At a dusty ranch in Burson, a collection of goats, emus, sheep, ducks and chickens greet cars and trucks as they rumble up the long driveway.
“Everything’s a rescue here,” said Marybeth Wiefels, who lives on and runs Cowgirl Up Ranch with her partner Esther Pecora and their two daughters.
The rescue roster includes 11 horses housed in an aging barn next to an expansive paddock.
Wiefels, a strong, solid woman with brown hair to her shoulders and a suntanned face, knows horses. She’s trained them for years, owned them herself since she was 18, and believe they have a special ability to connect with people on a spiritual level. Wiefels sees that connection play out when she conducts a riding lesson with a scared student or an empowerment exercises with a woman struggling to understand her resistance to connecting with others.
She wants to put this connection to work.
Her goal: To bring therapists out to the ranch and work with their clients through horse therapy. But for now, the horses are put to work in empowerment sessions with women.
For years, Wiefel worked more and more with returning riders: women aged 40 to 65 who have a hard time getting back in the saddle. Training sessions with riders slowly transformed into an exploration of the barriers between these women and their confidence.
Today, Weifels is certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association as a life coach. The connection between energy and horses led Wiefel to explore the link between personal energy and self-empowerment. As a result, she is now a certified empowerment coach and firewalk instructor.
However, it always comes back to the horses.
There’s Bonanza, a Nevada mustang who was 10 years old when he was taken in off the range. In the next stall, there’s Spirit, a 27-year-old mustang who is so in tune with Wiefels that she follows hand signals, even with another rider on her back.
“She’s magic. She knows how to read people real well. Her face is so intense with raw instinct,” she said.
Raging Sage is a former racehorse, sold to a meat auction when she was too old to race, then rescued by Bits in Oroville and later taken in by Wiefels.
“Her training didn’t matter. It’s all about what they have up here,” she said, scratching at Sage’s ears and head.
A shy Palomino has the ability of looking into a person’s eyes and touching their soul. Wiefels figures it’s because he can relate to their trust issues, and can sense their stress.
“They come out crying,” she said. “There’s just a connection he can make.”
Why can horses do this with people? Horses developed as prey animals, with eyes on the sides of their heads and large, rotating ears. They are able to pick up on the energy and intentions of any predator animals, including people, in the arena.
In the wild, this was for safety. But domesticated horses still carry the same skill. Horses respond to the true feelings and energy of their human guests, not the brave face he or she tries to project. Until a person is honest about their feelings, the horse will seem pushy.
“When it comes to horses, what we’re thinking speaks louder than words,” said Wiefels.
How does this work in empowerment classes?
More work happens on the floor of the arena than in a saddle. Standing in a sandy arena, Wiefels directs a client to move a horse from one place to another. There’s no halter and no lead rope, so the inexperience client must find her own solution. If she does it wrong, the horse might swish its tail and pin back his ears to send a message.
“If the client misses that message from the horse, she might be missing messages from humans, too,” Wiefels said.
Exercises like these will be upgraded and intensified by the addition of a licensed therapist to create an equine-assisted psychotherapy session, says Wiefels.
While the horses have been rescued, they are all fully trained for safe human interaction, Wiefels said.
All of the rescued animals have found a permanent home. That’s the case, too, for the women who visit Cowgirl Up Ranch.
Pat Witten, of Fresno, came for a weekend empowerment retreat.
“I learned that women of our age can still do the things young kids can do,” she said.
Judith Howard, from San Jose, now has an easier time getting out and talking with people day-to-day, something she struggled with before the class.
“The question that came up was: What else can I do that I’ve stopped myself from doing all these years?” she said.
Both women are now part of the Board of Directors for HorseSpeaks, the nonprofit arm of the ranch.
That sense of confidence is what Wiefels and Pecora strive to instill in their clients.
“The best part is when people come here afraid, but they get through it. That carries on in life, not just here,” she said. “It doesn’t stay here.”