb calls her over. He tells her that she tried to charm the horse and then rewarded it for not doing what she wanted. This becomes a conversation about how her previous boyfriends have treated her.
The next woman, the head of a large company, bends over to grab the horse’s leg. Her Ray-Ban glasses slip from her head so she takes them and tosses them to the ground. Webb calls her over. He asks her why she threw her expensive glasses where the horse defecates. This becomes a conversation about her single-minded determination to get tasks done – at all costs.
“There’s only one reason a horse doesn’t cooperate with you – because he doesn’t know what you want. You probably are going to make up a story for whatever does or does not happen. We hear everything from ‘I don’t think this thing likes me,’ to ‘This is probably the most stubborn one they have.’ Three years ago, this was actually said: ‘This is a trick horse and you, meaning me, is giving it signals.’ ”
It’s not about the horse, he says. When it’s my turn, I walk up to Cracker and press into his leg. The first time he lifts his hoof, I fail to catch it. Undeterred, I try again.
“Catch it,” Webb says. “Step forward a bit.”
I successfully complete the task. When Webb praises me, I am relieved. This, then, becomes a conversation about overachieving and validation (and maybe a bit of that stems from my childhood).
Webb drives us back to the spa. “Now let’s get back to the other side of paradise.”
– Melissa Leong was a guest of Miraval Arizona
This article was originally published in the National Post on Nov. 19, 2011.